Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the best national parks to spot wildlife in the United States. Visitors from around the world come to Colorado’s premier park in hopes of spotting large mammals like elk and moose as well as birds like white-tailed ptarmigans and great horned owls. According to the National Park Service, the vast majority of visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park rate wildlife watching as the NUMBER ONE BEST activity to do in the park. Needless to say, wildlife watching a must-do activity for your Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary. In this guide to Rocky Mountain National Park wildlife, we tell you everything you need to know for a great animal spotting trip.
It’s time to get excited about your wildlife-watching adventure at RMNP! We’ll cover what animals you can see in the park and where to spot them. Plus, we’ve got tips on how to find wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park, like what time of year is best for seeing wildlife. If you are hoping to take wildlife photos, we’ve got tips for that too. Read on to prepare for your animal adventure in RMNP!
What animals live in Rocky Mountain National Park?
According to the National Park Service, Rocky Mountain National Park is home to over 60 species of mammals, nearly 300 bird species, and several fish, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. RMNP’s diverse wildlife is one of the reasons over 4 million people visited the park in 2022. Here are some of the animal friends you may see in Rocky Mountain!
Rocky Mountain Elk
The national park service estimates that there are between 600 and 800 elk in Rocky Mountain National Park. Elk are one of the largest mammals in North America, with adult males weighing over 700 pounds! You can spot elk year-round in RMNP, but the fall mating season (also called the rut) is an exciting time to observe them. Listen for the males’ bugle calls and look for elk in meadows and open areas, often where the meadow meets the forest. We often see elk at the Timber Lake trailhead and Moraine Park. Dawn and dusk are the best time of day to see them when they are feeding in the open areas.
The first thing you may notice about moose is that they are huge! They are the largest animal in the deer family, weighing over 1500 pounds and standing between 5 and 7 feet tall at the shoulder. We most frequently see them in Kawuneeche Valley and at Milner Pass (the Continental Divide) on Trail Ridge Road. Moose can be dangerous, however, so it is important to keep your distance and not approach any animals!
Mule deer are common and you can see them pretty much anywhere! You’re most likely to spot a deer at lower elevations in open areas and meadows.
RMNP officials estimate that there are fewer than 30 black bears in the park, so your chances of spotting a bear are very small. However, if you do see one, it will most likely be in the Bear Lake area or near Lake Bierstadt. Grizzly bears do not live in Rocky Mountain National Park. If you see a bear, keep your distance. Though rare, bare attacks are dangerous.
The national park service estimates that there are 350 bighorn sheep in RMNP. Your best chances of spotting big horn sheep are on Trail Ridge Road at Rock Cut and Sheep Lakes during the summer months. Don’t be confused by the fact that bighorn sheep look like goats, with their, well, big horns. These are in fact sheep, not goats!
Mountain lions, also known as panthers, pumas, and cougars, are elusive and it’s very rare to see them in RMNP. They tend to travel alone and prefer to stay away from humans. That said, if you do see one, it’s critical that you stay very far away, ideally protected in your vehicle. This is because mountain lions can be very dangerous. If you see a mountain lion, don’t run away (which sounds counterintuitive, I know). Running away could incite the mountain lion to chase you and attack, which could be deadly. The best advice if you do get attacked by a mountain lion is to fight back as aggressively as you can, ideally with a rock if you can grab one. As beautiful and elegant as mountain lions are, this is one big cat you are probably better off NOT seeing.
You can spot these charming squirrels all over the park. Look for gray bodies with adorable white tufts in their ears, and you’ve likely found an Albert’s squirrel!
These tiny mammals like to hang out in rocky areas, scuttling in and out of the boulders. Look for pika in rock piles and listen for their sharp bark!
Like their smaller cousins the pika, marmots usually hang out in rocky areas. You are most likely to see them along Trail Ridge Road or Old Fall River Road. You might see them scurrying around or sunbathing on the rocks. Listen for their loud calls. Marmots sound like they are screaming when they call out, so you may hear a marmot before you see it!
You can spot the water-dwelling beavers in Wild Basin and Kawuneeche Valley in Rocky Mountain National Park. They are hard to spot though, so you more than likely will see a beaver dam without seeing a beaver itself!
Coyotes can be seen throughout the day in Rocky Mountain National Park, particularly in valleys. At night you can hear them howling as well! Never approach coyotes or their pups, and never feed wildlife!
Avid birders often seek out the white-tailed ptarmigan. These birds are common in Rocky Mountain National Park but usually stay quiet and camouflaged, making them difficult to spot. In winter they have white feathers, and in summer they have brownish/blackish feathers that blend in with the rocks. Your best bet is to hike in the tundra and look around carefully as you go.
Visitors frequently find Stellar Jays, with their blue bodies and black mohawks, around Alberta Falls and Trail Ridge Road. We actually see these beautiful birds a lot at our house!
Great Horned Owl
The largest of the tufted owls in North America, the Great Horned Owl makes its home in the damaged trees and rock ledges of Rocky Mountain National Park. You can hear the Great Horned Owl nightly in January and February.
Where can you spot wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park?
You can find animals throughout Rocky Mountain National Park. We’ve seen marmots, pikas, and ground squirrels on RMNP’s hiking trails, as well as countless birds. We commonly see elk in Moraine Park and on Trail Ridge Road. You’ve got a good chance of spotting wildlife anywhere in the park, but here are the best places to somewhat reliably spot one of the park’s animal residents.
Trail Ridge Road
A scenic drive on Trail Ridge Road is one of the best ways to see Rocky Mountain National Park’s wildlife. Moose, elk, big horn sheep, marmots, pika, and more are all frequently spotted along this drive. Note that Trail Ridge Road is open to cars in summer only.
- Kawuneeche Valley: Moose, elk
- Timber Creek Trailhead: Elk
- Continental Divide/Milner Pass: Moose
- Rock Cut: Bighorn sheep
- Medicine Bow Curve: Elk, marmots, pikas
The Sprague Lake area is a great spot to see moose and elk, particularly early in the morning or at dusk. Also, be on the lookout for fish and ducks in the lake. The best way to experience this spot is to walk the short loop trail around Sprague Lake.
Moraine Park is a great place to spot elk, particularly during the fall rut when males try to seduce mates.
True to its name, Sheep Lakes is a good place to spot big horn sheep in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Rocky Mountain National Park Wildlife Map
Here’s a helpful map for you to plan your wildlife-spotting adventure! Click on the blue pins to see the name of the location and what animals you can find there.
What is the best season for wildlife spotting in Rocky Mountain National Park?
When can you see wildlife in RMNP? Year-round, but spring, summer, and fall are better for wildlife spotting than winter.
Wildlife Watching in the Fall
Fall is one of the best times of the year to observe wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park, particularly the elk. Autumn is the elk mating season (also called the rut). If you want to observe elk in mating season, the best time to go is the end of September and the beginning of October.
During this time, the largest bull elk recruit female elk (called cows) into their harems. Yes, this is the official terminology. As part of the cow recruitment process, the bulls will fight one another with their massive antlers. It’s an exciting time in the park, and you will feel like you’re in a David Attenborough nature documentary!
Wildlife Watching in Spring
Spring is the baby season! If you want to see newborn moose, elk, mule deer, coyotes, or bighorn sheep, spring is the season for you! There is truly nothing cuter than watching a baby moose or elk learning to use their legs for the first time, awkwardly running around the meadows with their lanky limbs. Spring is a delightful time for wildlife watching.
Wildlife Watching in Summer
In the summertime, take advantage of Trail Ridge Road being open and look for wildlife in the high-altitude tundra of RMNP. This is a great time of year to see bighorn sheep, moose, elk, and marmots.
Wildlife Watching in Winter
Winter is the worst of the seasons for wildlife watching in RMNP. You may still see some animals, like elk, in the lower elevations in the eastern portion of the park.
Wildlife Safety Tips for Rocky Mountain National Park
Keep these important wildlife safety tips in mind when exploring Rocky Mountain National Park!
What should you do if you see a black bear?
While it is unlikely that you will see a bear in Rocky Mountain National Park, you should make yourself known to the bear by talking loudly. Back away slowly while playing big to intimidate the bear to turn away and leave.
Should you carry bear spray in Rocky Mountain National Park?
Most people do not carry bear spray in RMNP as they do not see it necessary. There are no grizzly bears in Rocky Mountain National Park and only a small population of black bears. That said, if you wish to bring bear spray, you certainly can and should do whatever makes you feel comfortable!
What should you do if you see a moose?
If you see a moose, you should react similarly to if you saw a bear. Talk calmly and back away slowly. Do not approach a moose and give them an opportunity to pass.
What should you do if you see a mountain lion?
Do not run away if you see a mountain lion. This could inspire a chase and you do not want a mountain lion chasing you. Most of the time the mountain lion will want to avoid a confrontation if possible, so give the animal a route to escape. If you need to move, stay facing the mountain lion and move slowly. If a mountain lion attacks, you need to fight back and use rocks, sticks, and anything else you can as a weapon.
Are there snakes in Rocky Mountain National Park?
The only snake in Rocky Mountain National Park is the harmless garter snake. Rattlesnakes are not known to be in RMNP, though they do live in the mountains along the Front Range east of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Are there wolves in Rocky Mountain National Park?
There are no wolves in Rocky Mountain National Park at this time, nor are there plans to reintroduce them to the area.
How far away should you stay from wild animals?
Maintain a safe distance from wildlife and don’t obstruct their path if they are walking or grazing. The national park service advises keeping no less than two bus lengths away from all wildlife (about 75 feet). Add a third bus length to that distance (about 120 feet) if you spot a potentially dangerous animal, like a bear, moose, or mountain lion.
Rocky Mountain National Park Wildlife Spotting Tips
When is the best time of day to see wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park?
Animals are most active at dawn and dusk, so prioritize those times for your wildlife viewing
How long will it take to spot an animal in Rocky Mountain National Park?
Be patient! It can take hours of searching to spot a wild animal, but it’s always worth it. When you do finally see an animal, enjoy just observing its behavior for a while.
Is it okay to feed wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park?
Never feed any of the wild animals in Rocky Mountain National Park, or anywhere else. This habituates the animals to approach humans and the roads, which is dangerous for wildlife and for people. Plus, the unnatural food disrupts their standard diet and feeding behaviors like hunting and grazing. This makes it more difficult to survive the difficult Rocky Mountain winters. Plus, harassing and feeding wildlife is illegal in national parks. Just don’t do it, for the animals’ sake, and yours!
Other tips for seeing wildlife in RMNP
- If you spot an animal while driving, don’t stop your vehicle in the middle of the road to watch, as tempting as it may be. Always pull off in designated pullouts so you don’t obstruct traffic. Your car is one of the best places from which to watch wildlife, in terms of not just comfort, but also protection. Plus, you can roll down your window and use the door frame to keep your camera steady while taking photos of the animals you see!
- Bring a pair of binoculars to help you get a close-up view of the animals while still maintaining that safe distance. If you have a camera with a telephoto lens, you can use that too.
- Be quiet! In general, animals want to avoid humans. Noise and sudden movements will startle them and possibly make them run off, losing your shot to observe them.
- Search for wildlife along the line where meadows and forests meet. Wildlife hangs out here where they have easy access to the protection of the forest while grazing in the grasses.
- Make sure to buy your Rocky Mountain National Park timed-entry permit in advance if you plan to visit in the summer. We also recommend getting an annual national parks pass (America the Beautiful pass) if you plan on visiting 3 or more national parks within 12 months!
Tips for Photographing Wildlife in RMNP
- Time your search for wildlife with dawn or dusk (which are the best times for good lighting for photos as well!).
- Use a telephoto lens to safely zoom in for close-up shots from a distance. We recommend a 400mm lens or longer. If you are using your phone camera, you can use the zoom feature in your phone to get close-up shots.
- Bring a tripod or use your car to stabilize your shots. Use your built-in intervalometer if you have one or a remote shutter to reduce shake from your camera body when photographing wildlife.
- As always, stay aware of your surroundings while photographing wildlife. If you’re walking around, be sure to watch where you are stepping. Sounds obvious, but when your eyes are glued to your viewfinder, it’s easy to lose all sense of perception for the area directly around you. Maintain situational awareness by only looking through your viewfinder when actively shooting.
- For a compelling composition, follow the rule of thirds. You can do this by visualizing nine equally sized boxes in your photo. Line up the area where the sky and ground meet with the lower third of your photo. Align the animal to the intersection of your imaginary gridlines, or in the center of the photo.
- Check out our guide to Rocky Mountain National Park photography for more tips on taking pictures in RMNP!
Gear for Wildlife Viewing in RMNP
- Binoculars will help you spot wildlife at a distance and be able to see closer details while keeping a safe distance from animals.
- A camera, even just the one on your phone, will help you capture your memories of your Rocky Mountain wildlife adventure! We use a Sony a7iii with a telephoto lens for our wildlife photos.
- A telephoto/zoom lens with a 400mm lens or longer will help you capture close-up details in your photos. If you are using your camera phone, you can get a cell phone zoom lens attachment to help get crisper shots than the built-in zoom feature on your phone.
Final Thoughts on Spotting Rocky Mountain National Park Wildlife
It’s always exciting to see wild animals at Rocky Mountain National Park, no matter how many moose or elk we see! We hope this guide helps you have the RMNP wildlife adventure of your dreams. Just remember to never feed the animals and keep at least 2-3 bus lengths distance from wildlife.
If you’re planning a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, be sure to check out our other RMNP guides! Here are our recommended itineraries, the best hikes, and a packing list to get you started. You can find all of our Rocky Mountain National Park guides here!