By Sarah Sekula, Published on NBCnews.com
It was a chilly evening last September in Estes Park, Colo., when a high-pitched shriek startled Wisconsin couple Derek Blaszak and his wife, Ashley.
“We stood still and heard rustling in the trees that were about 10 feet from us,” he recalls. “We literally sprinted back to our car.”
When Derek flicked the headlights on, a massive bull elk emerged from the forest with 50 others surrounding it.
“It was completely unexpected and awesome to see,” he says. “We sat there for about 20 minutes just watching and listening before heading back to our hotel room.”
Turns out, the Blaszaks epic elk sighting is a common occurrence. Estes Park, about a 90-minute drive from Denver, has one of the largest concentrations of wild elk in the nation. Come autumn, the town of 6,000 residents experiences an unusual population boom when thousands of these colossal creatures make their way into town. As they descend from higher elevations in the adjacent Rocky Mountain National Park, the bugling begins.
“I had never heard the noise before,” says Derek Blaszak. “If I had to compare it to anything, I would say it sounds like a 5-year-old with a sore throat screaming into a paper towel tube.”
Why the strange noise? It’s elk-flirting 101. Mating season is in full swing.
“The bulls (male elk) try hard to make themselves attractive to the cows (female elk) by rolling in the mud of area ponds and shining their antlers on trees in the aspen groves,” says Brooke Burnham, communications director at Visit Estes Park. “If gates are not kept shut, they have been known to show up on the local high school football field to take advantage of the well-kept grass. They have even been seen cruising through the local fast food drive-throughs.”
As a result, the whole month of October (now known as “Elktober”) is devoted to this phenomenon and is celebrated with an annual Elk Festival (Sept. 28 and 29) . This year’s 15th annual festivities include bugling contests, elk-viewing bus tours, Native American storytelling and seminars on elk biology. And if you’re in the market for antler chandeliers, elk jerky and elk-themed artwork, this is the place to be.
Clearly, it’s a lighthearted celebration, however, visitors should keep a few things in mind. “Elk can be extremely dangerous during breeding season,” says Brenda Ross, who runs Rosse Posse Elk Ranch in Oregon. “I watched a 958-pound bull pick up an 1,180-pound bull in his antlers and shake him like a rag doll. So, they could easily kill a human.”
With that said, there have been no reported injuries of visitors during the Estes Park mating season, according to Sue Langdon, supervisor of the Elk Bugle Corps in Rocky Mountain National Park. “We have volunteers who are stationed along road ways to help allow visitors to safely view the rut,” she says.
The best part is: With an estimated elk population of 3,000, an animal encounter in Estes Park this time of year is nearly guaranteed.
If you go:
Visit www.visitestespark.com/things-to-do/wildlife-watching for more information. Or check #EstesElkWatch on Twitter to find out about elk sightings.
Due to the recent flood, it’s best to take the Peak to Peak Scenic and Historic Byway, one of the most popular fall foliage drives in Colorado, or Interstate 70 through Black Hawk and Nederland to Estes Park. Or, if you’re coming from the west, follow Trail Ridge Road, U.S. Highway 36, through Rocky Mountain National Park (weather permitting). Visit this page for more map information.
Follow travel and fitness writer Sarah Sekula (www.sarahsekula.com) at @wordzilla.