A Rocky Mountain elk bugles at sunrise.

In my opinion, one of North America’s most majestic animals is the Rocky Mountain elk. These are majestic creatures to observe in the wild and are especially so during the fall when they are gathering in the valleys to rut. The elk rut adds another level of beauty and excitement to the fall season in the mountains. Ever since I got into photography I have wanted to spend some time to take in this special season and to follow the elk in the Rocky Mountains.

In early October of 2015 this is what Tess Bagnell and I set off to try and do. We packed up our camera gear and made for Estes Park, Colorado, which is probably one of the best places to view elk in the world. Estes is one of the gateways into Rocky Mountain National Park.

A Close Encounter

We arrived in the park late in the day and but our adventure started almost immediately. Our plan for the day was to scout out some places that we thought would be great spots to find the elk when they were active early the next morning. As soon as we entered the park we could hear bugling elk in the distance, in one valley the elk were particularly boisterous. We began hiking along a trail that followed a creek through the dense willows, careful to watch for and to stay out of the way of the elk. Suddenly, we heard rustling in the brush right next to us. A cow elk emerged from the brush walking directly toward us and before we could start to move away from her, a large bull followed her out of the thick brush and let out a strong, majestic, bellowing bugle. We backed out of their way and took cover behind a tree where we could continue to watch them move along from safety.

Our Rocky Mountain elk adventure continued the following morning before sunrise in a valley near the spot where we had our close encounter the day before. It was still dark when we got to the valley. We sat at a vantage point on the edge of the valley and waited for the sun to come up. We had no idea what the rising sun would reveal in front of us. We could hear several bull elk bugle triumphantly nearby, but it was hard to tell if they would be close enough to photograph or not.

Mist on the walls of the valley.
© Marc Bacon

I took this picture of the valley walls just before the sun started to come up. This was taken with my Canon 6D.

The Perfect Shot

When the sun finally came up we were greeted with a majestic sight. We were positioned in a perfect position to see the elk. As the sun continued to rise and fill the valley with its morning glory it seemed to ignite the fall leaves on the other side of the valley with a beautiful glow. I was positioned perfectly to capture this bull elk bugling across the valley.

This was the moment I was hoping for while planning this trip. I couldn’t have imagined a better sight and the memory of the majesty of that moment will live with me for the rest of my life.

A Rocky Mountain elk bugles at sunrise.
© Marc Bacon

The morning light lit up the fall leaves to setup a perfect backdrop for this Rocky Mountain elk.

After capturing the sunrise image of the elk, I could have gone home happy. I was excited about how it turned out and as far I was concerned, anything after was just icing on the cake.

Tess got some great shots as well. The crop sensor in her Canon 7D was able to reach out a little further to capture more intimate photos of the elk.

A close encounter with a Rocky Mountain elk.
© Tess Bagnell

Tess captured this intense looking elk as he corralled his herd in a meadow right in front of us.

Continued Success

This wasn’t the end of our success photographing Rocky Mountain elk. For the next few days we camped out near valleys in the early morning and evening to locate elk. There definitely was not a shortage of elk during these times and we were able to take some great shots.

© Marc Bacon

I caught this elk in a valley when the light was incredible.

The fall aspens were a bonus as we explored the Rocky Mountains in our search for elk. We managed to make our trip when the aspens were in perfect color.

Aspens and Sky
© Tess Bagnell

Tess found this scene while we were traversing through a grove of aspens.

Our Equipment

We used a range of equipment on this trip to photograph elk. Tess primarily used her Canon 7D and Tamron SP 70-300mm lens and I used my Canon 6D and Sigma DG 150-500mm APO HSM lens. This trip was a first for both of our equipment. Tess purchased her Tamron 70-300mm lens right before the trip and I got my Canon 6D right before we left. We weren’t sure how the equipment was going to perform to photograph wildlife.

Read more about our equipment.

There is nothing more refreshing than watching the sun rise over a pristine mountain valley, the smell of the crisp mountain air and the sound of a bugling elk in the distance.

Like what you see?

Buy a Print

Marc Bacon

One of my passions is exploring the outdoors and documenting what I find with my camera. My work is primarily wildlife and landscape photography, but I dabble in other fields as well. My photographic style is unique. I am always searching for unique angles and lighting, especially in my landscapes.