Beams of light slicing through the crisp morning air have barely touched the broad golden meadows of West Horseshoe Park, but two cars have already pulled over to watch a herd of elk. September, when the fall migration and mating season are in full swing, draws crowds of elk-watchers to Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park. But few people realize that this is also one of the best months to spot a variety of wildlife throughout the national park. The key is to start early, go slow, and bring binoculars. Budget five to seven hours for the 70-mile round-trip from the Fall River (north) entrance to Timber Creek campground.
Entering the park near dawn through the Fall River (north) entrance on the park's east side, we immediately spot elk in West Horseshoe Park near Sheep Lakes, and we spend an hour watching them and scanning the treeline for black bears. No luck, but we soon score big-eared mule deer browsing near the water while we're on a side trip to Endovalley, also a good spot for elk and bighorn sheep.
Heading up Trail Ridge Road, we stop at the Beaver Ponds overlook to check out the impressive beaver waterworks. Farther up the road, Forest Canyon is one of the best places to spot bighorn sheep nibbling the rich tundra on rocky slopes ― prime time is typically between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. The Forest Canyon overlook has views 3,000 feet down to the Big Thompson River; we look for red-tailed hawks, northern harriers, and golden eagles riding midday thermals.
The Alpine Visitor Center sells snacks, but we brought lunch, so we can picnic at sites near beaver ponds along the Colorado River north of Timber Creek Campground, where moose often spend the day munching willow twigs. Look for 3-month-old calves following their antlerless moms.
Driving back to the north entrance takes two hours (without stopping) and yields more wildlife toward dusk. We get to Estes Park in time for dinner on the deck at Marys Lake Lodge ($-$$$$; 2625 Marys Lake Rd.; 970/586-5958), where elk graze in a meadow.
Rocky Mountain National Park ($15 per vehicle) is approximately two hours north of Denver. Fall River Visitor Center is open 9-5 ( www.nps.gov/romo or 970/ 586-1206). Visit www.estesparkresort.com or call 800/ 443-7837 for Estes Park dining and Elk Fest (Oct 2-3).