A friend and I (along with several hundred others) were enjoying the ambience at Summit Lake, most of the way up 14,265 foot high Mount Evans. We were taking a break from the hairpin turns and sheer drop-offs on our way to the top of the highest paved road in the U.S.A.
Situated at 12,836 feet, Summit Lake is a beautiful place. The water shimmered in the bright sunlight. Alpine wildflowers carpeted the rocky ground, backed by craggy cliffs that barely hid the actual summit. As usual, the parking lot was overflowing, people were queued up to use the restrooms, and there was a total disregard for the signs begging everyone to keep to the trails and stay off the fragile tundra.
Then the herd appeared. Easily jumping the split-rail fence, and wandering right past the bathroom lines, the animals showed no hesitancy at approaching us humans. A close look told me that all the adults were female, most with youngsters in tow.
I could hear the excited comments—“Look at the sheep!” “Oh wow, mountain goats!” “Those are bighorn sheep, honey.” “I always wanted to see a mountain goat!”
An hour later, we were on the final approach to the parking lot at the end of the road. Again, a number of big, white animals were hanging out on the tundra between the switchbacks, munching the flowers and grasses, wobbly young on their heels. I heard the same comments—“Look at the sheep!” “Oh wow, mountain goats!” “Those are bighorn sheep, honey.” “I always wanted to see a mountain goat!”
So, which were they? How do you separate the sheep from the goats? It’s actually quite easy, once you know what to look for.
For most of the year, except when mating, bighorn sheep form herds of mothers and young, separate from the “bachelor groups” of rams. The first group of animals we saw formed such a female herd. Maybe if the males had been with them, it would have been more obvious, since they’re the ones with the iconic curving horns. The females also have horns, but they’re short and strait, with sharp points. The horns angle slightly away from one another. They’re also white.
In addition, sheep are curvy. Rounded. They’re about the same shape as the domestic sheep we raise for mutton and wool.
Many of the sheep we saw were already molting, with huge flakes of wool hanging off their sides and backs.
Mountain goats also segregate themselves by gender, forming large herds of females and young, respectively called nannies and kids, plus many smaller groups of billies (males). The group we saw higher up the mountain was a scattered herd of nannies and their young.
All adult mountain goats have short, straight horns that are parallel to each other. These horns are black. The goats are larger, with a boxy shape and beards.
Once you see the difference, you’ll never confuse the two.
Mt. Evans is a terrific place to see and compare both species. In my many trips up the mountain, only once did we not find them. That day was cold and stormy, with a howling wind and sporadic deluges of icy rain, hail, and sleet. I’m sure the sheep and goats were waiting it out in a more sheltered spot than the top of a 14,265 foot mountain, while we idiotic tourists braved the elements.
The road to the summit is only open between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, as it isn’t plowed. There’s a $15 fee, although many of the free passes are accepted, such as my senior national parks pass.