I’m just going to say it: The rangers at Fall River Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park were dishonest with me.
That may sound harsh. But the woman I spoke with on Monday about wildlife in the park told me not to bother trying to see bighorn sheep, because “they only come down from the mountains every couple of months.”
So imagine my amazement when I was headed to my campground around 7 pm and saw a line of bighorn females and their kids along the side of the road. They ran down towards a lake and stayed there for 20 minutes or so, drinking from the lake before crossing the road again and heading back up the hill.
And it turns out they come down far more frequently than I was led to believe!
Where to See Bighorn Sheep at Rocky Mountain NP
So where can you see bighorn sheep in Rocky Mountain National Park? Get ready for the mind-blowing answer. The best place to see them is at… Sheep Lakes. Shocking, right? The name may seem obvious, but given the misinformation I was handed, I feel it my duty to disseminate the accurate information.
The bighorns don’t come down everyday, but this is the best spot to catch a glimpse. They cross from the mountain on the other side of the street, waiting for cars to stop so they can get across, and then they run down to the lakes.
Even if you know where to go to see the bighorns, there’s still an incredible amount of luck involved. If I had driven past literally three minutes earlier, I would have missed the entire thing and gone straight to my campground. The total surprise made this encounter even more rewarding than when I saw bighorn sheep in the Badlands.
I watched a group of about 15 sheep, which included at least six babies. The adults were all ewes (females). The males (rams) with the thick spiral horns did not come out to say hi on this day.
The sheep drank water and ate mud (it provides essential minerals) for a good 20 minutes before running back across the road and up out of sight. These road crossings to the meadow are common enough that the NPS provides traffic control officers during the summer to allow the sheep to cross safely. This minimizes stress on the animals, which keeps them healthier.
A crowd gathered ‘round to watch the goings-on.
I spoke with a man who has been watching the bighorns for a decade now. He said this appearance by the sheep was their second in just the past week. Six days earlier, two adults visited the lakes.
I can’t say exactly how often the sheep visit here, but they come down often enough that the National Park Service put log fences on the shoulders of the road so people can’t walk there. That way, the sheep have an easy path across the street without encountering pedestrians.
How cute are the little bighorns?
I’m not sure why the ranger gave me incorrect information. Maybe this ranger misheard my question. Or perhaps she was passing along misinformation to protect the sheep by keeping tourists away from their favorite spot.
That would be an admirable fib justification, I suppose. But I trust national park attendees to be respectful of wildlife. And now you know the truth about where to see bighorn sheep.
Other Spots for Wild Sheep
Rocky Mountain National Park has some really high mountain peaks at high altitudes – you can even drive on roads above 12,000 feet! That makes the park a perfect place for wild sheep, who love the high elevation.
Horseshoe Park is the name of the horseshoe-shaped portion of Route 34. This is definitely your best spot to see bighorn sheep. Sheep Lakes are located within this section, but don’t forget to drive the remaining half-mile on either side of the lakes to increase your opportunity to see them.
Elsewhere, some visitors have reported seeing wild sheep in the Poudre Canyon area. This canyon begins in the far north of the park and runs for 40 miles toward the town of Bellvue. Others report that sheep can be spotted outside the park along Route 34 between Big Thompson Canyon and the town of Estes Park.
For further reading, the NPS does have a more factual page on seeing sheep in the Rockies. Thankfully, this page has been updated to reflect the fact that sheep do come down to Sheep Lakes quite often, typically between 9 am and 3 pm.
The NPS says that today, around 300-400 wild bighorn sheep live in the Rocky Mountains. That’s a great improvement from the 1950s, when hunting and disease led to an all-time low total of 150 sheep in the area.