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...
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...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.
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.
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.
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.
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.