In Pursuit of Bugling Elk at Rocky Mountain National Park

By Courtney Johnson

In many parts of the country, the first signs of fall come with cooler temperatures and changing leaves. But for some areas, fall also brings the rut—a time when elk bulls fight to keep their bloodline alive.

Derived from the Latin word rugire, meaning “to roar,” the rut begins in mid to late September. At many national parks, like Yellowstone, Olympic, Great Smoky Mountains, and Rocky Mountain National Park, visitors are treated to a display of machismo from the bulls, including bugling and sometimes fighting. The rut also draws visitors to the parks; Estes Park, just outside Rocky Mountain National Park, hosts a weekend festival called Elk Fest, now in its 20th year.

 Elk at Rocky Mountain National Park, photo by Courtney Johnson.

Elk at Rocky Mountain National Park, photo by Courtney Johnson.

My family and I celebrated Elktober by visiting Rocky Mountain National Park at the end of last September to experience the transformation for ourselves. We began on the east side of the park, in the Moraine Park section, a typical place to find elk. A bull grunted and chased much smaller and younger bulls away, but the herd seemed more interested in finding shelter from rain advancing from the east. Fighting typically begins later into the rut, when bulls feel more desperation to mate with cows as they enter the estrus cycle. Antler crashing is a sound like no other. Early in the rut, we would have to wait till another visit to experience this.

 On the trail in Rocky Mountain National Park, photo by Courtney Johnson.

On the trail in Rocky Mountain National Park, photo by Courtney Johnson.

We hiked beneath a canopy of trees on the Fern Lake Trail and came upon the skeletal bones of what looked to be an elk; we did not come across any living animals. We heard a few faint bugles off on the distant hillsides, mixed in with the patter of rain. Beyond the enjoyment of the petrichor (the amazing smell after it rains) and the bursts of yellow, orange and red of the changing leaves, we weren’t quite yet satisfied with our elk rut experience. As the rain continued and became heavy, we decided to head to dinner and then to our cabin at Jellystone Campground. After some s’mores and campfire stories, we set our alarms for early the next morning to be up before the sun.

Our first stop in the morning was again in Moraine Park. There were a large number of elk in the valley area, but they were on the move east again. We were able to park a bit off the main road with a few other cars. We heard a few more grunts, and vapor floated out of one particularly large bull’s mouth as he exhaled. We were only able to catch a few short low pitch whistle sounds before the herd was gone. Disappointed but not giving up, we retreated to our car to warm up and moved to another area of the park, still in pursuit of the sound of the elk bugle. We drove up Trail Ridge Road with our eyes open and the windows slightly down, our ears alert for that sharp horn like sound. We came across a coyote family walking down the middle of the road, seemingly oblivious to our presence.

Just a bit up the road before a large bend we spotted some elk near the edge of the road, along with a few other cars. A group of elk was spattered between the dense trees on the hillside. Mixed in with some females was an older bull with an established rack, and a juvenile bull just developing his horns.

Thankfully, fall weekday mornings aren’t particularly busy times for the park, so we just pulled over to the side of the road and safely exited our car. Almost immediately, we could hear a bugle from the opposite side of the road. We looked up high on the hillside to see a lone bull making his presence known. There were some other elk on the same side of the road, down the hill, busy eating and too far away for the bull to call his own.

The large bull that we first spotted from the car responded back with an intense bugle as if to say, “Back off!” They continued to play a game of back and forth bugling—one desperate for attention from females willing to stray and the other calling claim to the females near him.

 Bull Elk, photo by Courtney Johnson.

Bull Elk, photo by Courtney Johnson.

That first bugle call we heard was impressive. All three of us looked at one another in amazement and delight. Courtney Holden writes at MyRockyMountainPark.com, “Research led by Dr. Jennifer Clarke at the University of Northern Colorado suggests that different types of bugling sounds mean different things. One sound communicates that the bull is in the area with his harem; another warns the cows that they’re straying too far from their bull; and others tell potentially competitive bulls that they’re too close to the first bull’s harem and in for trouble if they come closer.”

The differences we perceived were in terms of the length and strength of the sound. From our experience, it seemed as though the one bull we saw was trying to signal that no other bulls should try and get close. His call registered as more aggressive and forceful than the other bull’s call.

We continued to observe the elk from a safe distance. The juvenile male did not join in the bugle game, but rather spent time shedding the velvet off his antlers by rubbing against the trees—another behavior common to elk during the rut. Bulls are also known to decorate their antlers with vegetation as another way to attract cows. The mere thought made my daughter laugh. Later in the day, during our hike near Cub Lake, we could hear the echoing of bugles along the hillsides of the park. “Did you hear it,” my daughter would ask with a big smile every time she heard one.

 Viewing the herd, photo by Courtney Johnson.

Viewing the herd, photo by Courtney Johnson.

Change in nature is always intriguing to me. From adaptation and metamorphosis to evolution and the annual rut, being able to observe these transformations has also been a large influence in my daughter developing a respect and interest in the natural world. There is nothing quite like seeing the world through a child’s eyes!

I was grateful to have the time to experience this seasonal event with my daughter and husband. If you are lucky enough to live where the elk roam, I recommend spending some time this fall watching the leaves change while the elk go through their own transformation.

Courtney Johnson Parks and Points

Courtney Johnson is a freelance sports and parent writer based in Erie, Colorado. She enjoys spending time outdoors with her husband AJ and five year old daughter Emma. Her first book will be coming out in spring 2019 about hiking with kids in Utah. Follow her adventures at http://adventureswithmylittleray.com/.