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Splendid and Untamed

Locking Horns, Bugling Elk, Summiting With Goats. Where To Check Out Colorado’s Wildlife In Action

Story and photos by Reid Neureiter

Special to the GPHN

Say you have visitors in from out of town who desire a true Colorado experience, hoping to see and maybe interact with some of the wildlife for which our state is famous. Where is the best place to go to maximize the chances of seeing big wild animals? Well, since you asked…

American Bison

There are two easily accessible herds of Colorado’s iconic bison, also commonly called “buffalo.” Just five miles from north Park Hill, the 16,000-acre Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge maintains a herd of more than 100 bison, and has a nine-mile scenic wildlife drive that allows you to get close to the animals. Chances of seeing the bison are good, but be sure to stay in your car. They can be dangerous. There is also the permanent herd kept at the Buffalo Herd Overlook west of Denver, just off Interstate 70 at exit 254 (Genesee Park). Sometimes the bison are visible at the I-70 overlook, and sometimes they are not. The Arsenal is the most likely place to see bison.

Bighorn rams square off, as seen during a bike ride up Waterton Canyon.

Mule Deer

For big mule deer, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal is again a good bet. Two recent drives along the scenic wildlife route revealed a number of full-antlered bucks and a herd of maybe 25 does and fawns. Without fear they will be hunted, the mule deer at the Arsenal are generally not afraid of cars.

Bighorn Sheep

Harder to find than bison and deer, there are bighorn sheep at the Garden of the Gods Park in Colorado Springs, and a herd on the steep slopes north of I-70 near Georgetown. One can sometimes see sheep on Mount Evans as well. But the most likely place to find and see bighorn sheep up close is Waterton Canyon, along the South Platte streambed near Littleton, south of Denver. Denver Water maintains the six-mile dirt road that follows the South Platte up the canyon. Although one can easily walk the route, the best way to see the sheep is by bicycle, riding up the easy road beyond the first two miles, which can sometimes become crowded with hikers on weekends. To protect the wildlife, dogs are not allowed. As a result, the sheep, including big rams with full horns, are not scared of people and will sometimes approach within just a few yards. In the fall, headbutting behavior between the big rams can be heard for miles.

Mule deer buck seen at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

Rocky Mountain Goats

These sure-footed creatures are seen on the steep and rocky slope of Colorado’s 13ers and 14ers. But if you want to maximize your chances of seeing a goat, and don’t have the stamina to climb a high peak, driving (or cycling) to the top of Mount Evans is the best way. In mid-summer the goats, including kids, will swarm the scenic Mount Evans summit road and have been known to crowd the finish line of the Mount Evans Bicycle Hillclimb race.

Elk

Evergreen has its own elk herd, but the most likely place to see elk, including the big-racked bulls, is Estes Park and the open valleys of Rocky Mountain National Park. In the fall, near sundown, within just a few miles of the Rocky Mountain National Park Estes Park entrance, one can almost always see big bulls herding a harem of cows into a valley. Watch out for the traffic jams as gawkers pull over to get a good view. Elk are often seen wandering through the streets of the town of Estes Park itself.

Moose

Moose are frequently seen in the Winter Park area, and more recently have populated the valley above Keystone, near Montezuma. But the best and most likely place to see a moose close to Denver is the Brainerd Lake Recreation Area, just off the Peak-to-Peak highway, near Ward. Experts advise arriving early, before dawn, because the moose usually clear out by 8 a.m. Unfortunately, the access road to Brainerd Lake will be closed this year from March 1 to June 28 to allow for road construction.

Pronghorn

The second-fastest land animal, after the cheetah, pronghorn can maintain speeds of 40 miles-per-hour for several miles and purportedly run up to 60 miles-per-hour in short bursts. Pronghorn can be as hard to find as they are fast, but an eagle-eyed observer can sometimes spot pronghorn on the open plains to the east and southeast of Denver (beyond DIA). The animals can sometimes be viewed along E-470 from the Jewell to Parker exits. Urban development has put pressure on the populations closest to Denver metro area. Herds exist in Park County and Chaffee County as well, where pronghorn are sometimes seen in the pastures in the shadows of the Collegiate peaks near Salida. The Comanche National Grassland in southeastern Colorado is well populated with pronghorn, sometimes being referred to as “Antelope Alley” by hunters.

White-Tail Deer

Smaller than mule deer, white-tails can be seen with some frequency in the early morning at Cherry Creek State Park southeast of Park Hill grazing on the open grass fields in the western and southern sections of the Park. Cherry Creek State Park has both a driving road and a nice cycling path that goes nearly three-quarters of the way around the Cherry Creek Reservoir. When spooked, white-tails run away, lifting their white tails as a signal of danger.


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