Up until recent years, I’d never visited the United States of America. It was a new and fascinating place which existed mainly for me through television shows and films. The first state I ever visited was Hawaii, followed closely by Florida, California and Colorado. After that, things took an unexpected twist and I found myself visiting some less touristed states: Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Kansas made the list thanks to a long story involving a boyfriend and the circus.
It’s been a few years now since I began visiting and exploring in the US, but it’s taken me until right now to venture into a national park. With my proclivity towards wildlife, forests, and wide open spaces, that came as a surprise to me (and most people) so it was time to set that right. One of the best ways to see the US is by driving state-to-state and taking a road trip, so I got to work planning a day trip driving right through the national park.
We visited Rocky Mountain National Park in the first week of October, and the colour of the autumn aspen trees was enough alone to make the trip worthwhile.
Timed Entry & Entrance Permit
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most visited parks in all of the United States, which means it’s super busy! To enter Rocky Mountain National Park between May 28 – October 11 2021 they are trialing a new timed entry permit, to limit the number of people in the park.
In order to enter, two things are required: a timed entry permit and a park pass / entrance fee. We booked only a week out, so options were limited. However, we were able to get a 1-3pm entrance (once you’ve entered, you can stay as long as you like) for all of the park except for the bear lake road.
Entering from the West, Looking for Moose
I’d love to see a moose in the wild, and so that was the specific creature I sought to spot. The park has so many incredible animals living in it, but many of them are very rare to see (such as mountain lions and black bears), and others only appear mostly in the wintertime (bobcats, snowshoe hares).
To help guide me on what I might be likely to spot, I found this incredibly helpful “Odds Of Seeing Wildlife On A Tour In Rocky Mountain National Park” guide from Yellow Wood Guiding, which is a nature tour company whom we didn’t use this time, but I would like to go with next time we visit the park!
As autumn gets into full swing, moose become less and less likely to find, as opposed to the summer months when they are fairly ubiquitous here. However, autumn is a great time to come and see some Elk and hear their mating bugling, so even if we didn’t find a moose, we were likely to see some elk instead.
At the advice of the internet we decided to enter from the Western side of the park through the Grand Lake Entrance Station, which is the only entrance on the West side of the four possible entrance stations, and explore some of the lakes and wetland areas across that side. Whilst moose are sometimes seen on the Eastern side, they are more often sighted nibbling on willows in the Western lakes and streams.
Often, Moose can be found down around Grand Lake town itself, or in the wet areas near the Kawuneeche Visitor Center – but as the park ranger advised us, during the elk rut the moose often head up to higher ground to keep well out of the way. So in this case, she advised us to try checking around the Colorado River Trailhead, Lake Irene, and the Milner Pass.
Forest Fires on the West Side of the Park
Sadly, Colorado saw two of the largest wildfires in state history last year (2020) where nearly 30,000 acres inside the park burned. This meant that the initial drive in from the West began with passing through large areas of burnt-out park, which is a little sad. But definitely not a reason to dissuade anyone from coming in this way! There is still a lot of park & beauty over on the West side of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Driving the Trail Ridge Road up into the Tundra
To get from the Western Grand Lake side of the Park to the Eastern Estes Park side you need to follow the trail ridge road, which is an incredible journey all the way up to the Alpine Visitor Center at 11,796 feet above sea level! This road isn’t open in the winter, as there is too much snow and ice. But when we went during early October, it was an amazing moonscape of rocks and tundras, known as “the land above the trees” you are above the timber line where trees won’t grow.
Trail Ridge Road is the highest road in any national park in the US – I’d never been up this high before, and altitude sickness is a real thing! Here, the alpine tundra starts between 11,000 and 11,500 feet. I didn’t spy any wildlife up here, but you can sometimes find marmots, pika, big-horned sheep and in the summertime, visiting elk.
Where to See Elk in the Fall
The incredibly helpful National Parks App recommended heading down to the Eastern side into Moraine Park and around Upper Beaver Meadows around dusk. So this is where we headed to at 5.30pm. Sure enough, we found elk on the side of the road in three different places. We could hear the incredible sound of the bugling, and saw some impressively large antlers.
I had thought we would need to search a while to see elk, or at least hike a little off the road – but it turns out they are right there, and were very easy to see.
This isn’t my video, but you can see (and hear!) how magnificent & intimidating the elk are in autumn!