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Wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park - A Quick Guide for Families

Wildlife Watching in Rocky Mountain National Park

Families visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado can see abundant wildlife in an amazing variety of life zones.

The Continental Divide, with its massive mountains and elevation changes, creates several different wildlife "neighborhoods" as well as its own weather.

Families have the opportunity to spot plants and animals from relatively warm and protected areas, all the way up to rocky, wind-scrubbed peak-top exposures.

A National Park Ranger spotting wildlife with visitor in Colorado
Photo: Colorado's national parks
offer abundant wildlife viewing.

Photo: The Colorado State Flower, the columbine, grows in Rocky Mountain National Park's sub-alpine zone.

A  Place to Settle Down

Rocky Mountain National Park is full of  tough, old rocks, cracked and fractured by continental crashes, shoved high into the atmosphere, quarried by ice, and then scoured by wind and water.  All kinds of wild plants and animals think that makes them a great place to settle down.

But as with any real estate decision, it’s a trick to find just the right location. The extreme elevation changes of Rocky Mountain National Park create an array of choices. Plus, the bare rocks along the Continental Divide act as an effective barrier, and life differs significantly between the east and the west sides.

This far north on the earth, the prevailing winds come from the west. When they run into the high peaks of the Continental Divide, the air piles up like water being held behind a dam. As the pressure builds, air begins to spill over the mountains, rushing down the eastern slope in great gusts. The Estes Park side of Rocky Mountain National Park is much windier than the Kawuneeche side.
Because of this, moisture, mostly in the form of snow, tends to drop out in the relatively calm air on the western slopes. The Kawuneeche Valley receives as much as ten inches more moisture each year than does the Estes Park side of the mountains. Consequently, the forests reflect this difference with an absence of ponderosa pines and other, dryer plants, like prickly pear cactus that grow on the western side of the divide. The winters are colder on the Kawuneeche side, and moose and river otters inhabit the wetter areas in this region as well. The mountains are much more glaciated on the east, and temperatures tend to be warmer there, too.

Montane Life Zone

n any given day, the weather is likely to be warmer deep in the valleys of Rocky Mountain National Park than it is on the mountaintops. Here, in the montane neighborhood, between 5,600 and 9,500 feet above sea level, Douglas fir and lodgepole pine trees dominate along with aspen trees in more recently disturbed areas and ponderosa pines on the dryer, southern slopes. The forests are interspersed with junipers. Kinnikinnick and antelope bitterbrush provide food for deer to browse upon, while wax currents are yummy for black bears. Oregon grapes grow in the shade of taller trees and offer berries, too. Big sage grows on sunnier, dryer slopes, along with grasses beneath the ponderosas.

Grasses and sedges also fill open areas, such as the bottom of the Kawuneeche Valley and Moraine and Horseshoe Parks. Look for mountain muhly, spike fescue, needle-and-thread grass and blue grama grass. Prickly pear and mountain ball cactus grow on south facing slopes on the east side of the park, and the latter have pretty pink flowers with a rose fragrance, but don’t sniff too closely!

Wildflowers in the montane zone bloom in the summer and put on a pretty show for visitors. Dryer exposures have bright yellow sulphur-flowers, plus whiskbroom parsley and gumweed clusters, and the tall, pale stalks of the miner’s candle reaching for the sun. Penstemon varieties with their stems of blue and sometimes pink blossoms scatter the slopes, as do varieties of daisy and wild geraniums. Look for delicate sego lilies in the meadows and the Colorado State Flower, the blue columbine in moister areas on the north facing slopes.

Visitors are likely to see swallowtail butterflies and bumblebees dancing among the flowers. Pine beetles are not particularly visible, but they are busy munching away under the bark of some of the lodgepole and ponderosa pine trees. Marshy and streamside areas, especially in treeless Moraine Park and Horseshoe Park, are home to many aquatic and semi-aquatic insects like mosquitoes, stoneflies, mayflies and caddis flies. These, in turn are tasty treats for the park’s few amphibians, including tiger salamanders, boreal toads, and chorus frogs.

Some amphibians in Rocky Mountain National Park are in trouble. In spite of the acreage that has been set aside, and the relative infrequency of human visitation to much of the park, populations of boreal toads have seen serious declines. And although they have been searching high and low, scientists have lost track of the northern leopard frogs, a species that seems to have disappeared altogether from the park.

Aquatic insects are also groceries for the fish found in Rocky’s waters. Colorado cutthroat trout swim in the streams of the Kawuneeche Valley, while greenback cutthroat trout inhabit the east side. Rainbow, brown, and brook trout, offer competition to the native cutthroat species. However, biologists have been able to remove these non-native species from streams that have a natural barrier, like a waterfall, which creates an effective separation from downstream populations. In many creek sections, only the native cutthroat species swim around. In fact, Rocky Mountain National Park is a source of pure greenback cutthroat strains for reintroduction into other Colorado streams.

As the fish swim below, mallards commonly paddle around on the ponds’ surfaces. Wilson’s snipes and killdeer inhabit the lakeshores and wetlands. Watch for great horned owls in wooded riparian areas, as well as northern flickers, and tree swallows. Steller’s jays, magpies, and mountain chickadees scold and twitter from the branches overhead, while broad tailed hummingbirds perform their acrobatic displays throughout the summer. Pygmy and white-breasted nuthatches search tree trunks and branches for insects. Look for green tailed towhees in grassier areas and mountain bluebirds in the aspen stands.

Some of the most obvious mammals in the park are the little chipmunks and the similar-looking golden mantled ground squirrels that skitter around the campgrounds and scenic overlooks. As cute as they are, resist feeding them or any other animals. Food from people is bad for wild animals.

If you walk across a meadow, especially in moister areas along the streams, stop to brush aside the grass stalks and look for vole runs. Meadow voles look like little brown mice, without the big ears, and they cut miniature highways in the grass, close to the ground. That way, the leaning stalks hide them from predators as they run around foraging in the fields. Their cousins, the muskrats, also like moist meadowlands, and if you see them, they are likely to be swimming in a pond. Look for their side-to-side motion as they move through the water and build dens that look like smaller versions of a beaver’s lodge. Porcupines, common in Rocky Mountain National Park, are also good swimmers (surprise!), but they prefer to spend their time in trees. So do Abert’s squirrels, with their tufted ears. They are common in the montane forests of the east side of the park, but don’t live on the west side.

On the other hand, the Kawuneeche Valley, west of the Continental Divide, is home to a population of moose, who until recently weren’t found on the Estes Park side. However, their numbers seem to be increasing, and there may even be a permanent small group in the northeast quadrent of the park. Visitors are very likely to see moose in the flat meadows area between the Grand Lake entrance station and the Harbison Meadows picnic area.  About once a year, visitors will send rangers a photo of a moose with twin calves. Hopefully, photographers use very long lenses to take the pictures. Moose are notoriously cranky and wild. A mother protecting her babes from a perceived threat won’t hesitate to stomp the threat into mush. If a moose looks at you, you are too close!

Bighorn sheep also range widely, coming down into the montane zone into the Kawueeche Valley from the Never Summer Mountains and into Horseshoe Park during the summer months. In both places, mineral licks attract them. Researchers debate whether the licks provide important nutrients, like calcium to lactating ewes, or if they just taste good, since the rams slurp the ground there, too. Bighorns are some of the wildest of Rocky’s animals, and can be extremely sensitive to even the remote presence of humans. Please respect closed areas.

Mountain lions will occasionally hunt for bighorn sheep, but are more likely to go after mule deer and elk. These ungulates are very common throughout the park, and at all elevations, depending on the season. Coyotes may take a sick or injured elk, and are predators of bighorn sheep as well. However, they are more likely to rabbits, hares, woodrats, and other rodents. Other predators include long tailed weasels, badgers, and bobcats, all of which prefer mice, squirrels, or bunnies for dinner.

A sometimes hunter, but more often a scrounger, black bears roam through the montane and subalpine forests in Rocky Mountain National Park. As omnivores, they eat herbs, berries, roots, flowers, insects and their larvae, fish, small mammals, and birds. They seem to relish people food as well, which can endanger their health for a variety of reasons. This is bear country, so please pack your food and toiletries away in the car at night or when you are away from camp or cabin.

Endangered river otters were introduced to the Kawuneeche Valley in the 1980’s. Sightings of these graceful animals are rare. They migrate up and down the Colorado River, in and out of the park, looking for the best swimming and fishing opportunities. Recent counts seem to show that their numbers are declining, but whether that is due to drought and lower water levels or other factors is still the subject of study.

Subalpine Life Zone

rom around 9,000 feet above sea level to timberline, the trees of the subalpine life zone dominate. Here, where the winters are colder and the snow pack is heavier, Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, and some limber pine trees cover the slopes, while lodgepole pines fill in disturbed areas. At this elevation, potentilla shrubs and wild roses bloom in sun or dappled shade, while myrtle blueberries grow commonly in the shade of spruce trees. Look also for wax currents and elderberries.

Cousins of the elderberry, twinflowers are only slightly woody, growing in a mat along the ground, with sets of two pink or white flowers sticking up. Nearby, lupines send up spikes of blue flowers on hillsides and in meadows. Different arnica varieties may be found from dry forests to wet meadows, along with the lovely and quite common blue Colorado columbines. In wet meadows, look also for deep pink spikes of flowers that when examined closely look like tiny elephant heads, known as elephantella. They may be joined by the pretty, purple fringed gentians. In the cool shade of deep forest pockets, look for the inside-out pink blossoms of the pipsissewa. Here, where the soil is very moist, you may be lucky enough to find an endangered orchid, the fairy slipper. Spectacular displays of subalpine wildflowers peak in July.

As you hike along the mountain rivulets in the subalpine zone, watch for water ouzels and belted kingfishers diving into the stream for their lunch. Red-naped sapsuckers, red-breasted nuthatches, and brown creepers rest on tree branches and trunks, while gray jays, also known as camp robbers, look for opportunities to steal hikers’ snacks. Watch also for mountain chickadees, ruby crowned kinglets, and yellow-rumped warblers. Clark’s nutcrackers will venture all the way up to the very edges of timberline, and are sometimes seen in the krummholtz there.

Most of the mammals found in the lower, montane zone also wander through the subalpine ecosystem. Additionally, watch for pine martens, weasel-like animals hunting in the trees, and one of their favorite foods, the chickaree, or pine squirrel, scolding passersby. Furry, yellow-bellied marmots waddle along the ground, while cottontails and hares turn into statues in the underbrush, only to hop away suddenly when you get too close.

Alpine Tundra Life Zone

bout one third of Rocky Mountain National Park lies at altitudes higher than 11,000 or 11,500 feet above sea level, where trees stop growing. As you gain elevation, the forests become shorter and sparser. Eventually, there is more open ground than trees, and what trees there are grow not up, but sideways. They do this to escape the extreme winter winds by huddling beneath the snow pack in winter. As they grow, the branches that come close to the ground put down roots. Known as krummholtz, some of these plants become quite elderly, as much as 1,000 years old!

Above the krummholtz, the only shrubs are willows, hunkering in drainages. Between the rocks, however, a community grows, filled with plants as pretty, tough, and fragile as a china teacup.

Among a variety of grasses, cushion plants bloom in low masses near the ground. Their short stature and rounded shapes allow them to shed the cold wind. Many of them have a purplish cast to their leaves, imparted by chemicals called anthocyanins. The same chemicals that give red cabbage its purple color, in alpine plants, they darken the foliage, allowing it to absorb just a little more heat from the sun. With the added energy, the flowers can move their life processes along a bit more quickly, and hopefully complete a blooming-pollinating-seeding sequence in the very short growing season at this altitude.

In addition to being crafty, the alpine tundra flowers delight with their delicate shapes and bright colors. Some of the most common are the bistorts, as well as the alpine forget-me-nots. Look for the yellow blossoms of the alpine avens, whose foliage turns deep red in autumn, and pink-blooming moss campions. Marsh marigolds and snow buttercups do well in the frigid waters melting from snow banks or soaking the ground in boggy areas.

White-tailed ptarmigans run year round among the rocks and krummholtz above treeline, changing their plumage to match the season. Horned larks, with their distinctive black mustaches, nest in the tundra during the summer and flock to the lower grasslands in the wintertime. Birders may see American pipits on the tundra, however these little brown birds nesting among the cushion plants frequently aren’t even noticed by most people.

Many of the mammals that prowl the lower elevations venture into the tundra in the warmer months. These include chipmunks and ground squirrels, marmots, red foxes, and coyotes, weasels and bobcats, elk, and bighorn sheep, among others. Above timberline, it is especially easy to spot the work of pocket gophers, who dig up the soil, leaving long mounds of dirt behind as they plow across the landscape. Cute little pikas live their lives in alpine scree fields. They zip around all summer, clipping grasses and stashing them under the rocks. The grass dries like hay, and provides food all winter beneath the snow pack. If you go on an alpine hike, listen for their distinctive “ee!” calls. If you practice, you can make the sound, too, and sometimes they’ll talk back to you.

Excerpted from The Family Guide to Colorado's National Parks and Monuments, (c) Carolyn Sutton 2006, all rights reserved.

Please DO NOT COPY this web page. Book copies are available from Westcliffe Publishers and

Related Links:

Best Family Attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park
Ranger Programs for Kids in Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park Restaurants and Picnicking
Lodging and Campgrounds in Rocky Mountain National Park
Towns near Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park Quick Geology Guide
Rocky Mountain National Park Quick History Guide
Travel Information for Rocky Mountain National Park
Family Safety in Rocky Mountain National Park

Colorado National Park Directory
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