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A bull elk prepares to bugle as he makes his way around downtown Estes Park on Thursday October 11, 2018, in Estes Park, Colorado. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette)

At Rocky Mountain National Park, the bull elk will still be bugling as they do during mating season. But there will be changes for human admirers.

Rut viewing — typically starting at the end of August and lasting through mid-October, said park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson — will be different. It's been a different summer at Rocky Mountain, which in response to the pandemic has required reservations and limited the number of people allowed into the third most-visited national park.

The limit has been 4,000 reservations a day, spread out over two-hour slots between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., said John Hannon, who's managed the online system.

"We've been selling out every day," he said. "What we're starting to see too is that we're selling out at least three to five days in advance. Certainly the morning time slots, they go pretty quickly."

As far as the elk spectacle next month, Hannon recommends booking a spot now, especially for the weekends.

The busiest times for rut viewing are around sunrise and sunset, Patterson said, and those times have been busier than usual this summer, with people entering the park before and after the reservation-required periods. 

After 5 p.m., Hannon hasn't needed to check his watch to know the time. "Because traffic really picks up," he said. "That's a challenge, and it's going to be compounded because of the rut."

Patterson said rangers will be "very mindful of watching crowding and congestion" more than ever with COVID-19 risks. 

She added: "It's a wonderful time to come to the park and view wildlife, and that will still be in store for people. It's just a matter of how we might have to manage some of the crowds."

That likely will mean turning vehicles around at highly trafficked areas, Patterson said.

To ensure a viewing spot, she advised visitors try to reserve weekday slots in the late afternoon or early evening.

Park reservations for October would be available at the start of September, but it's unclear if reservations will continue through that month.

"Our plans are through early October, when our visitation typically starts to go down a bit," Patterson said.


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