Love is in the air. Elk love, that is.
With roughly 265,000 elk in the state, Colorado is an elk mecca, and fall is their mating season. September and October mark the fall rut — “rut” meaning the bulls put on Barry White, light some candles and start wooing the ladies.
Although much of the state’s elk population is in Rocky Mountain National Park north of Interstate 70, the San Juan National Forest north of Durango is another prime location to spot elk and hear them bugle during mating season.
The San Juan National Forest encompasses more than 2 million acres and has an elk population of roughly 20,000.
During the fall rut, bulls gather cows and calves into their harem. Seriously, “harem” is the actual scientific term. Bulls will bugle — a high-pitched whining call — to get the ladies to come over and check out their antlers. Bugling is also a way to display their dominance to other bulls. Bull elk also wallow in mud and dab some eau-de-urine behind their antlers to attract cows. Sexy.
With all the, ahem, “activity” during the rut, autumn is a perfect time to spot elk in and around Durango. Elk and deer often gather along U.S. Highway 160 between Durango and Mesa Verde National Park, so keep your eyes peeled — both for wildlife -watching and for wildlife-not-hitting-your-windshield.
Besides elk, San Juan National Forest is a great place to spot mule deer, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and the occasional moose. Although black bears and mountain lions live in the forest, don’t count on seeing any (or count yourself lucky if you don’t).
If you want a guaranteed way to see elk and other local wildlife, hit up the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Park in Pagosa Springs, about an hour’s drive east of Durango. The privately owned wildlife park is a sanctuary for animals that are non-releasable, i.e. no longer able to survive in the wild. Animals such as elk, bears and mountain lions are kept in natural habitats, and tours are given each day at feeding time to ensure guests will see the animals.