Photographing Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park

Bull Elk Morning Light Frozen Vegetation Rocky Mountain National Park
A bull elk in the early morning at Rocky Mountain National Park during elk rut season

Imagine this:

An early 5am alarm at the cheap hotel in Estes Park. A quick trip to McDonalds drive-through because that hot coffee is going to be everything when it’s this early and this cold.   A short but extremely dark drive over to the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park– there’s maybe two other cars that you see on the way. You park and roll down the windows. You can’t see anything. But suddenly, you hear everything.

The bull elk are already bugling this morning. In front of you, behind you, to the right, the left– it sounds like they’re everywhere. How far away? It’s not easy to tell. For me, this was my experience the last time I went to Rocky Mountain National Park to photograph the elk during the rut season.

As the sunlight began to brighten this cloudy morning, my friend and I set our trip-pods up got the telephoto lenses ready to go. Suddenly, the elk that were previously laying down in the tall grasses of the field in front of us stood up… and they were right there all along, not 30 yards in front of us.

Bull Elk Rut Fight
These bull elk lower their antlers in head to head combat to demonstrate strength during rut season.

As the sun continued to get more and more bright, these animals began to get more and more feisty with each other. Photographing conditions were difficult in the 17 degree weather and full cloud cover kept the available natural light low, resulting in high ISO. Yet, the experience of watching these animals in their natural environments displaying natural behaviors during rut season was enough to make the trip a success for me, even if I didn’t end up with photographs that I’d be happy with.

Bull Elk Bugeling in Rocky Mountain National Park
A bull elk bugles as he is surrounded by his harem and his warm breath is contrasted by the cold mountain air

For me, the extreme cold made the entire photo shoot. In the early morning (like in the first photograph of this post) the ice on the vegetation added texture to the foreground and allowed for the earliest of light to shimmer off of the white crystals where it touched in the background. As the day went on and as the animals became more active, the warm breath of the animals could easily be seen contrasting against the background of the images.

Bull Elk Wildlife Rocky Mountain National Park
A bull elk contrasted by warm morning light and beautiful fall colors in Rocky Mountain National Park

We returned to Rocky Mountain National Park the next day at the same time. It was 30 degrees warmer. There was no ice clinging to the vegetation. There was no breath of the animals as they bugled into the cold mountain air. I ended up barely taking any photographs the second day, but instead, watched with my own eyes and listened to the noises the animals made. This brings up two points that I’ve learned over the years as a photographer:

1: If the conditions don’t work out on shoot, just plan to come back because eventually everything will come together to make the photograph that you’ve planned for.


2: Sometimes its worth putting the viewfinder down and watching with your own eyes. Coming away with the perfect photograph is often rewarding, but feeling as if you actually experienced it without looking through the camera is also just as good and just as memorable.


**These photographs were all made with the Tamron 100-600mm G2 and Canon 5DMKiii.


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