The elk in Northwest Colorado are getting a respite from hunting season this week. It's prime time for nonhunters to go on a drive in the country and listen for bulls bugling to attract the cows.
The bull elk are in the rut now and gathering their harems for mating season. There is no sound in nature quite like the improbable whistle of a bull elk that terminates in a guttural grunt. If you live on the edge of town, tend to sleep with the windows open and you're awake in the pre-dawn, you sometimes can hear elk bugling without rising from the covers.
A more dependable strategy, however, would be to get in the car after dinner Tuesday and head out under the full moon into the countryside.
One option is to head south of town on Colorado Highway 131. Just beyond the highway bridge over the Yampa River, take a left on Routt County Road 18 and follow it past Lake Catamount into the upper end of Pleasant Valley. The elk have been active in the area this fall.
West and south of Steamboat Springs, Routt County roads 27 and 37 south of Hayden also take motorists into elk country.
Wildlife-watching fans who want to witness the drama of a six-by-six bull raking the underbrush with his antlers will have the best luck by driving two hours east of Steamboat to the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park.
From the town of Grand Lake, it's a drive of several miles to the Grand Lake entrance station. Admission is $10 per automobile and is good for seven days. From the entrance station, it's less than 10 miles into the heart of the Kawuneeche Valley, where elk are thick in the open meadows along the Colorado River during the early morning and evening.
Motorists often crane their necks to see the animals and look for parking spots as they drive, so it's wise to keep your brake foot ready. It's better to park at a trailhead -- Coyote Valley, Bowen-Baker or the Colorado River Trailhead are good bets.
There is ample lodging in Grand Lake. Timber Creek Campground near the west entrance is open year-round. No water is available in the campground after mid-September, however, the nightly fee drops from $16 to $10 a night.
Photographers with 35mm single lens reflex cameras can take rewarding photos of elk with a common 80-200mm zoom lens. However, tight portraits of bulls usually require a 300mm telephoto. The low light conditions that prevail when the animals are most active make fast film (400 ASA or faster) a good choice.
Bull elk are unwilling to share their harem, and that makes for some dramatic behavior. The big bulls will confront one another and chase after cows that wander off in the direction of lesser bulls.
The elk rut passes quickly in the high country as autumn gives way to winter. Anyone who hasn't been to Rocky Mountain National Park to observe these large mammals at close range is missing one of the biggest shows in Colorado.