• Michael O'Keeffe

Elk in the Mist: A Surreal Morning in Rocky Mountain National Park in CO

Updated: Dec 5, 2021

In late September, the air begins to feel a chill and the aspens begin to turn their signature golden shimmer in the Colorado high country. This change in seasons signals the mighty elk herds the populate the Rockies to descend the lush alpine meadows to the grassy meadows of lower elevations to participate in the annual elk rut. The elk rut is mating season, bull elk shed the velvet from their antlers and literally fight for dominance. They clash their antlers in brutal drawn out conflicts to assert their position among the herd to win the honor of mating with a female or females. The male elk's bellowing call, known as an elk bugle is one of the most haunting and beautiful sounds in nature. Their long high pitched call echoes across an entire valley as they attempt to entice females.

Rocky Mountain National Park is among one of the best places in the world to witness this incredible display of nature. As mentioned before the park is a short 45 minute drive my home in Loveland, CO making it an easy trip to witness these magnificent creatures. In fact, as winter approaches these herds will continue to descend to the open fields and meadows right here in Loveland. But I digress, in September I spent an incredible morning in the park during an unusual misty morning as a storm cleared the area making it feel more like the Pacific Northwest than Colorado. My main objective as I do not own a telephoto lens for wildlife photography, however if I did encounter an elk herd I'd do my best to take photos. Regardless I hit the Deer Mountain Trail just before sunrise and had it all to myself. As the sun rose the clouds swirled around the high peaks and the visibility would quickly change from clear to it being so foggy I could only see a few trees ahead of me.

It was then I could feel the ground rumble beneath my feet. The sound of elk bugles were coming from the valleys on either side of the mountain as I ascended. It was absolutely amazing, I could barely see anything at all in the fog, but the distant calls emanated from every direction. Finally I crested a small ridge and a herd of elk is grazing right on the trail. The herd's resident bull seemed to be waiting for my arrival as he probably heard me coming. The massive brooding elk stood at attention staring at me with its truly massive antlers. I immediately started backing up keeping my eyes on him as he slowly meandered closer. I kept backing up until he lost interest with me and turned back to the herd, bugled loudly, and trotted away into the fog out of sight. An incredible moment I'll never forget! Check out the photos from this encounter below.


Rocky Mountain National Park
At first light, clouds clear the high peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Rocky Mountain National Park.
My first view of the bull elk. The rest of the herd is behind him hidden in the fog.

Rocky Mountain National Park
Elk are particularly dangerous during the rut as they are hopped up on testosterone.

Rocky Mountain National Park
He slowly followed me as I backed away not to provoke the bull.

Rocky Mountain National Park
Aspen still with their green along the trail.

Rocky Mountain National Park
The visibility was drastically changing every few minutes.

Rocky Mountain National Park
One last look to make sure I'm gone.

Rocky Mountain National Park
Echoing elk calls flooded the valley. It was surreal!

Rocky Mountain National Park
Fall colors on a misty morning.


Rocky Mountain National Park
These flock of turkeys did not seem to care I existed lol.

Rocky Mountain National Park
A golden aspen amongst the ponderosa pines.

Rocky Mountain National Park
Clearing skies reveal Deer Mountain.

Rocky Mountain National Park
The fog made for interesting lighting.

Rocky Mountain National Park
An aspen grove in the midst of change.

Rocky Mountain National Park
I love the white bark of aspen trees.

Rocky Mountain National Park
Clearing skies over Fall Meadow. Deer Mountain is the large mass in the distance.

I hope you enjoyed these photos, if so feel free to subscribe to my page below to stay up to date on all my latest adventures! Cheers!

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