What Animals to Look for When You're Skiing in the Rockies
Skiing is filled with simple pleasures, from gliding down the bunny slope to slicing through a mound of fresh powder. But its simplest pleasure has to do with going up the mountain. Basically an amusement-park ride in disguise, the ski lift is a many-splendored thing. As it leisurely floats you up the slopes, it allows for ample time to observe the wildlife underfoot.
So, how easy would it be to devise your own ski-lift safari? To answer that question, we spoke with Kyle Patterson, a Public Information Officer from Rocky Mountain National Park, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Kyle has seen her fair share of creatures roaming throughout the park, so she gave us a few insights on which animals you’re most likely to spot when you’re riding high on a nearby lift.
Distinguishing Features: About the same size as an adult human, with light brown hair. Unlike other large cats, they do not roar and rarely make noise at all.
Likelihood of Spotting: Rare. They tend to stay out of sight and are largely nocturnal, though spotting one isn’t unheard of.
Mountain lions stalk silently through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and other North American ranges. These sleek, beautiful creatures help maintain the ecosystem by keeping the deer populations in check. Spotting one requires a keen eye, as they tend to avoid human contact.
Distinguishing Features: Inquisitive face and a fluffy, huggable body that you should never, under any circumstance, attempt to hug.
Likelihood of Spotting: Extremely high, once they finish hibernating.
You can often spot marmots near the ski lift, bounding in and out of holes and standing up on their hind legs to eat with both hands. In the winter, Kyle says wildlife is easier to spot because small animals such as marmots come out of hiding. “They’re more visible because they’re out in meadows more often,” she explains, rather than hiding in the underbrush to keep cool.
Distinguishing Features: The largest species of deer in the world, elk are marked by their magnificent antlers.
Likelihood of Spotting: Fairly high, considering their immense size.
Elk tend to graze in large packs on hillsides, so pay attention and you might just be able to cross this animal off your safari checklist. Bonus points for spotting two elk sparring with their massive antlers.
Distinguishing Features: Somewhat resembles a wolf, but with a smaller nose, thin snout, and long, pointed ears.
Likelihood of Spotting: Very high, especially from the ski lift.
Coyotes are sociable canines with long, variegated fur. Oftentimes, people mistake them for wolves—a much rarer sighting. “Wolves were once native to this area,” Kyle explains, but they “were extirpated before the park was established.” So if you think you’ve spotted a wolf from on high, it’s much more likely to be a big, healthy coyote.
Distinguishing Features: These are birds, not dinosaurs. Their long, powerful wings lend themselves to soaring high above the surroundings.
Likelihood of Spotting: Medium to high. Hint: you’ll want to look up.
Kyle has often spied golden eagles, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, and northern goshawks floating among the trees. Raptors have a tendency to soar above sightlines, so being on a ski lift affords an unusually clear view. Kyle explains that, when you’re above the birds, it’s much easier to “truly see the skill of [these raptors] quickly flying between the trees.”
Distinguishing Features: Looks like a housecat, but considerably larger. Physical features include spots and pointy black ear tufts.
Likelihood of Spotting: High, if you know what to look for.
Wild felines are in high supply in the Rockies and elsewhere. In the winter, tracking these animals is easier, since the snow leaves clear footprints. If you see any pawprints in the snow, you’re most likely looking for a bobcat. Just don’t get too close.
Distinguishing Features: Larger ears than the common white-tailed deer, and no white spot on their backsides.
Likelihood of Spotting: One step above squirrels.
Mule deer are a large, black-tailed deer that are extremely common. If you’re going to see any animal, it’ll most likely be a mule deer browsing for lunch. In Kyle’s opinion, spotting these creatures is a perfect gateway into the “wonderful diversity of the park.”
If you're more about the powder, check out our other guides to skiing:
Stephanie McDaniel is a political theorist-turned-novelist from South Carolina. On the rare occasion she’s not writing, she spends her time folk dancing, singing, and adding sea salt to Lake Michigan.