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Photo by David H. Jefferis

Our county and state offer amazing wildlife watching.

Visit these places at the appropriate times and you’re sure to see spectacular things.

By Ruthanne Johnson

Watching wildlife is exhilarating—so much so that people pay big bucks to see nature’s amazing spectacles, like thousands of wildebeests thundering across the Serengeti or grizzlies catching salmon in Alaska.

Boulder County is blessed with free wildlife viewing, from hummingbirds and foxes to eagles and mule deer. But the rest of the state also offers extraordinary wildlife watching, including the nine spots listed here. Take binoculars and a camera to document it, so friends will believe your wild tales.

What: Wild Mustangs

Where: Sand Wash Basin, Craig

When: Spring through fall

Tip: The best times to see mustangs are early morning and dusk, when they gather at watering holes.

At first glance, the basin looks harsh and uninviting. But a drive through the nearly 158,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land in northwest Colorado reveals abundant foxes, coyotes, jackrabbits and hawks. However, it’s the 500 or so wild mustangs that make this place shine.

Remnants from Spanish settlement and pioneer days, the mustangs roam in bands. Larger bands usually consist of a stallion, his mares and their foals. Smaller bands are often bachelor groups of young stallions not yet mature enough for their own harem, or older males who lost their bands to other stallions.

The mustangs are robust and colorful, like one brown-and-white paint named Picasso who still roams the basin at nearly 30 years old. The mustangs are accustomed to people, so it’s easy to get close, says Wendy -Reynolds, field manager of the BLM office in Craig. But these horses are wild, so keep at least 100 yards distance for safety.

Off-road driving is not permitted, but visitors can primitive camp anywhere in the basin, except near watering holes. “Eons ago, the land here was under water,” Reynolds says, so observant hikers can see unusual treasures like tiger chert and even turtle fossils. You can also visit nearby Brown’s Park and Dinosaur National Monument. For information and a map that includes a horse-viewing loop, stop by the BLM office in Craig.

What: Mountain Goats

Where: Blue Lakes, White River National Forest

When: Spring through fall

Tip: The trailhead to Quandary Peak is near Blue Lakes. Weekday visits are advised if you want to miss the weekend 14er crowd.

Blue Lakes just south of Breckenridge practically guarantees an up-close experience with mountain goats. Located at the top of Blue Lakes Road off Colorado Highway 9, the lake is basically a reservoir that collects snowmelt from the surrounding 14ers, Quandary Peak and Mount Lincoln. About 50 mountain goats live there year-round, and it’s not unusual to see goats on the road and in the upper parking lot below the dam.

Their shaggy white coats are sleek and full until the end of June. In fall, their coats thicken up again for winter. But even at their scraggliest, the white goats stand out against the granite backdrop and deep blues and greens of the mountains.

In spring, nannies and their kids stake out the reservoir, licking minerals from the parking lot and roads, and sometimes from beneath cars. There are usually a few juveniles in the mix, along with one or two older bucks. Don’t let their calm demeanor fool you; give them room or you might have a run-in with a set of very sharp horns.

What: Elk

Where: Rocky Mountain National Park

When: Early September to mid-October

Tip: Turn off your car after you’ve found a viewing spot so you don’t disturb other viewers.

Photo courtesy Ann Schonlau/Rocky Mountain National Park
Photo courtesy Ann Schonlau/Rocky Mountain National Park

A massive bull elk stands amid tall meadow grasses as the setting sun lights up his 12-point rack like candles. He suddenly stretches his neck and lets out a long, high-pitched bugle. Another bugle answers from the distance. Then another.

This scene is common during the fall elk rut. “It’s really majestic,” says Kyle Patterson, spokesperson for Rocky Mountain National Park. “The bugling attracts cows and intimidates other bulls.” The elk’s call rises over three octaves, she says, and “if you’re there at dawn or dusk, you can see their breath in the air as they bugle.”

Some 600 elk winter in the park, and it’s not uncommon to see 50 or more in larger, open meadows like Horseshoe Park, Upper Beaver Meadows and Moraine Meadows on the east side, and Harbison Meadow and throughout Kawuneeche Valley on the west side.

The town of Estes Park holds an annual elk festival in early October, with free elk lectures, bugling contests, and arts and crafts booths. RMNP offers nightly elk presentations, with maps available online or at the visitor centers.

What: Bats

Where: Orient Mine, San Luis Valley

When: Mid-June through early September

Tip: Lodging and camping are available at the adjacent Valley View Hot Springs, a clothing-optional hot springs, but book well in advance. Lodging is also available in nearby Crestone.

Every summer around mid-June, hundreds of thousands of bats start arriving at the Orient Mine. Their journey starts in wintering grounds in Mexico or as far away as South America. Once they’ve all arrived, their population tops a whopping 250,000.

The colony of mostly male Mexican free-tailed bats comes to feast on the bounty of insects in the San Luis Valley, a predominantly agricultural community. They roost in the mine by day and forage at night.

Orient Land Trust, a nonprofit conservation group, owns the mine and 2,200-acre surrounding property. It offers free dusk tours throughout summer to watch the bats emerge. The tour includes a 1.7 mile (one-way) guided hike and about an hour to watch the bats fly out. “The bats typically start with this serpentine column that rises from the mine and snakes onto the horizon,” says bat specialist Kirk Navo. Quite often, great horned owls and other predators gather nearby to try and snatch a mid-flight meal.

What: Bighorn Sheep

Where: Bighorn Sheep Canyon, Cotapaxi

When: Mid-October through December

Tip: Because of their color, bighorn sheep blend right into the steep, rocky terrain, so look closely.

Photo © Barbara Magnuson/Larry Kimball, www.pronghornwildlifephotography.com
Photo © Barbara Magnuson/Larry Kimball, www.pronghornwildlifephotography.com

Bighorn sheep routinely scale the canyons on the Arkansas River from Parkdale to Coaldale along U.S. Route 50. About 300 or so bighorns live in the canyon year-round. In summer, you can go river rafting through the canyon, but seeing sheep is hit or miss, as they’re typically higher up the canyons and more difficult to spot.

Fall is when you’ll really get a show, says wildlife photographer Larry Kimball (www.pronghornwildlifephotography.com), who took this photo. That’s when males congregate in open areas and cliff ledges to compete for ewes. “I’ve seen them butt heads and knock one another off fairly steep terrain,” he says. Fortunately, these sure-footed animals can spin in midair and regain their footing.

What: Sandhill Cranes

Where: Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge,
San Luis Valley

When: Mid-March and mid-September through October

Tip: For the most dramatic viewing, park on a shoulder pullout right outside the refuge just before dawn.

Photo by Mark Bauer/USGS UAS Project Office
Photo by Mark Bauer/USGS UAS Project Office

It’s a twice-a-year phenomenon, when 20,000 or more greater sandhill cranes descend on wetlands in Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge to rest and refuel during spring and fall migrations.

After overwintering in New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, the cranes head to San Luis Valley, where they mass in the 5,000-acre wetland refuge. “It’s pretty incredible,” says refuge biologist Scott Miller. “We can have anywhere from 24,000 to 26,000 cranes almost completely concentrated on the refuge.” Their rattling calls can be deafening, he notes, “and when they lift off from the water at first light, you can hear their wings and a rushing of wind.”

Spring is when you’ll see their courting dances. “They jump up and down, flapping their wings and moving their necks,” Miller says. “They’re these big, lanky birds but incredibly graceful.” Adjacent barley fields—owned by the refuge to feed the cranes—on the refuge’s southern edge off County Road 8 South are a good place to spot courting birds.

In fall, the cranes return from their summer nesting grounds in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. They aren’t as concentrated, because water and food sources are more scattered, Miller says. But you can still see some 5,000 to 6,000 cranes at the refuge. The San Luis Valley Crane Festival is usually in mid-March.

What: Osprey, Bald Eagles and Great Horned Owls

Where: Sawhill Ponds, Boulder County

When: Year-round

Tip: Take a nature hike with the park naturalist in each season to see migrating wildlife and pond inhabitants.

Photo by Wendy Marie Stuart, Cloud Photography
Photo by Wendy Marie Stuart, Cloud Photography
Photo by Wendy Marie Stuart, Cloud Photography
Photo by Wendy Marie Stuart, Cloud Photography

“There’s never a bad time to visit Sawhill Ponds,” says park naturalist Dave Sutherland, who leads hikes for Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks. You’ll see bald eagles in winter, a nesting osprey pair in spring and summer, and great horned owls in February and March.

Winter full-moon hikes are spectacular, Sutherland says, when the owls are hooting, nesting and acting territorial. The dirt trails are wide, flat and wheelchair accessible. For information, visit bouldercolorado.gov/osmp/sawhill-ponds-trailhead.

What: Moose

Where: State Forest State Park, Jackson County

When: Winter and spring

Tip: Moose may seem approachable, but these large beasts can run fast and charge suddenly, especially mothers with calves. Always leash your dog.

Photo by Christine Kirkpatrick
Photo by Christine Kirkpatrick

West of Fort Collins, this park was ground zero for Colorado’s moose reintroduction in 1978. Since then the population has swelled to about 600.

The tall, lanky animals typically hang out in the park’s willow bottoms and associated uplands, especially around Cameron Pass and throughout the southern third of the park. “They aren’t heat tolerant and are best seen in the early morning and at dusk,” says Colorado Parks and Wildlife district wildlife manager Josh Dilley.

Peak calving season is late March to early June. That’s when you’ll likely get to see their still velvet-covered antlers. Last August, the park’s visitor’s center held its first annual moose festival.

What: Bison, Burrowing Owls and Bald Eagles

Where: Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Commerce City

When: Year-round

Tip: You can drive the wildlife-viewing loop, but the trails are where you’ll really get away from crowds.

Photo by Ray Fetherman
Photo by Ray Fetherman

This 15,000-acre refuge in the Denver metro area is home to about 330 wildlife species, from eagles and bison to prairie dogs, burrowing owls and meadowlarks. This year, the refuge reintroduced 30 endangered black-footed ferrets and opened a ferret exhibit.

“In winter, it’s amazing to see the bison with snow on them,” says Cindy Sauter of the refuge’s visitor programs. Spring is when birds migrate through and you’ll see prairie dog pups and bison calves.

“The calves are a spectacular cinnamon color,” Sauter says. “There are so many places here where you feel like you’re in the country, even though you’re a stone’s throw from the city.”