The Arkansas Valley in Colorado is a wonderful destination for wildlife enthusiasts as it’s home to dozens of different types of animals, from birds and amphibians to mammals and reptiles. Visitors who are interested in doing some wildlife watching while they’re in Salida or Buena Vista likely won’t have to go too far to see some of these beautiful creatures. It’s not uncommon to see wild animals in either of these towns and of course, your chances of seeing wildlife is even greater once you’re off the beaten path. If you’re interested in catching sight of some the valley’s animal residents, read on to learn a little bit more about what kinds of animals you can expect as well as wildlife watching safety tips.
Types of Wildlife in the Arkansas Valley
Probably two of the animals you’re most likely to see during your time in the valley are mule deer and elk. The valley is also home to coyotes, bears, foxes, mountain lions, bobcats, beavers, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and a small, but growing number, of moose. With regard to bird watching, “amateur ornithologists might be surprised at the variety of birds present in the Upper Arkansas Valley. Though there may be fewer resident species of birds in the Valley than in other places, it is a natural north-south migration path for various species. The valley’s migration pathway gives one the opportunity to watch birds that migrate to higher elevations, birds such as Towhees, grosbeaks, tanagers, hummingbirds, wrens, creepers, and nuthatches.” Salida.com
In addition, “raptors, or birds of prey, are common sights in Chaffee County… Among those that thrive in local habitats are bald eagles, golden eagles and red-tailed hawks… Great horned owls are also common residents in the area, and in recent years a pair of ospreys have taken up summer residence in Salida.” D.J. DeJong / Chaffee County Times
Where to See Wildlife
It’s not uncommon to see deer and elk in town, grazing on roadsides, or enjoying the greens at the local golf courses. Many of the predatory species, however, tend to stick to areas away from humans so you’ll need to venture further into the mountains to increase your chances of a sighting. While it’s very rare to see mountain lions and bobcats, you may see bears in the late summer and early fall. Sometimes, bears will wander closer to populated areas as they search for more food to help them prepare for hibernation.
If you’re interested in seeing some bighorn sheep, head to the aptly named Bighorn Sheep Canyon. “This long section of Highway 50 between Salida and Canon City is named such because of the numerous bighorn sheep that make it home. The mountains, tall canyon walls and Arkansas River are magnificent enough, but check the hillsides carefully. It is common to see bighorn sheep and other wildlife.” FourteenerNet
Alternatively, “if you’re whitewater rafting on the Pine Creek or The Numbers sections of the Arkansas River, be sure to look for bighorn sheep, which are often sighted from the shuttle to the river put-in and along the banks of the Arkansas River.” Timberline Tours
For visitors interested in seeing mountain goats, you’ll need to hike up a mountain for the best goat watching opportunities. Mount Shavano, Mount Antero, and many of the other 14ers (mountains over 14,000 feet in elevation) are home to mountain goats. If climbing a mountain isn’t on your vacation itinerary, though, “mountain goats can be seen on the cliffs that start at the junction of the Cottonwood Pass road and the Cottonwood Lake Road, and taper out just past the lake. Viewers should pull off the road and view from the pullouts on the way to the lake. Check the interpretive sign at the lake’s West End for information about goats in general. From the exhibit watch for goats by looking northeast at the cliffs.” Wildlife Viewing Areas
Birdwatchers will probably be able to spot birds of prey soaring above the Arkansas River and open flatlands as they hunt. Otherwise, just about wherever you go, several bird species are likely to be present. Colorado County Birding maintains an up-to-date list that shows recent bird sightings as well as the location of the sightings.
When to See Wildlife
Wildlife is typically the most active in the early morning hours as well as around sunset.
General Wildlife Viewing Tips
Wildlife watching is fun and educational, but it’s essential that you take steps to ensure not only your safety but that of the the animal as well. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has these tips to ensure that you’re engaging in ethical viewing:
- “Observe animals from a safe distance—safe for you and safe for the animals. You can get a close-up view by using binoculars, a spotting scope, or a camera with a telephoto lens.
- If the animals you are observing have their heads up, ears pointed toward you, or appear ‘jumpy’ or nervous when you move, you are probably too close! Sit or stand very quietly, without making eye contact, or move slowly away to a safer distance.
- Be especially sensitive to and cautious around adults with young.
- Move slowly and casually, not directly at wildlife. Allow animals to keep you in view and do not surprise them. Avoid eye contact; watch from the corner of your eye.
- Never chase or harass wildlife. Harassment of wildlife is unlawful, and can be extremely harmful.
- Leave your pets at home. At best, their presence hinders wildlife watching. Worse, they can chase, injure, or kill wildlife, or be injured or killed.
- Use the animals’ behavior as a guide. Limit the time you spend watching if animals appear to be stressed.
- Respect others who are viewing the same animals.
- Do not feed wild mammals. Reserve feeding for “backyard” birds.
- Respect private property. Ask for permission to access private lands before your viewing trip.
- Animals at rest need to remain at rest. Don’t do anything that might make them move.
- Avoid animals that behave unexpectedly or aggressively. They may be ill, injured, or have young nearby.”
Bear & Mountain Lion Safety Tips
While it’s unlikely that you’ll come across a bear or mountain lion on your outdoor adventures, it never hurts to be prepared. When it comes to bears, you can minimize the chances of an unfortunate bear encounter by making noise as you hike so as not to startle any bears. Also “be alert at all times, and leave your headphones at home. Be extra cautious at dawn and dusk, when the wind is in your face, visibility is limited or you’re walking by a noisy stream. A firm clap or quick shout warns bears that humans are in the area.” If you do surprise a bear, “Stand still, stay calm and let the bear identify you and leave. Talk in a normal tone of voice. Be sure the bear has an escape route. Never run or climb a tree. If you see cubs, their mother is usually close by. Leave the area immediately.” Colorado Parks & Wildlife
If you happen upon a mountain lion, it’s essential to “stay calm… Talk calmly and firmly to it. Move slowly. Stop or back away slowly, if you can do it safely. Running may stimulate a lion’s instinct to chase and attack. Face the lion and stand upright. Do all you can to appear larger.” Colorado Parks & Wildlife
While bear and mountain lion attacks are rare, they often happen because the animal is surprised or because its young are present. So while it can be amazing to see one of these animals in the wild, it’s far more preferable that you stay safe. As such, don’t forget to make noise while you hike so the animals have the opportunity to move to a different area.
Wildlife Viewing Events
One of the more popular wildlife watching events that’s not too far from Salida is the Monte Vista Crane Fest. The festival “is held the second weekend of every March in Monte Vista, Colorado. Crane watchers come from far and wide to celebrate the return of some 20,000 cranes to the spectacular San Luis Valley.” It provides an incredible opportunity to see dozens of different types of bird species in a picture-perfect setting. Monte Vista is located about an hour and a half south of Salida.
Coloradans love their wildlife so much so that there are wildlife-related events and festivals held throughout the state all year long. So if you have the chance to enjoy any of these festivals in other areas of the state, we highly recommend it!