Where to photograph wildlife in Colorado

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This is the first in a series of posts on how to take better wildlife photos.

Top of the list is figuring out where to go (and when). It may sound obvious but it really is the most important thing. You can go to several of the places listed here and have a great chance of getting some excellent pictures just pointing and shooting with your iPhone. No matter how fancy your equipment or how great your technique, you won’t get good pictures unless you go to places with the right subject matter!

By the way, when I say you can get good pictures with your iPhone, please don’t be this person! But for example, here’s a recent picture from Rocky Mountain National Park taken by my partner Paula from the passenger window of our moving car, with a compact camera without a big zoom (Lumix LX7), in auto mode.

Elk at Rocky Mountain National Park
Elk at Rocky Mountain National Park

These days there is so much information available online that it is easy to research. Look on Facebook for wildlife photography groups in your area (or an area you are planning to visit), try local meetups, or just search on Google. I am fortunate to live in Colorado which is a great place for wildlife photography. An excellent resource is the Front Range Wildlife Photographers (FRWP) group, who have both a meetup group and a very active Facebook page. The Facebook page is both a source of inspiration with many great pictures posted every day, and a supportive community. It’s also a great place to get an idea of good places to go, and good times. A little while ago someone posted a picture of a baby buffalo at Rocky Mountain Arsenal, which prompted me to go out there the next day, and I got some nice pictures of the baby – and there have been other examples like this.

In the rest of this post, I share some of my favorite spots for wildlife photography in Colorado, and what you are most likely to see at each. Of course there is no “sure thing” when photographing wildlife, that’s part of what makes it exciting, but it’s very rare that I have been to any of these places and not seen something interesting.

You can buy a range of prints of any of the images in this post at batty.photos – just click on any picture to go there.

 Rocky Mountain Arsenal – Bison

Rocky Mountain Arsenal is on the north side of Denver, just a 15-20 minute drive from downtown. It was once a chemical weapons manufacturing site, but is now one of the largest urban wildlife refuges in the country. This is a great place to get good pictures of Bison. The bison enclosure is the square area to the left of this map. You have to stay in your car while in this area. The bison also have access to an area to the north of this space, which visitors do not have access to. So they may or may not be visible. There is a gap in the fence about half way along the north side of the enclosure, and I have had good luck parking close to this and getting pictures of the bison as they walk through this in either direction. I have found late afternoon, around 5pm, to be a good time to see them in this location – but obviously there are no guarantees! I usually drive around the bison enclosure when I first arrive, then explore other areas if there is no action there, and revisit once or twice before leaving. The Arsenal is also a good place to see bald eagles, though I haven’t had much luck with those there, and other birds, deer, and more.

Rocky Mountain National Park – Elk

At Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
As I said, of course there are no guarantees in wildlife spotting, but at Rocky Mountain National Park you will definitely see some spectacular mountain scenery. You will almost certainly see some elk too, and quite likely in significant numbers. Good places to spot them include Moraine Park, near the Beaver Meadows entrance, and higher up on Trail Ridge Road, which is a must visit for the scenery (but is closed in winter). In the fall and winter you may well see elk wandering through the town of Estes Park. There are plenty of other animals you can spot there too, including marmots, big horn sheep, and moose. It’s about an hour and a half drive from Denver, so a comfortable day trip.

Mount Evans – Mountain Goats

Mount Evans has become my number one thing that I do with out of town visitors whenever I can. It is one of only two “14ers” (14,000 foot peaks in Colorado) that you can drive to the top of, going up the highest paved road in North America. It’s a spectacular drive and you are almost certain to see mountain goats somewhere near the top. The shot above is several years old but remains one of my favorites – I love the dynamic movement of the goat, and the background. You will often see bighorn sheep here too, and marmots. Mount Evans is an easy drive west of Denver – I love that I can leave downtown Denver at 3pm and still do a comfortable trip to Mount Evans – it takes about an hour to get to the beginning of the Mount Evans Road, and then it’s a 14 mile steep and windy drive to the top from there. Stopping at Beau Jo’s original pizza place in Idaho Springs on the way back is a well established tradition – I recommend the BBQ pie, my favorite pizza anywhere :). The Mount Evans road is normally open from Memorial Day (late May) to Labor Day (early September) – though in 2015 it has still not opened in mid July, due to lots of snow last winter which delayed reconstruction work on the road.

Waterton Canyon – Bighorn Sheep

Waterton Canyon is a new destination for me, I only went there for the first time in 2014. I was made aware of it by the FRWP Facebook page. This seems to be by far the best place to spot bighorn sheep. It is on the southwest side of Denver, not far off C-470, about 30 minutes from downtown. There’s a parking lot just after the Audubon Nature Center – park there and you can either walk or ride a bike up the (smooth) dirt road that runs up the canyon. I took the picture above at about 1.5 miles up, which seems to be a fairly common area to see sheep. The road goes up for 6 miles, and larger sheep are often seen nearer to the top, so a bike is a good idea if you want to get up that far. Waterton Canyon has its own Facebook page for photography which is a great source of good photos and information. You can see plenty of other wildlife there too – a number of people have posted pictures of bears from there, though I still haven’t managed to see a bear in the wild, there or elsewhere!

Brainard Lake – Moose

Brainard Lake is one of the best spots for seeing moose in Colorado. Early morning or late afternoon are the best times. It is near Nederland, west of Boulder and about an hour’s drive from Boulder or an hour and a half from downtown Denver.

City Park – Birds

In City Park, Denver

City Park in downtown Denver is a great place to spot a whole load of birds. The small island on the south side of Ferril Lake has dozens of nests of herons, egrets, cormorants and more. This is another new spot for me, and I have to confess I don’t know if they are there all year round, but certainly in June and July there are lots of birds, and lots of interesting activity to photograph! There is parking along 17th – try somewhere around the intersection with Steele – and it’s a short walk from there.

Belmar Park – Birds

At Belmar Park, Denver, Colorado

At Belmar Park, about 15 minutes drive from downtown, you can see a very similar range of birds to those I mentioned at City Park. I was there recently, in June 2015, for a FRWP meetup, which was a great outing. I got lots of good pictures of blue herons and cormorants, as well as some nice ones of a mother and baby avocet including the picture above. You can park in Belmar Library parking lot, and walk to the gazebo on the east side of the lake for a great view of the island in the middle of the lake where the birds nest.

And more …

Of course there are many, many great places to photograph wildlife in Colorado. This is just a sampling of some of my favorites, all within easy striking distance of Denver. Feel free to share any comments or other suggestions below!

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