Bighorn Sheep at Waterton Canyon
It’s funny how you hear a ton about a place or a trail and it becomes sort of iconic in your mind. That’s what Waterton Canyon has been for me for the past 18 months we’ve lived here. Photographers love the place because of the bighorn sheep that often hang out and the bears who drop by in the fall. But the main part of the trail is 12.4 miles (round trip) so it kind of scared us away until now. I hugely regret that though because the place really is beautiful.
We went without the kids so we could check the place out ourselves, but I think we will go back with our bikes and give it a whirl as a family. We saw walkers (this is more of a flat walk than a hike), runners, bikers, and fishermen (who rode in on bikes). We even saw a few people with donkeys. It was a nice mix of activity. But no dogs – dogs aren’t allowed here.
The drive wasn’t bad at all – it’s just southwest of the Denver metro area, and we found plenty of parking. We did get there early which was smart because it was a bright and sunny day. However, we forgot sunscreen. Don’t forget your sunscreen.
The signs are clear and we got started toward the canyon.
Lots of regulations and a handy little map. But trust me – you can’t get lost.
We had no idea what to expect on this trail. I always build things up in my mind and make everything fifty times more complicated than necessary. But as you can see, this was just a giant dirt road and you walked right down it.
To our left we saw a little mini-dam and the South Platte River.
It was right after we rounded this bend here that James saw something up on the rocks.
Our first bighorn sheep! They were grazing, so we stopped and snapped some photos.
Then they started coming down and we thought, “oh fun! They’re coming down for a drink.”
But then they started crossing the river and we got a little concerned.
One popped up. Then another. And another. And just like that, a whole herd was up on the road. And they started running right for us. I panicked and therefore the video I attempted to take did not work out. I hadn’t even turned on the camera. Oops.
There was a woman jogging ahead of us and they nearly ran right into her. Instead they dove right around her and started eating. She just stopped, sort of stared at them for a minute, shrugged, and went around the sheep. I’m pretty sure I would have peed my pants had I been her.
We stood there for a bit and admired them because we weren’t sure if we’d see any more.
Finally, we went about our way. We were only a mile and a half in, so the day was just beginning.
Do you see a person in this rock formation? It’s not just me, right?
We encountered a tiny bit of mud on the trail, but it wasn’t bad at all for April!
There was a spot just off the road with a picnic table, so I slid down to see what the water looked like from there. And clearly, it was gorgeous. Definitely a nice spot for a little family lunch.
But then we walked some more. And while we were keeping our eyes peeled, we hadn’t seen any more sheep.
But we did come across this HUGE bird. It just sat perched here for roughly ten minutes while we waited for it to take flight. I took the next two shots with my 135mm, so our real-time view wasn’t quite this good. We thought for sure it was a hawk which we see all the time around our house. But after looking at the images on my computer and sharing the photos on Facebook, it seems like it might have been a junior bald eagle. And that is crazy exciting. (If you have an idea of what it might be, please share in the comments!)
Not too long after we walked away, it finally flew off and man, it was a big dang bird. I’d swear the wing span was 5-6 feet.
Continuing on with birds – we saw these ducks in the river. We have mallards in our neighborhood, but I had to look these little guys up. It appears that they are common mergansers.
The rest of the walk was fairly uneventful. We didn’t see any more bighorn sheep on our way in, and everyone we’d talked to said that hadn’t seen any either. We felt pretty lucky for our little encounter at the beginning.
After about six miles, we found the dam. I mean, it wasn’t lost or in hiding. It’s a pretty big dam.
There are bathrooms here and a little pavilion with picnic tables. (I didn’t mention it before, but there are bathrooms all along the trail – super convenient!)
The trail does keep going, so we decided to walk up a little bit more and check it out. But once you pass the dam, the flat part of the trail ends and it’s all uphill. It’s at this point that you can connect with the Colorado Trail. Sounds like a fun little biking excursion! But we were walking, and we still had six miles to go. So we headed back.
The view back down toward the dam.
Out and back trails can be a little boring because you’ve already seen all the sights. So we took selfies.
But then – somewhere about 3ish miles in, we saw another herd! And these were the big boys with the curled horns – the bighorn rams. (We learned later that the first herd was full of females.)
We watched these guys for at least 45 minutes. I took about a hundred photos and a handful of videos. You’re welcome for this pared down selection. (I also want to be clear here that I never ever approached the rams. I stayed behind trees and used my longest lens which, in terms of wildlife photography, isn’t actually very long!)
They butted heads periodically, but I could never capture it on video. Apparently they do it much more during the fall as they’re competing for female attention. We’ll see if I have better luck then!
A little guy…
They kept moving along the riverbank, so I took one last shot and then we headed on out.
And as we were walking, I saw these ladies hanging out on the side of the dirt road! She was quite interested in me.
Then we walked some more and saw a bigger herd. They were grazing and climbing all around. We watched with a small crowd before finishing up our walk.
By the end, we were sunburnt and exhausted. We had started fairly early in the day, but still, we’d gone nearly 13 miles (with the little add-on past the dam.) It was an incredible time though, and if you’re into wildlife, it’s a must-do. I just wish we’d checked it out sooner!
For up to date information on Waterton Canyon, check out Denver Water’s website.
How to get there: