A throaty, high-pitched wail pierces the dusk in Rocky Mountain National Park, signaling that it's time. Ears perk up, sleepy doe-eyes widen, and an answering bugle echoes back. The ritual has begun. Each year as daylight hours shorten and temperatures cool, herds of elk work their way down the slopes to congregate for their rut, or mating season, spilling over park borders into Estes Park. For a few months, elk roam freely over town roads, parks, and private yards, blocking traffic on U.S. 36, sometimes even camping out at the ninth hole of the Estes Park Golf Course.
The town has a soft spot for the colossal wanderers and for the past decade has embraced its collective surrender to the wapiti (elk) with the annual Elk Fest in Bond Park. The two-day celebration pays tribute to the big game with bugling contests, food and art vendors, concerts, Native American storytellers, and a Mountain Man rendezvous—an outdoor reenactment of mountain life during the 1800s. Don't miss the national park tours led by Department of Wildlife volunteers and experienced elk spotters who know the primo places to do your best John Fielder impersonation. Between viewings, wander Estes Park's pedestrian-friendly streets. Though a 1982 flood ravaged downtown and left behind more than $30 million in damages, Estes Park rebuilt its storefronts and added a riverside trail for a full recovery. Today, the gateway to RMNP is thriving, drawing about three million visitors each year. Before you disappear into the elk-happy throngs, check out these tips (at right). Elk Fest: October 4-5, Bond Park, intersection of East Elkhorn and MacGregor avenues, 970-586-6104, www.estesnet.com/events
On the Way
Fill your picnic basket with hand-smoked Colorado trout fillets from Ciatano Winery's tasting room. 16858 N. St. Vrain Drive., Lyons, 303-823-5011, www.ciatanowinery.com
Beat the Crowds
Skip touristy Bear Lake and hike RMNP's less-crowded, 6.4-mile Bridal Veil FallsTrail. Cow Creek trailhead, McGraw Ranch Research Center, 970-586-1206, www.nps.gov
Wine & Cheese's Melange Platter is the perfect post-hike combo of hand-cut cheeses and cured meats. Wine & Cheese, 330 and 332 E. Elkhorn Ave., Wine: 970-586-6611, Cheese: 970-586-5511, www.thewineandcheese.com
Look for home accessories at Trendz at the Park (100 E. Elkhorn Ave., 970-577-0831, www.trendzestespark.com) or antique cameos and pocket watches at Heirloom Jewelers (201 Park Lane, 970-586-5483).
The gooey taffy spinning in the retro storefront window of the Taffy Shop is still an old-fashioned favorite. 121 E. Elkhorn Ave., 970-586-4548
Order the locally made oatmeal brew, Samson Stout, at the Estes Park Brewery. 470 Prospect Village Drive, 970-586-5421, www.epbrewery.net
I-25 north to Exit 243; Highway 66 east to Lyons; U.S. 36 west to Estes Park. Turn left on East Elkhorn Avenue. Bond Park is on your right