Photographing Mountain Goats In Colorado

(Photograph by Merlin Peck. Used by permission)
Wildlife photography in Colorado is a way of life. In this article I explain how to photograph the wild mountain goats living on Mount Evans, Colorado. If you are looking for some summer wildlife photography fun, a great place to find wildlife is the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.Sixty miles west of Denver along Interstate 70 near the mountain town of Idaho Springs is Mt. Evans.Highway 103, the road that leads to Mt. Evans from Idaho Springs is a long and winding road to say the least. The drive along highway 103 will take you to Echo Lake and Mt Evans Road, highway 5, the highest paved road in the United States. The route is known as the Mt. Evans Scenic Byway.
At the end of highway 5 about eleven miles from Echo Lake is the summit of the 14,265 foot mountain where one can find the wild mountain goats and other wildlife such as bighorn sheep, marmots, pika, elk, and mule deer. It is a target rich environment much of the time, but there is no guarantee that the goats will be present. The view of the Rocky Mountains is second to none with another fourteen thousand foot peak, Mt. Bierstadt just next door and many other ranges and peaks viewable for over a hundred miles around. Weather patterns vary, so getting dramatic clouds and fog is also possible. The mountain goats tend to congregate at or near the summit but can sometimes be found near Summit Lake, a few miles below the summit and along the road to the top.
Mountain goats are ungulates and herbivores. A male mountain goat is a billy and a female mountain goat is a nanny, the babies are called kids. The species is common in the Rocky Mountains and the Cascade Mountains of North America. The goats on Mt. Evans are among the most accessible in the continental United States. A fairly docile animal, mountain goats are not afraid of humans. While not aggressive, they can be dangerous if approached so it’s always a good idea to keep a safe distance of at least 15 feet from them. Nanny goats can be quite protective of the youngsters. One good head butt with those horns can ruin your day.One must also deal with tourists. The mountain goats on Mt. Evans are a tourist attraction in the summer. As such, the animals have become quite habituated to human presence. Never attempt to feed them or try to lure them to you with food. Parks officials have reported folks feeding the goats potato chips, sandwiches and other things through the windows of their cars. I’ve seen many instances where tourists bring their pet dogs with them. Leave your dogs at home. It’s always the animal that suffers from contact with humans. Respect the animals as much as you would your own children. They are not toys to be played with.
Near the summit of Mt. Evans

The road leading to the summit is a narrow paved, and winding road that runs along the side of the mountain. For the uninitiated, it can be a little scary. With no guardrails and heavy traffic at times, it can make for a nervous ride up the hill. At the end of the road, near the summit is a parking lot with a stone structure, a viewing platform with binoculars, and restroom facilities. The goats are often found in the rocks near the parking lot but are also commonly lounging on the hillside below the parking lot and narrow switchbacks.Photographing the mountain goats is not difficult. Most of the time, they will be fairly close to you, sometimes even found walking in the road. I’d recommend using a general purpose zoom such as a 70-200 mm, or 80/100 – 400 mm zoom lens. I normally carry three lenses with me. A Nikor 24-120mm, Nikor 70-200mm and a Nikor 200-500 mm. Most of the time I’m shooting with the 200-500 mm for versatility and a little more reach allowing me to keep a distance from the animals. Light is generally good near the summit with fog and clouds being the most common adverse conditions you’ll encounter during the summer months.

I’d use a smaller vehicle if you have it. Those roads are narrow near the top and you’ll encounter quite a bit of traffic during peak seasons. A pickup truck can make it though. Your vehicle should be in good repair with a good spare tire. Breaking down on the mountain would be an expensive tow down to civilization in Idaho Springs. All in all though, it’s not a difficult drive and tourists from around Colorado travel up the mountain all the time in all makes of vehicle, including bicycles and motorcycles. Take your time and don’t hog the road.I’d recommend you take a jacket as temperatures near the summit can be cold, sometime below freezing. The wind can be strong as well at times. Carry some water and snacks with you.

Mountain goats moving near the summit of Mt. Evans
Access to Mt. Evans is controlled by the National Parks so you’ll want to bring your annual National Parks Pass or be prepared to pay the 3 day pass rate at the entrance gate near Echo Lake.There are other outdoor activities on Mt. Evans with plenty of hiking trails and even a restaurant with gift shop near Echo Lake.
A sunrise view from the summit of Mt. Evans
The best time of day for photography is sunrise. Alternately late afternoons can be good, as these are the times when you’ll encounter the fewest tourists trekking up the mountain. By 9 am, the traffic becomes more congested and the goats often get skittish when there are a lot of people around, sometimes leaving the summit completely. The drive from Denver takes about 1.5 hours to get to the summit.
Mountain goat photography on Mt. Evans isn’t one stop shopping though. While you are on the mountain you will probably encounter other critters among the rocks and along the road. The most common sight being what looks like a giant fat squirrel, the marmot.  Some marmots are brave and some are not. The brave will allow you to take photos, the fearful will scurry into the rocks as soon as they see you. Use caution when marmots are present as they can quickly dart across the road. It’s always distressing to see a squashed animal in the road. In the 30 years I’ve been traveling to the summit, I’ve never hit an animal, and that is because I pay close attention and drive slowly.
Marmots are also known as Yellow Belly Whistle Pigs
Marmots are a common sight at high elevations in Colorado.

A keen observer will also spot the tiny Pika. Pika are small rodent looking critters, however, they are not rodents. They are related to rabbits. Pika are very shy and one must often use a great deal of patience to get a good photograph. They live in the rocks along side the marmots and are most visible sitting in the sunrise light on top of rocks along side the road.

Pika enjoying the sunrise on Mt. Evans

In addition, it is not uncommon to find bighorn sheep on the mountain. Most often, it will be ewes with youngsters, but large male rams can be found from time to time.

Bighorn ewe surveying the landscape from the summit of Mt. Evans

I’m usually through with photography by mid-morning as light becomes more harsh and the crowds begin growing to excess. After a morning’s shoot I like to stop in Idaho Springs for a nice lunch at one of the many available restaurants. If you’re planning a trip through Denver this summer, take a day and explore Mt. Evans and the wildlife that all us folks in Colorado love to photograph. It’s a trip well worth making.

And don’t forget to bring an extra battery…