Get away from any trailhead in Colorado and the noise of everyday life disappears. Wind whispers through stands of pine trees and aspen leaves chatter like unruly children.
But in the fall, things get a little louder. Rocky Mountain elk, some of the largest land mammals in North America, are feeling frisky. Fall is the mating season for elk and their mating rituals make backcountry hikes a lot more entertaining.
Bull elk are on the prowl right now, looking for that special someone in small groups of cows and calves, called harems. To get the attention of the females, the bulls squeal, chirp and whistle, and often joust with other males in the hazy light of dusk.
Elk are found throughout Colorado, and hikers in the Pikes Peak region don’t have to go far to find them. Here are five places where this fall drama can be experienced.
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
This park sprawls over nine square miles of rolling meadow and forested hillsides. It’s the perfect place to see large herds of elk staging their drama in the fall. Try the Boulder Creek Trail that begins and ends in ponderosa forest with a long stretch through meadows where beavers have diverted the creek water. For a different view of this national monument known for its fossils, choose the trail to the Hornbek Homestead that takes you over a meadow that was covered by Lake Florissant millions of years ago.
Mueller State Park
This park’s rolling hills and hidden meadows attract elk year-round. In the spring, several trails are closed because of elk calving. In the fall, check out the Lost Pond Trail. It takes hikers to a small picturesque pond in a lush valley. For stunning views, check out the Outlook Ridge to Ravenwood Overlook.
Catamount Ranch Open Space
This is a hiking-only open space west of Woodland Park. Its two main trails wind through dense stands of aspen and conifer forest with occasional views of Pikes Peak. The Elder-Fenn trail rolls along and tops out at 10,000 feet. The Vayhinger trail joins up with the Ring the Peak Trail (that loops around Pikes Peak) and the North Slope Recreation Area (closed from October to May).
Lost Creek Wilderness – Lost Park
The drive to this remote section of a remote wilderness area is just as magical as a hike through this trail that follows a winding creek through a fairyland mountain park. Lost Park is tucked between dark green hillsides and it offers solitude. Elk can be seen grazing in the open spaces here. (For the scenic route, head west on US 24 to Woodland Park. Turn right on Colorado 67; at Deckers, take CR 126 to Pine Junction. Turn left on U.S. Highway285 and drive over Kenosha Pass. Watch for FS Road 127 on your left – that takes you 20 miles to Lost Park Campground, where you will start your hike.)
Cheyenne Mountain State Park
Hikers often share the 20 miles of trails in this park with its wild residents – black bears, mountain lions, mule deer and elk. For best wildlife viewing, choose trails that are furthest from the entrance – favorites include the 3.24-mile Sundance Loop and a 5-mile loop connecting Talon, North Talon and South Talon trails.
If you hike in Colorado in the fall, you’ll probably encounter an elk. Round a switchback and there he is – eyes ablaze and head high. The bull can weigh 700 pounds and he has one thing on his mind – assembling his harem and protecting his chosen cows.
If you encounter a bull elk on a trail, watch for these signs that he’s agitated (from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation):
If he’s alarmed, he will raise his head high, open his eyes wide, and rotate his ears.
If he feels threatened by another bull, he will curl back his upper lip, grind his teeth and his.
If he’s really agitated, he will hold his head high, lay back his ears, flare his nostrils and punch the air with his front hooves.
If the bull is agitated, step away slowly, and make sure you aren’t between him and his harem.