If you are serious about moose photography in Colorado, I’ll give you some advice on how to find them and photograph them, based on my 15-plus years of tracking and photographing moose in the wild in Northern Colorado. The area I’m usually searching for moose is called North Park. Or more specifically, the area between the towns of Rustic and Walden, along Highway 14. I’ll keep my discussion to this area, as it’s probably the most populated area for moose in Colorado.
The best time of year to find and photograph moose in Northern Colorado is during the summer months of July and August. The best place to find them, in general, is at altitudes above 9,000 feet in areas where there are lakes, streams, and marshes. Moose love wet environments, good feeding options, and are generally more active in temperatures below 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Their most active times are early morning just before sunrise until about 9:00 am and evening time about an hour or two before sunset until sunset. On sunny warm days, moose will typically move into the forests or along the edge of forests and keep out of the sun. They may venture out a little to eat and then return to the shady coolness of the trees.
Before I get too deep into the moose, I think it’s best that I explain how to operate safely in the environment where the moose live. Most of the area in Northern Colorado where one will find moose is quite remote with very little cell phone coverage. Once you leave the main communities, you won’t have the means to communicate with the rest of the world. It’s imperative you keep this in mind because any problem such as an injury or vehicle breakdown becomes a major issue to resolve. Have a good spare tire with you. Have a well-stocked first aid kit with you. Have a good supply of water and snacks with you. There are areas where one could break down and have to walk over 10 miles to get to a highway. The main artery for moose hunting in Northern Colorado and North Park is Highway 14. There is a regular traffic flow along Highway 14, but there are not many areas for vehicle service between Fort Collins and Walden. At the higher elevations near Cameron Pass along Highway 14, there are several pull-outs with emergency phones, but I caution you, those emergency call-box phones are not reliable, and getting through to anyone who can help you can take hours of waiting. Make sure your vehicle is in good repair and reliable. I recommend a 4×4 SUV or pickup truck. Some of the roads can get rough, and if the weather turns bad, you may very well need that extra traction. All that said, most of the roads along Highway 14 that you may be exploring are dirt forest roads and are traveled by hikers, campers, and other sightseers. You can expect to bump into people, even in the wilderness areas.
Another thing to be aware of is dealing with a personal injury or other medical emergencies. A flight for life medical helicopter rescue will take hours to accomplish, and it could cost you 30-40 thousand dollars. I personally carry Emergency Medical Evacuation Insurance, which covers a lot of the cost of having to be evacuated by a helicopter. You can do your research, but this type of insurance coverage is worth considering. One serious emergency can bankrupt you. This is the company I use. It’s not a personal endorsement but only an example for you to consider. I’ve never had an emergency; thus, I’ve never had to use this insurance. AirMedCare Network.
Now that I have got you all hyped up about the dangers of working in the wilderness, I will focus on how to stay out of trouble and be safe with the moose that you may encounter.
Safety Working With Moose
Moose are big and dangerous animals that can kill you if you do not take precautions when in their presence. However, I have never been attacked by a moose, but there have been occasions where the moose have threatened me with an attack. In all of those situations, it was my fault. My personal behavior put me at risk.
Moose are not generally aggressive towards humans. In fact, I have found them to be quite tolerant of humans in their vicinity, but moose will telegraph their agitation with body language. The key is to watch their body language and respond accordingly before one attacks you.
The easiest and most reliable way to tell when a moose does not like you is to watch their ears and their hackles (the hair on their neck and upper back). When moose are agitated, they will drop their ears down and the hair on their upper back will stand up. If you see either of these two indications while near a moose, you better keep your distance, move away, and keep your eye on them until they change their appearance. It is a sure sign that you could be attacked at any moment.
Never walk directly towards a moose. They will either move away from you or attack you. You cannot outrun a moose, and they can kick with deadly force in any direction.
Cows are generally the most dangerous moose to be around, particularly if they have a calf with them. A cow moose will defend her calf to the death. When you see a cow, always look for the calf. Never put yourself between a cow and her calf, and never approach a cow with a calf.
Bulls with velvet still on their antlers are a little less aggressive in my experience. Bulls that have shed their velvet are hormonal and more aggressive. Older bulls still in velvet are quite tolerant of humans, but younger bulls are quite a bit more skittish. You still want to give them plenty of room, and you do not want to aggravate them with unnecessary movement or noise in their vicinity.
When moving around in moose habitat, keep your eyes and ears open. Keep your head on a swivel. I have walked directly by moose and never noticed them until they were only feet away. Moving along trails in the dark can be very dangerous if you spook a moose near the trail.
If you find a moose bedding area, assume that there are moose in the area and do not try to get any closer. A moose bedding area is typically a large flat spot in the grass near a forest or willows. There are often times more than one flat spot, meaning that there are more than one moose in the area.
When moving around along trails, lakes, or streams, keep an eye out for fresh moose poop. Fresh moose poop is a sure sign of activity. The last thing you want to do is walk up on a moose and surprise it.
When you do find moose, a good way to protect yourself is to stay behind a good solid object and make your photographs from a position of protection, such as a large tree, boulder, or your automobile. Something that can interfere with a direct charge. You do not want to get caught out in the open near an angry moose.
Also, never put yourself in a position where a nearby moose can charge you without some type of obstruction, such as stepping out of your car with the car to your back and the moose closer than 30 or 40 yards. You have nowhere to run, and the moose could just turn on you, and you’re in trouble. This is a common safety mistake I see photographers make. If you get out of your car near a moose, keep the vehicle between you and the moose, or better yet, just photograph the moose from the window of the car.
Did I say don’t approach a moose? Well, I’ll say it again. Don’t walk towards them, don’t walk into their path if they are moving around, never try to touch a moose, and no, their noses are not all soft like a horse. If you attempt to touch a moose, you’ll probably end up in the hospital or morgue.
That being said, moose are not all that aggressive an animal. Moose are plant eaters, so they don’t hunt for or eat humans. Moose are short-tempered animals and will not tolerate being annoyed by a human.
If you find yourself near open moose, be aware of their movements at all times. When a moose is aware of your presence, they will either tolerate you or move off in a different direction to avoid getting near you. The first indication a moose doesn’t like you is they will turn their butt in your direction. Staring at a moose’s butt isn’t a great photo, and it tells you the next thing they will do is leave and let you watch their butt as they walk away. If you come upon a group of moose butts staring at you, you probably won’t get good photos. Just back off and watch, keep quiet, and don’t try to reposition yourself to get a look at their faces. They will respond negatively.
If you find yourself near moose, and one starts walking in your direction while making eye contact, consider it to be an attack in progress. Any moose walking towards you, even at a slow pace, could be sizing you up for a good stomping. Don’t allow it to get close enough to find out.
You shouldn’t be frightened by moose in most circumstances, but you should show them a great deal of respect and not interfere with what they want to do. If you are respectful of their sensibilities, they will tolerate your presence and may give you a great photo opportunity.
Photography Gear for Photographing Moose
Successful moose photography will depend to a large extent on the equipment you choose. I’m still using Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera bodies. The newer mirrorless camera bodies should be just as suitable, or maybe even better. The primary consideration isn’t going to be your camera body; it is going to be your lens selection.
In my kit, I carry a Nikon D810 and a Nikon D850 DSLR. I generally have a backup body with me, as it provides me with the security of knowing that I can keep making photographs in case of a camera failure. I prefer high-resolution sensors with 30 megapixels or more, but you can get excellent results with cameras that shoot down to 15 megapixels. The higher resolution sensors give me a little more cropping room in post-processing.
Your choice of camera is your business, but I highly recommend you pack a second body as a backup camera.
My preference is to work with zoom lenses. To me, zoom lenses are more flexible and provide me with more opportunities and possibilities in the field. Plus, I don’t like being locked into a single focal length lens. Those big exotic prime lenses, while having excellent optical performance, are a little too bulky and cumbersome in the field.
Lens focal lengths I use most often are a Nikkor super-telephoto 200-500mm f/5.6 VR, Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II, and a Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8. I keep the 200-500mm on my D810 and the 70-200mm on my Nikon D850. The 24-70 will go on the D850 when I want to get wider angle compositions for landscape and environmental photos. This combination of lenses works well and covers a very wide range of focal lengths without having to swap lenses a lot in the field.
At the very least, I recommend you have a lens that can reach at least 400mm. I used to use a 400mm prime lens, and I found it to do an excellent job a lot of the time. 500-600mm reach comes in handy, but the focal range between 300-500mm is a sweet spot.
The trick to me is to have as much variety as possible without having to carry more lenses than necessary.
If you are a prime lens shooter, you would do well with a 35mm, 100mm, 200mm, and 400mm kit. A 500 or 600mm lens works okay, but again, you’re going to be hefting around some heavy glass in an environment that is rugged. I think portability is more important. A typical 100-400mm is far more useful, and you can add a 24-105mm or 24-120mm zoom and do quite well. A 70-300mm zoom can work, but you may still want a wide-angle option. This is my advice, but if you are experienced and have a kit designed for your style of photography, I wouldn’t argue with your choices.
My personal camera preferences are to use full-frame sensors. I’ve owned and used many APS-C sensor bodies, but I have always found the image quality in low-light situations inferior to full-frame sensor bodies. That extra focal length provided by the APS-C crop is of little to no benefit with moose and large wildlife in my experience.
Personal Clothing and Other Gear Considerations
Working outdoors in the wilderness at high altitudes requires the correct clothing. I would recommend good hiking shoes or boots, as the terrain where moose live is wet, muddy, filled with deadfall, and rocks. It can be rough footing out there. I usually wear blue jeans and a hoodie, with a waterproof light jacket when necessary. Mornings can be cold, sometimes below freezing. The summer days in the higher elevations seldom get above 70 degrees, so having a layered approach to your clothing will come in handy.
For my camera gear, I usually use a small camera pack that will hold two bodies and three lenses that have good sealing for weather and dusty conditions. If you intend to do some hiking, the lighter you pack, the better off you will be.
I almost always keep a monopod in the vehicle. I usually have a good tripod with a gimbal head for when the light is low and I want to use my super-telephoto lens. In my experience, I probably use the monopod most often. The tripod only comes out when I really need it.
You should also have a hand towel or two with you. They come in very handy in rainy or dusty conditions.
In the North Park area of Northern Colorado, you won’t find a lot of places to fuel up your vehicle. I recommend you top off your fuel tank before heading into the wilderness to look for moose. I can drive 250 miles a day when doing my moose trips, so keeping an adequate amount of fuel in my vehicle is a serious logistical issue. There are a few spots along Highway 14 that have fuel pumps, but you’ll pay a premium price at a mountain fuel stop.
Snacks and water are highly recommended too. The few general stores along Highway 14 are not really very close to the moose. It’s better to have that stuff with you before you get up to the high elevation remote areas.
I find it better to hunt for the moose during the week rather than on weekends. Weekends are becoming busy with tourists, hikers, and campers. There are fewer people around during the week. Fewer people usually equate to more moose sightings.
Good luck and happy moose hunting.