Rocky Mountain high: Elk in the Rockies

Every year, photographers and wildlife lovers from around the world visit Jasper’s Athabasca Valley to witness one of the more exciting natural occurrences in the Alberta Rockies. As the temperature begins to drop with light snow in the high country, there’s a fresh chill in the air. The leaves in the valley make their transformation from green to yellow and gold and the change of season begins.

There are few better places to experience the sights and sounds of the Rocky Mountain elk rut, or breeding season, than Jasper National Park.

Jasper is home to thousands of elk and at this time of year the bulls are very active gathering groups of cows and calves called harems. At this time of year, some bulls’ antlers have grown very large in order to impress the cows and intimidate other bulls. The last week of September through to the first week of October is a great time to photograph the best of the elk rut.

Elk are seen on almost every trip to Jasper, but if you’ve never been in the fall, you’re really missing out on something special. You may catch elk sparring, marking trees, rolling in mud, rounding up cows and more behaviour that can only be seen this time of year.

The trip to Jasper is an enjoyable 449 kilometres from Sun Peaks that’ll take you through Mount Robson Provincial Park. Rocky Mountain elk can be seen along the highway in Mount Robson, but to really enjoy the thrill of the rut you need to stay somewhere in the Athabasca Valley.

I recommend staying at either Whistlers or Wapiti Campground while in Jasper. Camping is the best way to immerse yourself in this beautiful elk country. The area has been home to elk well before these recreational areas were constructed. Much of the elk breeding behaviour is centred around the campgrounds and the areas surrounding them. Be warned, however, that at this time of year you may not get much sleep. When the mating season begins, the bulls start to bugle. The bugle of an elk is a hauntingly beautiful sound that some say ranks right up there with the howling of wolves and the calls of loons.

Bull elk can weigh 700 pounds (315 kilograms) and are five feet (1.5 metres) at the shoulder and about eight feet (2.4 metres) from nose to tail. The colour of their bodies can range from a copper brown to a light tan. All elk have a light beige rump patch.

Elk are beautiful and amazing animals but, like all wildlife, can be dangerous and unpredictable. Expect to be warned of their aggressive behaviour by park workers as you enter the park and register at the campgrounds. There’s no need to worry however if you use caution, common sense and respect while taking your photographs.

The beauty of Jasper in the fall is you not only get unmatched wildlife behaviour, but you get the amazing colours as well. Blue sky, snow capped mountains and golden trees create the perfect backdrop for a bugling bull elk!

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