In Search of a Butt I Ended Up in a Rut

I have lived in Colorado my whole life but had never spotted a bighorn sheep until 2009 while I was hiking in a canyon in western Colorado. Since then, I have seen this magnificent animal many times and have learned about its winter range during the rut in the fall. It has led to some of the most spectacular opportunities to view and photograph this majestic and rugged ungulate worthy to be deemed Colorado’s state mammal.


Desert Bighorn – In The Monument

I had driven up I-70 to the exit that leads to two of Colorado’s popular 14ers, Grays and Torreys Peak. I was a bit disappointed hoping my new-found method would fetch the prized trophy, the Rocky Mountain bighorn. A few weeks earlier I had seen its cousin in a canyon in the Colorado National Monument. It prompted me to do some research as to where and how to find this creature that had eluded me all these years. The result of the investigation revealed that Rocky Mountain bighorn were prevalent along the main east-west corridors through the mountains. The tip for finding them was to look for one of its prominent features — a big white butt. This is what the article indicated would catch my eye since the main color of the bighorn blended in so well with the drab hillside.

I headed back toward Denver feeling somewhat defeated. I had learned that persistence was the key to finding the wildlife of Colorado. Some days sightings were abundant, other days were fruitless. Nevertheless, I glanced across the road to the north side of the highway hoping that my fortune would change. As I was passing the Starbucks in Downieville, a glimmer of white briefly caught my attention. Could it be or was my mind playing tricks on me? I had to drive for a couple of miles before I could turn around and come back to see if my eyes had deceived me. As I pulled into the parking lot of the Starbucks, I looked up and saw her. It was a single ewe.


The first ewe I spotted next to the Starbucks in Downieville, CO



As I glanced up the hill, I discovered four more ewes. Looking to my left, I spotted the unmistakable curl of the ram’s horn. Within the next five minutes, two other males joined the entourage. I was furiously snapping photos to capture images of the scene. Out of nowhere, a fourth ram that was the largest of the herd, came bounding down to defend his harem. The younger rams made a few feeble attempts to coax the ewes away but their endeavors were quickly dashed by this dominant male. What would transpire over the next several minutes absolutely amazed me.

The younger males squared off and began to posture pushing one another and trying to provoke a fight. The two rams turned away, briefly grazed in the tall grass, and then stepped off paces as if they had accepted the challenge to a duel. They turned toward each other, and in a quick moment they reared and lunged at one another. Their horns came together sending a distinctive sound resonating through the mountain valley. They backed off and took another pass once again striking each other in a head-on collision. I was witnessing something I had only seen on the nature programs on TV. It was taking place 50 feet above me as I stood beside a Starbucks, a few hundred feet from a major Interstate. Two hours and several hundred shots later, the fading light closed its curtain on this dramatic scene.


This ram dominated the Downieville  herd for a few years. This image was taken two years after I first spotted him in 2009




It was a once in a lifetime experience or so I thought. Two weeks later as I drove up Clear Creek Canyon on Highway 6, I passed another place where the sheep frequented. I spotted a “ram jam” of cars pulled off to the side of the road. I looked up and saw a few males bedded down on the steep rocky cliffs above me. They appeared like regal statues. It looked like something one might expect to see in ancient Egypt or in a posh neighborhood.

As I looked back and forth, I saw more ewes and a few lambs. In all, there was a herd of fifteen sheep. Would I get an encore — a second great performance? Two of the males stood up and faced off and their horns came together once again as the hollow echo thundered down the canyon walls. They dug in their hooves and proceeded to push each other on the narrow precipice above, each intent on showing the other its prowess and strength. This time, the show took place directly next to Kermit’s Roadhouse, a biker bar that sat near the entrance to westbound I-70, just east of Idaho Springs.


Two rams squaring off on a narrow vertical hillside

My first introduction to the Rocky Mountain bighorn was memorable. Whether you are interested in photography or just like to observe wildlife, the bighorn rut is something to be added to the bucket list of Colorado late fall activities. Take a drive up Clear Creek Canyon on Highway 6 or west on I-70 between Idaho Springs and Georgetown or do some research to find where you can view the sheep in your area. Start looking for the big white butt. You may be surprised what you find. You might even end up in a rut.

The Lonesome Road Warrior       

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