The spectacular mountain scenery of the park is literally brought to life by the plants and animals that make their home here. Flowering plants, from the first pasque flower in April to the last aster in September, add color, fragrance, and movement to the landscape. Especially intriguing are the alpine wildflowers that survive the extreme climate of the tundra, completing their yearly life cycle in just a few weeks. Although the park is most famous for its large animals, particularly elk and bighorn sheep, a glimpse of a tufted-eared Abert's squirrel, an iridescent broad-tailed hummingbird, or a squeaking pika can be equally thrilling. Early risers, and those watching at dusk often have the best "luck" at seeing wildlife.
Observation of plants and animals embroider a park experience with rich details that make each visit unique. Stop by a visitor center for advice on current plant and animal viewing highlights.
From mighty elk to rare boreal toads, Rocky Mountain National Park protects animals of the high south-central continental divide. Elk number about 1000 in the park, and are easily seen. Moose are more rare, found primarily in the Kawaneeche valley. Bighorn sheep are fond of coming to mineral licks in Horseshoe Park. Mountain lions are fairly common, but as is also true of bobcats, secretive and rarely seen. Black bears thrive in the parks lower forests. Hardy ptarmigan remain active at higher elevations through the winter, as do pikas. Ptarmigan, snowshoe hares, and ermine blend with the season, whitening in winter. Marmots and ground squirrels sleep deeply then, but are easily seen during the summer. Greenback Cutthroat Trout have been restored to many lakes and streams, where they feed on a rich insect fauna.
Bull elk signal the season of mating with a crescendo of deep, resonant tones that rise rapidly to a high-pitched squeal before dropping to a series of grunts. It is this call, or bugle , that gives rise to the term "rut" for the mating season. Rut is derived from the Latin word meaning roar.
The eerie call, echoing through the autumn nights, serves to intimidate rival males and may act as a physical release for tensions of the season. Cows and younger bulls may also bugle, but they are unable to match the strength or range of the older bulls' calls.
The recent history of bighorn sheep in Rocky Mountain National Park is a dramatic story of near extinction and encouraging recovery. In the mid-1800's, the population of bighorn in the area numbered in the thousands. As hunters and settlers moved into Estes Valley in the late 1800's and early 1900's, the bighorn population declined rapidly. Initially, market hunters, encouraged by the high prices paid for then prized horns and meat, shot bighorn by the hundreds. When ranchers moved into the mountain valleys, they altered important bighorn habitat and introduced domestic sheep. The domestic sheep carried scabies and pneumonia, which proved fatal to large numbers of bighorn sheep.
Tall (six feet or more), a dark chocolate brown, and certainly less than handsome, the moose has become a favorite of visitors to the Kawuneeche Valley of Rocky Mountain National Park. With its bulbous nose, hump over the shoulder, and a slightly ridiculous looking "bell" or dewlap hanging from the neck, the awkwardly constructed moose is seldom confused with its more populous and elegant cousin the elk. Historical records dating back to the 1850's suggest that moose were most likely only transient visitors to the area that is now Rocky Mountain National Park. Indeed, there is scant evidence that a breeding population ever existed in northern Colorado. In 1978 and 1979, the Colorado Division of Wildlife transferred two groups of moose (12 each year) from the Uintah Mountains and Grand Teton herds to an area just west of the Never Summer Range near Rand, Colorado.
Coyotes are small mammals, about the size of a medium-sized dog. They vary widely in coloration, ranging from an almost pure gray to a red-brown. The fur is generally much thicker in winter-giving the animal a heavier appearance, with the summer coat being much shorter and lighter.
Only the black bear is known to exist in Rocky Mountain National Park. Because they avoid humans, they are not often seen. Its northern cousin, the grizzly bear is no longer found in Colorado.
Black bears are not always black. Frequently they are brown or cinnamon colored. Its body is heavy and is supported by short, powerful legs. They vary in size and weight: males reaching as much as 500 pounds and measuring about three feet high when on all four feet and five feet tall standing upright. Females may reach 200 pounds.
On your knees in a sea of tiny, fragrant flowers, at an elevation of 12,000'. You're experiencing the alpine tundra in bloom - a spectacular life zone covering more than one quarter of Rocky Mountain National Park. Here a four-inch pincushion plant might be fifty years old; a tiny spring beauty can have a root which reaches three feet below ground! Drop down a bit in elevation (11,000-11,500), and you're in a forest of gnarled, twisted, tiny trees - krummholz. Descend a little lower, and you enter denser forests of spruce and fir, or lodgepole pine. Move to the thick air of 8,500' and you can wander through open ponderosa and aspen stands, or wide meadows adjacent to fast-moving rivers. In each of these zones, there are distinctive shrubs and wildflowers to be enjoyed. Rocky Mountain National Park supports more than a thousand flowering plants in its varied ecosystems. Elevations ranging from 7700' to more than 14,000' provide a spectrum of conditions favoring many specialized plant species. From tiny aquatic diatoms through amanita mushrooms to towering Douglas firs, the plants of this park are representative of the southern Rocky Mountain flora.
This section provides information on some of the park's most popular plants and animals. Keep in mind that plant and animal watching vary with the season. Here are a few highlights:
Elk commonly seen at lower elevations on the East Side.
Mountain Bluebirds return.
Bird migration. Elk calves and bighorn lambs born. Wildflowers in bloom at lower elevations. Tundra flowers begin blooming.
Wildflower season peaks.
Colorado columbines and other late season flowers still in bloom. The Elk rut begins. Bird migration. September-October Elk rut peaks. Bird migration continues. Aspens turn color.
Rocky Mountain National Park visitors have a passion for viewing wild animals, especially the big ones. With an elk herd numbering more than 3,000, about 800 bighorn sheep, numerous mule deer and a small population of moose calling the park home, it's no surprise that wildlife watching is rated the number-one activity by a vast majority of Rocky's three million annual visitors. The park's great large-animal population makes it one of the country's top wildlife watching destinations. But there is much more to see than these so-called "charismatic megafauna." Also found are nearly 60 other species of mammals; more than 280 recorded bird species; six amphibians, including the federally endangered boreal toad; one reptile (the harmless garter snake); 11 species of fish; and countless insects, including a surprisingly large number of butterflies.