A Roadside Guide

Elk in meadow

W. Horseshoe Meadow | Horseshoe Park

8.522' (2,598 m) elevation

At dawn and dusk, Western Horseshoe Park is a good location to view elk grazing and, in autumn, to hear the males bugle their mating calls. Bull elk duel for herd dominance by rushing contenders, posturing, and sparring ritualistically with one another. When convincingly displayed, shining antlers and dark body markings can intimidate a rival. Mature bulls make deep, melodious sounds while the young bulls generate high-pitched dissonant noises.
An effective way to observe this behavior is to remain quiet and still, waiting for them to appear. This may take an hour or two, but it is well worth your time. Walking into the meadows drives the animals away. You are well advised to keep your distance from elk for your own safety, especially during the fall rut. They stand five feet at the shoulder and weigh over 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms).
Elk have inhabited the plains and mountains of Colorado for millions of years, but it was not until after the great Pinedale glaciers had melted 13,000 years ago that adequate vegetation developed in the valleys of the Park to support large herds of wildlife. Prehistoric people came soon after to hunt the elk, as well as bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, and deer.
Elk, called "wapiti" by Algonquin Indians, are relatively inactive animals, spending most of the day feeding or resting. In groups of more than seven or eight, as they usually are seen, at least one animal is alert with its head up at any given time, looking for predators.
Willard H. Ashton, who came to Estes Park from Massachusetts in the early 1900s, fell in love with the Rocky Mountains. In 1907 he built Horseshoe Inn, which was once located across the road on the flat area: it accommodated 115 guests. Ashton also built and managed a rustic backcountry lodge at Lawn Lake. In 1931 Horseshoe Inn was purchased by the federal government and removed, with the intent of restoring the natural appearance and functions of the land. Ashton's older daughter, the late Ruth Ashton Nelson, first visited Estes Park with her family in summer 1905 at the age of eight. After she graduated from Mt. Holyoke College, she returned to study the local plants. Her book, Plants of Rocky Mountain National Park, was first published in 1933.
Down the valley, a large willow wetland occupies a major part of Horseshoe Park. Wetland ecosystems are very rich in bird life. They are populated in summer by moun- tain bluebirds; American robins; Wilsons and Macgillivrays warblers: Lincolns. fox. and song sparrows; dusky fly- catchers; broad-tailed hummingbirds; warbling vireos: redwing blackbirds; and Swvainson's thrushes.
A U. S. Geological Survey study of the Lawn Lake flood concluded that loss of life and damage to property in Estes Park would have been far greater had it not been for these extensive wetlands in Horseshoe Park. The wetlands reduced the speed of the flood wave from nine miles per hour to two miles per hour. The wetlands absorbed the water long enough to allow people downstream to reach safe ground. After leaving Horseshoe Park and toppling Cascade Lake Dam, the floodwaters reacceleraled to seven miles per hour and bore down on Estes Park.
In addition to their value in flood control and as wildlife habitat, wetlands cleanse ground and surface waters by concentrating and holding sediments, heavy metals, and pollutants. It is estimated that only three percent of the nation's land area originally was wetlands. Realizing that at least 40 percent of the acreage of these ecosystems had been destroyed by human activities by 1956. Congress conferred protective status on our remaining wetlands in 1972.
On leaving this area, watch for deposits of trees stumps and other woody debris that remain tree stumps and other woody debris at the high water line of the 1982 Lawn Lake Flood.


This text is adapted from A Roadside Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park by Beatrice Elizabeth Willard and Susan Quimby Foster. Copyright, 1990. The book is out of print but we're giving it new life on the web