Written and illustrated by Peter Moore, Special to The Colorado Sun

I was heavily laden and hiking in the Never Summer Wilderness one September, when I came upon a shocking sight. There, about a quarter mile from the trailhead, was an even more heavily laden backcountry visitor, sweating in streams, sitting on a folding camp chair, dressed head-to-toe in camo, a scary-looking hunting bow strapped to the backpack that was leaning against his left knee, which he was mournfully rubbing. 

The hunter asked: “Seen any elk?”

A watercolor of elk hiding behind trees while a hunter sits in the middle of the trail

That’s the question this time of year in Colorado, when the elk are in rut and the humans are collateral damage. 

North America’s biggest (and pointiest) mammals clip clop down Elkhorn Avenue in downtown Estes Park, recline on suburban lawns and dine obliviously on roadside grasses. I’ve even seen a bull and his lady friends cooling off in a water hole near Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ & Brew on the Estes Park 18-Hole Golf Course. 

Elk hormones are running hot, and the rest of us are duly warned: These are 1,000-pound teenagers in love, and you’d better not get in their way.

Two elk bulls head butt while an elk cow watches

The tales of elk maulings and misbehavior are many, from the little kid who had his fingers treated like elk crudite while his family stood by Instagramming, to the doofus who was knocked over a stone wall by a charging bull. A bow hunter in Oregon was actually killed by a bull he had wounded, so my trail pal was lucky, given how overladen he was. 

The lesson for all of us, according to the National Park Service: The proper distance between flabby, defenseless humans and muscular, antlered elk is two school buses. 

A person takes a photo near an elk, labeled "idiotic," while another person takes a photo from two bus-lengths away, labeled "safe."

Elk horns are in fact very pointy — upwards of 12 bayonets per 20-pound rack — as the lady elk who gather in Moraine Park (reservations required) will attest. They find antlers sexy. You could find them impaling your abdomen. 

Moraine Park is the elk equivalent of the Colosseum in Rome, where gladiators joust for female favor, locking horns lustily. The winner earns the right to mate with a harem of females, attracting them with the eerie “bugling” that is the RMNP soundtrack from mid-September to mid-October.

Which reminds me: The rut has turned into a massive invasion of privacy. How would you like it if 800,000 people (park attendance in September + October) showed up for your honeymoon? With telephoto lenses?

Two elk are in bed while cameras, an observatory and satellite take pictures

There are currently 280,000 elk living in Colorado, which is four times the number of registered Republicans in Larimer County, home of RMNP. 

Both can be feisty when riled. 

Fortunately, Colorado has already found solutions for both problems: A bluish migration of pot-smoking liberals to the Front Range, on the one hand, and the recent decision to welcome elk-hungry wolves back to Colorado, on the other. 

I personally have nothing against elk (or Republicans), but I did recently contemplate culling of the large herds (of elk), over dinner at the WayFinder Restaurant, about a mile from the entrance to the park. 

A burger has elk antlers sticking out, as well as signs that say "100% elk" and "product of New Zealand"

According to eatelkmeat.com (wait, is that an unbiased source?), elk meat has less fat than beef, it’s naturally grass-fed and organic, and it contains boatloads of protein. Plus, most elk meat is imported from New Zealand, the toothsome home of hobbits and second breakfasts.

The elk burger made me want to bugle, in fact. But I say “no thanks” to a harem. My wife wouldn’t approve. Besides, it would be exhausting.

A long line of elk

Estes Park Elk Fest takes place this year on Oct. 1-2. Reminder: Don’t pet the guest of honor.

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Peter Moore is a writer and illustrator who lives in Fort Collins. You’ll find even more of his drawings/weirdness at petermoore.substack.com.