One of the highlights of our trips to Rocky Mountain National Park is spotting wildlife. During our most recent visit, we were lucky to see both bighorn sheep and moose at Sheep Lakes which is located in Horseshoe Park.
According to the national park’s website, Rocky Mountain National Park is home to approximately 350 bighorn sheep. Sheep Lakes is a great place to see bighorn sheep from May through the middle of August. There is a parking lot where you can safely pull off the road to view the animals who frequent the area. This is not a hiking destination, visitors are required to give the animals plenty of space to make sure both animals and humans stay safe. Many times park rangers will be stationed at the parking lot to direct traffic and answer visitor questions.
The park has a ‘Bighorn Crossing Zone’ in Horseshoe Park during spring and summer months. This means if you are driving, you will need to stop and wait for the sheep to pass.
Bighorn sheep are attracted to Sheep Lakes because it is a natural salt lick that provides the animals with needed minerals.
We spotted the bighorn sheep at Sheep Lakes on the first day that the park opened to visitors after the shutdown for COVID-19. We came back later in the week to see if we could see the sheep again, and were surprised to see a pair of moose instead.
Bull moose can weigh up to 1,500 pounds and run as fast as 35 miles per hour.
Helpful links and resources
We’ve seen moose on both sides of Rocky Mountain National Park. On the East side of the the park we’ve spotted them at Sheep Lakes, Bierstadt Lake trail, Cub Lake trail, and Sprague Lake. On the West side of Rocky Mountain National Park, we’ve spotted moose in the Kawuneeche Valley and in the East Meadow. I’ve shared posts from all these hikes below. I’ve also included the National Park web pages where I found the moose and sheep facts for this post.
The hike to Bierstadt Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park is one of our family’s favorite hikes. On our most recent trip, we parked at the Bierstadt Lake trailhead at 8,850 ft. in elevation.
The trail to Bierstadt Lake is 1.4 miles each way. You can add on extra mileage by walking around the lake, which we recommend to get the best views of Flattop Mountain and Hallett Peak.
One of the benefits of walking at a toddler’s pace is the chance to notice extra details I might miss when walking on my own – like these berries and pretty wildflowers.
You could see the first signs of autumn. These aspens will turn golden yellow in just a few weeks.
The trail up to the lake gains 566 ft. of elevation along several switchbacks.
Wide open views of the surrounding mountains make the climb worth the effort.
We could also see Sprague Lake in the distance. It appeared to be glowing in the morning sunlight.
At just over a mile, the trail levels out and heads back into the forest.
Trail signage points out that there are several paths to get to Bierstadt Lake. Alternative routes include the Park & Ride (1.9 miles/way) and Bear Lake (1.9 miles/way). If you decide to walk around the lake, make note of the direction you came from. With so many trails, it can get confusing.
Bierstadt Lake is beautiful and peaceful. It’s an ideal spot to take a moment to enjoy the mountain views.
In a former post I ‘complained’ about the ducks, but they weren’t as pesky this time.
After we enjoyed a snack at the lake, we headed back down the mountain the way we came. I was very proud of both girls for walking a majority of the trail on their own. I was also proud of myself and my husband for having patience when they wanted to stop and draw pictures in the dirt.
At the very end of the hike, we saw an enormous moose walking through the forest. We were surprised, excited, and a little nervous. We picked up the girls and backed away so the moose didn’t feel threated by our presence. He eventually crossed the parking lot and street. I guessed he might be headed towards Sprague Lake, which is a spot we’ve spotted moose on a prior trip.
I can’t see a hawk without saying ‘5 points!’ out loud. When I was a kid we took long family road trips from Kansas City, Missouri to Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California. We filled the hours in the car by playing games. My favorite was the ‘animal game’ where we would spot animals and get points. Now that I’m a parent, I’ve adopted the game for all the animals we might see during our trips to the Rocky Mountains.
Animal Game Rules:
1. The first person who says the name of the animal they see out loud claims the points. 2. You can’t multiply your points when you see a herd, but for animals with antlers such as deer, elk or moose you can say both ‘male moose’ and ‘female moose’ which doubles your points. 3. You can get points for the same type of animal, but it has to be a newly spotted animal not belonging to the same herd.
We’ve assigned points based on how often we’ve seen animals in the Rocky Mountains.
Mountain Lions – 100 Points
We’ve never seen a mountain lion on our trips to Rocky Mountain National Park, but we have seen signage to be aware that they can be in the area.
Bear – 50
My husband is the only one in our family who has seen a bear (or two). He heard loud rummaging noises around the garbage near our old condo and spotted two large bears looking for late-night snacks. The complex immediately put in better bear-proof trash receptacles to make sure the bears weren’t drawn back to the area.
Male Moose – 25 & Female Moose – 25
We’ve spotted moose in several locations in Rocky Mountain National Park including Sprague Lake, the Cub Lake trail, Kawuneeche Valley and in the Wild Basin. We’ve also seen a herd near Brainard Lake Recreation Area. It seems like the easiest way to spot a moose is to watch for large groups of cars pulled over on the West Side of the park. A male moose is called a bull. This name serves as an appropriate reminder to give them space when you see them.
Male Bighorn Sheep – 25 & Female Sheep – 25
Sheep Lakes is located near the Fall River Entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. It is the only spot where we have seen a bighorn sheep inside the park. We have also spotted them driving down Fall River Road and along scenic Highway 34 on the route to Fort Collins, Colorado from Estes Park. We have never seen rams dueling and think that should be worth an extra 50 points if you want a bonus opportunity.
Coyote – 25
We’ve spotted coyotes a couple of times during the winter months in Rocky Mountain National Park. We watched a handsome coyote prowling for its food near the Beaver Meadows Entrance. We saw another sitting proudly looking over the valley near the Moraine Park Discovery Center which was closed for the season.
Fox – 20
One snowy morning, we hiked around Lily Lake and spotted a fox in the woods. I didn’t get a picture, but the image stands out in my mind as a special moment.
Marmot – 20
We spotted this marmot on a hike up Twin Sisters Peaks. We’ve also seen marmots basking near Timberline Falls, in the Alpine Tundra on the Ute Trail and even at Emerald Lake (which surprised me).
Pika – 20
Pikas also live in higher elevation. You can see them running around busily collecting food. I usually hear a pika call out before I see them because they are small and blend in well with rocks.
Eagle – 20
It’s always exciting to see our nation’s bird. We spotted this eagle near Lake Estes.
Owl – 20
If you want to spot an owl, a good place to look is right behind the library in downtown Estes Park, CO. Even with this clue, you will have to search hard because the family of owls that live here blend in so well to the rocky surroundings.
Snake – 10
To be honest, I’m scared of snakes and I don’t care to see them on our hikes. It makes me feel better knowing that snakes in Rocky Mountain National Park are not poisonous. We’ve spotted them near Lily Lake and on our hike through the meadow towards Cub Lake.
Male Elk – 5 & Female Elk – 5
It feels wrong to make elk spotting worth only 5 points in this game, but they are so prolific in Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park, Colorado that you might not have to leave your vacation rental to see one. No matter how many times I see elk, I still get excited. They are beautiful, but it’s good to remember they are massive animals (often with big antlers) and you need to give them space. I used my camera’s zoom to get this picture.
Elk rut season is in October. It’s exciting to hear the distinctive elk bugle calls and see the bull elks fighting for their harem – a group of female (cow) elk. When you see a scrimmage like this, you can add 10 bonus points.
Male Deer- 5 & Female Deer – 5
Like elk, deer can be seen all over Rocky Mountain National Park and around town in Estes Park, CO.
Chipmunk – 5
Sometimes I feel like we see too many chipmunks. Just kidding cute little fellow! But for real, these guys will steal your picnic.
Hummingbird – 5
Sweet little hummingbirds are fun to watch while I’m enjoying a meal out on the patio at restaurants along the Estes Park Riverwalk. I’ve also seen them on the Homer Rouse trail and near Lily Lake.
Hawk or Turkey – 5
We’ve seen turkeys crossing the road in Estes Park and also on my horse back riding tour into Rocky Mountain National Park.
Trout – 5
Trout are good at blending into the rocks of mountain lakes like The Loch and Sprague Lake. Earn 10 bonus points if you catch one, just make sure you get a permit first.
At the end of your trip you can add up all the points each person earned by spotting wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park. Final step: Start planning your next trip back to the mountains for a redemption round.
Do you play your own version of the animal game or have any other road trip favorites?
Government (is still) shutdown
I had so much fun writing this lighthearted article about animals that I hesitate adding to the conversation about how the government shutdown is affecting the national parks. Unfortunately, the past three weeks have taken a toll. Here is a recent article from Westworld that helped me understand some of the impacts I wouldn’t have considered. The article also has some suggestions on how people can help.
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The 2.5 mile hike to Cub Lake begins in the Moraine Valley at the Cub Lake trail head in Rocky Mountain National Park.
The hike is peaceful and scenic. The Big Thompson river winds through the valley and mountains tower in the distance.
Moraine Park is a hotspot for wildlife. We encountered a rabbit, Cooper’s Hawks, marmots, a mommy moose with her baby, a big buck elk with several female companions, chipmunks and two snakes.
Cooper’s Hawks– A fellow hiker told us to look out for Cooper’s Hawks and we soon spotted what I believe to be a Cooper’s Hawk perching on a pine. According to allaboutbirds.org, these guys are tricky to identify and ‘among the world’s most skillful fliers.’
Moose – If you are hoping to spot moose on your trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, a good place to see them is in the Kawuneeche Valley, but we’ve spotted a couple this summer on the east side of the park at Sprague Lake and here at the Beaver Ponds along Cub Lake trail. Did you know moose can swim? You can learn more fun facts about moose on the National Park Service’s website.
Elk – Elk mating season or ‘rut’ begins September 1st. During this time, the park closes down areas in the evening until early morning (5pm to 7am). These areas include Horseshoe Park, Upper Beaver Meadows, Moraine Park, Harbison Meadow and Holzwarth Meadow. Closures remain in effect until October 31st. (more info)
Snakes – According to this video clip by Nick Molle, Rocky Mountain National Park does not have poisonous snakes, but you can find garter snakes like the ones we spotted in the meadows by water.
A good portion of this hike is in the meadow, but it becomes wooded and lush with ferns and noticeably picks up in intensity – gaining about 500 feet of elevation before arriving at Cub Lake.
The lake was covered in lily pads and made a great resting spot for a hearty snack before our 2.5 mile return trip.
Hiking Gear Checklist
Kid carrier – we have a Deuter Kid Comfort Carrier backpack similar to this one. We can hike longer distances when the kids get to ride. Our daughter appreciates being up high so she can have a good view of our hike.
Hiking boots – Good hiking boots make a big difference when hiking on rocky terrain. I have a pair of Oboz waterproof boots similar to these.
Sunglasses and sunscreen for the whole family
GPS watch – My husband always wears a watch with GPS so he can track how far we’ve hiked. For anyone looking for a Father’s Day gift idea, a GPS watch could be a fun pick!