Au Natural: The Rut in Rocky

Article Preview

Wildlife photographer Dawn Wilson has been taking photographs and been around animals since childhood. A move to Colorado in 2002 from New Jersey is what really inspired her to focus her work on photographing the beautiful wildlife and scenery of the Rocky Mountains.

The silence of the still and crisp fall air is broken with the bellowing sound of the bugling elk somewhere in the distance. The cool morning air has morphed into a valley shrouded in fog. Somewhere out there, in the depths of the damp air, are bull elk calling out to entice prospective females and warn other male suitors of the potential challenge...


Content for premium members

...No place is more iconic of the fall rut for Rocky Mountain elk than Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, U.S. More than 700 elk call this oasis of valleys, nestled below the high peaks of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, their home. The elk grow big here, since they are not hunted. And the abundant crowds (more than 4.5 million visitors in 2016) mean the elk are familiar with being photographed and followed by people.

A bull elk (Cervus elaphus) starts a bugle call during the fall rut in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

The Shots
Everyone who visits Rocky Mountain National Park during the elk rut season, which typically peaks from mid-September to mid-October, envisions capturing that shot of the bull elk bugling. The photo conveys the strength of their bellow, as the bull leans his antlers (preferably a six-point or a seven-point rack) onto his back and stretches his head up to let out the long whistling sound. On cold mornings, that bugle will be accompanied by the condensing breath as it hits the cold air.

As the dominant males gather their harems of cows, satellite bulls will attempt to steal some of the cows. This can lead to battles between bulls where antlers clash and dirt flies.

Don’t overlook capturing photos of the cows and calves. The cows can often seem very uninterested in what is happening around them, and the calves, experiencing the rut for first time, can sometimes find themselves in the middle of battles or escaping bulls.

A cow elk (Cervus elaphus) pauses while eating some dried flowers in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

The Locations
During the rut, elk will be most active in the early morning and late afternoon in the large meadows of Rocky Mountain National Park. Some of the best locations for photographers to capture rut activity are Moraine Park, Upper Beaver Meadows and the Kawaneechee Valley. Don’t overlook photographing elk in Estes Park, as there is a herd in town that is also very active during the rut.

As with any wildlife photography, remember to keep a safe distance and do not change the behaviour of your subject. If you do, it means you are too close. Use long lenses for tight shots and use wide-angle lenses to capture the elk in the meadows surrounded by the majestic Rocky Mountains. Elk during the rut can be very unpredictable, as their hormones rage and the bulls focus on protecting their harem from anything, or anyone, they think is a threat.

The Season
This time of year in Rocky Mountain, the National Park starts to show colour in the aspen leaves and golden hues in the grasses. As the rut season progresses, it is not uncommon to have snow fall on the landscape. These natural occurrences offer an added element to a photo and create a sense of place. Don’t forget to capture this scene of elk in the meadow, trees in the golden glow of fall colour and snow-capped mountains with a wide-angle lens.

Temperatures will be cool and often frost will be on the ground in the morning. Be sure to pack warm clothing, including hats, gloves and jackets, for a trip to the Rocky during the rut.

A bull elk (Cervus elaphus) looks directly at the camera while managing his harem of cows in Estes Park, Colorado

The Visit
Rocky Mountain National Park is located about one and a half hours northwest of Denver, Colorado, high in the Rocky Mountains; the park sits at elevations of 8,200 feet at the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station, to 14,259 feet on top of the park’s tallest mountain, Long’s Peak.

Colorado is easily accessible by plane through Denver International Airport, but renting a car will be the best option for getting to the park from Denver. The Estes Park Shuttle service runs on a limited schedule between Denver International Airport and Estes Park, the closest town outside of Rocky Mountain National Park. The park's visitor shuttle bus only runs into the park on weekends through the elk rut season. Check here for complete bus schedule.

Preparation for visiting the park to photograph the elk has to start months in advance. Because of the popularity of the location, rooms and camping spots fill up quickly and are typically booked six months in advance. There are many hotel and camping options in Estes Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park offers five campgrounds, although some close for the season in September and October. Moraine Park Campground is the best location for camping, near the hot-spots for elk photography. You’ll often have elk coming right through the campground.

Content for visitors

This is a PREMIUM feature. If you are a Premium member already, please login to access the full content on this page. Not a member yet? You can subscribe below. Then, come back to this page and refresh it to access its content.

Are you having login problems?


This website uses cookies. Make sure cookies are enabled in your browser.

Contact Support

If you cannot remember your username or password and you have login problems, please contact our support team from the navigation bar, Account > Contact.

Please allow time for the page to refresh upon clicking Log Me In.

Choose Your Membership Level
Choose to pay with € or $
  • Membership duration
  • PDF Download
  • Download back issues
  • Access all images in each issue
  • Photo submission priority
  • Choose payment currency
  • Payment method
  • Billing Cycle
3 issues
€17 or $19
  • 90 days
  • yes
  • no
  • yes
  • no
  • yes
  • one-off
  • one-off
€21 or $24
  • ongoing
  • no, online access only
  • no
  • no, winning images only
  • yes
  • yes
  • recurring
  • every 12 months
€57 or $69
  • ongoing
  • yes
  • yes, all issues
  • yes
  • yes
  • yes
  • recurring
  • every 12 months

Please note that WPM is a digital magazine and can be read/downloaded exclusively on our website.

Our products are digital and can be read/downloaded immediately after purchasing a subscription. We therefore have a strict no refund policy for all membership levels.

Please ensure you have downloaded all issues paid for while your membership is active. If you allow your membership to expire, you will be unable to download any further issues.

Full details on how to access the magazine can be found in our ‘Contact/Support’ page. For any other enquiries please use our ‘Contact’ page. We aim to reply within 24 hours.

Content for free members

Please share this post:

About Author

Dawn Wilson

Wildlife photographer Dawn Wilson has been taking photographs and been around animals since childhood. A move to Colorado in 2002 from New Jersey is what really inspired her to focus her work on photographing the beautiful wildlife and scenery of the Rocky Mountains.

Leave A Reply

Wildside Photo Adventures
Mark Sisson