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Home » Bears in Rocky Mountain National Park? What You Need to Know

Bears in Rocky Mountain National Park? What You Need to Know

Planning a visit to Colorado’s RMNP soon? There tons of things on your list- where to stay, where to hike, what to bring, etc. One of those things, for most people, is the likelihood of running into animals that are a little more scary up close than they are cute. We’re talking about bears. Are there bears in Rocky Mountain National Park? How many- and should you be concerned about them?

bears rocky mountain national park
A view of Rocky Mountain National Park from Estes Park, Colorado.

How Many Bears are in Rocky Mountain National Park?

RMNP, like many other national parks, does have a bear population. However, because it’s a lot smaller than parks such as North Cascades, Great Smoky Mountains, or Yellowstone, the total bear population is much lower. While Yellowstone National Park has more than 1,500 bears, Rocky Mountain’s bear population is between 20 and 30.

Across the 415 square miles of Rocky Mountain National Park, that’s not very many bears. That, combined with the fact that most bears tend to keep to themselves and stay away from humans, means your chances of a bear sighting at RMNP are pretty low. Furthermore, it’s likely that many of these bears will be on the western side of the park where there tend to be fewer visitors.

Read also: The Best Bear Sprays for Backpackers and Hikers

Brown, Black, or Grizzly?

Black bear walking down a path.
Black bears live in the park, but are known to keep to themselves.

Black bears are the only bears found in Rocky Mountain National Park. In the bast, there were grizzlies, but human presence has driven them further north to less populated areas. The last grizzlies in RNMP were gone before 1915, the year the park was established.

The National Parks Service studied the park’s bears in the mid-80s, and found that between 20-35 bears lived within the park- a number that hasn’t changed much since. This is a sign of good park management; you don’t want the bear population to skyrocket any more than you want it to plummet. It seems that, human presence aside, Rocky Mountain National Park’s ecosystem has a good balance.

Interestingly, researchers found that the black bears living in RMNP were much smaller than other black bears in other parts of Colorado- between 1/2 and 1/3 the size! The researchers concluded that RMNP is not a perfect place for bears to live; rather, bears have chosen to live there because hunting is prohibited.

Are Black Bears Aggressive?

Black bears are very unlikely to charge at you. Their first response to danger is to get out of the situation; if they see you, they’re not going to come near. In rare cases, if you startle the bear and you are a short distance away (making it feel trapped and threatened), it will charge. When a black bear does charge, it’s serious- you should fight back with everything you’ve got. Or, if you’ve got bear spray- spray away!

Truthfully, though, black bears aren’t very interested in getting into a fight and will only attack if they feel they have no other choice. Encountering a black bear is a scary, but not dangerous, part of your hike. Lynn Rogers, PHD, a scientist who’s studied bears for more than 50 years, says that black bears are timid, and even that “There is no record of anyone being killed by a mother black bear defending her cubs, and attacks are very rare.

Are Bears a Risk in Rocky Mountain National Park?

A lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Though you should still practice bear safety, you don’t need to worry about being attacked or mauled by a bear when you visit RMNP. The bears are few and far between, and black bears have very little incentive to do anything but keep away from you. If you’re heading out to the park this summer, or any summer, don’t worry too much.

All you have to do is keep your wits about you and practice bear safety:

How to Be Safe Around Bears

Black bear in the winter

Safe Camping Practices

  • Use a Bear Canister: Odor-proof canisters are the best (and only) way to ensure that nearby bears won’t pick up the scent of your dinner and come check it out. These can be purchased just about anywhere- and they’re required for backcountry camping in the park.
  • Hang Your Food: Put your bear canister in a nylon bag and hang it from a tree at leas 12 feet off the ground, and at least 200 feet from your tent. That way, if a bear does happen to smell your food, they can investigate without entering your tent while you sleep- which happened to two unlucky campers in 2003!
  • Change Before Bed: Don’t sleep in the clothes that you cooked in. A bear’s nose is 100 times more sensitive than a human’s, and they can smell even the faintest bit of food on your shirt. Leave those clothes in your closed pack, or (better yet) with your bear canister far from your tent.

Carry Bear Spray

Bear spray is more than 98% effective at helping people survive bear attacks. While it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll ever need to use it, it rarely fails when you do. It’s non-lethal, and will only bother the bear for about half an hour. If you have any bear anxiety (like I do), having some bear spray at your hip gives you peace of mind and is a great “last resort” survival tool.

Winter photo of the Rocky Mountains

Hike Wisely

The only time a bear encounter will turn dangerous is if the bear is completely startled and feels trapped. So, while you may be hiking for the serenity and silence of nature, try not to be too quiet in areas where you’re far from civilization. The more noise you make, the more aware a bear will be of your presence- meaning it will keep its distance.

If you do happen to see a bear that’s a bit too close for comfort or notice that it seems anxious, make your presence known. Yell at it, and pretend to be “big and bad”; the bear will take the hint and shuffle away. 99% of the time, all you need to do is let the bear know you’re there and tell it to keep away- it has enough sense to listen and avoid a pointless fight!

Final Thoughts

Rocky Mountain National Park has a very low population of black bears (between 20 and 30), and they’re known for keeping to themselves. If you see a bear while hiking or backpacking, let them know you’re there, and try to get a picture if you can! Just don’t approach it- that’s more foolish than anything. Have fun in RMNP or any other National Park you visit!

Nature in Rocky Mountain National Park

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