Overcoming dishonest rangers to see bighorn sheep in Rocky Mountain National Park

bighorns drinking

I’m just going to say it: The rangers at Fall River Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park are liars.

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, 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.

bighorns road

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 if the rangers are going to mislead people, 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. They 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.

A crowd gathered ‘round to watch the goings-on.

crowd watches sheep

I spoke with a man who has been watching the bighorns for a decade now. He said this appearance by the sheep was their first in six days. Last Tuesday, 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?

sheep family

If anyone from the NPS or Rocky Mountain National Park is reading, I’m exaggerating about all of you being liars. Maybe this woman 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.

For further reading, the NPS does have a more factual page on seeing sheep in the Rockies.


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About Scott Shetler

Scott is a Seattle-based journalist and blogger who puts a quirky spin on travel adventures around the world. He has been featured in Travel + Leisure, Connect Magazine, Matador Travel, and the Washington Post.

16 comments on “Overcoming dishonest rangers to see bighorn sheep in Rocky Mountain National Park

  1. I may not know much about the sheep in RMNP, but I do know that they are ALL over the rest of Colorado and I usually don’t have to try very hard to find one. They’re often hanging out along the craggy rocks outside of Georgetown, I’ve had them dash in front of my on my way up Berthoud Pass, and I’ve seen more than my fair share navigating the winding roads of Gilpin County. However, when one of my German friends came to visit me in Colorado, I promised her we’d get to see some ‘Dickhornschaffe’ (‘bighorn’ in German). We drove all over the state for eight days and didn’t see a single one. Maybe I only find them when I’m NOT trying to seek them out.
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    • I stopped by Georgetown this week and didn’t see any, so I was really happy to see them here. It often happens that you see wildlife when you’re not trying.

  2. We visit RMNP in Late May and we usually see them in the Alluvial Fan area, way up on the mountain side. It’s far, but it’s fun to watch with binoculars : )

    • Thanks for the tip. I really enjoy the close-up encounters, but watching through binoculars is nice too, since they are not being disturbed by people from that far away.

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