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Wilderness Elk Hunting in Colorado

Wilderness Elk Hunting in Colorado
Photo by Brian Strickland

The cadence of shod hooves slapping against the rocky ground filtered through the damp mountain air as we eased up the pack-trail. With each step the smooth, well-used saddle I was straddling creaked and groaned as it shifted from side to side on my mule's back, which only added to this western hunting experience. As we transitioned from thick fir to the sparse alpine treeline, I eagerly studied the lush-green basins and bowls surrounding me, and it wasn't long until creamy brown specks of feeding elk appeared against the emerald background. As if the resident herd was waiting on my arrival, a lone bugle rang out and I knew full well I had found my wilderness elk hunting nirvana. Five days after my drop camp adventure began in this public wilderness, I snuck in on a handsome 6x6 bull and slipped an arrow tight behind his shoulder. Needless to say, as I stood over my fallen prize and inhaled his rich, rutty smell, I was more than pleased.

No question about it, the Centennial State is an elk mecca. Latest estimates show that over 250,000 elk roam the 12 National Forests, countless parcels of BLM land and state wildlife areas found there. Add to this that over 90 game management units offer over-the-counter tags, and you can see why countless opportunistic hunters descend here in droves each season.

With so many over-the-counter areas to choose from and the mighty wapiti roaming virtually every hidden basin and every steep ridge, it can be a daunting task choosing a region in which to fulfill your elk-hunting dream. However, if your elk-hunting desire is to spend your time on massive amounts of public land, having the advantage of light hunting pressure and being elbow deep in solid elk numbers, then you might want to consider spending your fall in one of Colorado's vast wilderness areas.

Although that may sound easy, when the season finally arrives and it comes time to put boots on the ground, you quickly come to the conclusion that hunting in these roadless areas is not only a physical challenge but, in some cases, a mental challenge as well. According to local bowhunter Andy Johnson, "To me, elk hunting in the wilderness is the ultimate hunting challenge. It requires a tremendous amount of self-reliance, as well as physical fitness." Johnson says he pretty much hunts wilderness areas exclusively; although he freely admits that it can be tough, he loves the idea of leaving everything behind to give chase to these western icons. To top it off, however, Johnson says that he and his hunting partner, Troy Heithecker, always seem to get into elk. Frankly, that's a big part of the big-game hunting puzzle.

Texan and non-resident hunter Don Jones has traveled to Colorado for over 10 years in pursuit of elk. Although he would no doubt agree with Johnson's assertion regarding the toughness that is required to hunt in wilderness areas, Jones has come to the conclusion that if a hunter wants to consistently kill elk, there are only two options: Either spend a significant amount of money to hunt unpressured elk on private land with the use of an outfitter, or find pockets of roadless areas which are difficult to access. Both Jones and his hunting partner, Clay McMath, have put the latter of the two options to the test and have found the end result to be great elk-hunting opportunities and a thicker wallet. While he credits his wilderness hunting success to many factors, simply put, most hunters stay clear of these types of roadless areas, and elk are much easier to find and kill if you don't have to compete with other hunters. When you have to travel 1,200 miles just to get to the elk woods, you learn to use every advantage you can get!

Without question, the Centennial State is the best option for hunters looking to tag a wilderness bull. With over 40 wilderness and primitive areas totaling nearly 4.4 million acres, most of which offer over-the-counter tag opportunities, it's easy to see why. Although some of these rugged and roadless areas are better than others, most are filled with an ample supply of back-scratching bulls. Here are a few you might want to consider the next time you head west.


The Gunnision Basin has a rich elk-hunting tradition and is no doubt one of Colorado's more popular elk-hunting destinations. Once fall rolls around, the hills are sprinkled with blaze orange like candy-coated ice cream as hunters seek out the elk that roam there. However, for the do-it-yourself hunter, this region is easily a one-stop-shop for finding wilderness elk. With numerous wilderness areas to choose from and excellent numbers of bulls, it's hard to go wrong wherever you set up your spike camp.

This region is vast and encompasses five GMU's. However, for the hunter wanting to find solitude with an over-the-counter tag in his pocket, attention should be paid to the Fossil Ridge Wilderness in GMU 55 and the West Elk Wilderness in GMU 55.

Of the two, the Fossil Ridge Wilderness is the smallest with nearly 32,000 acres to roam. Taking its name from a high limestone ridge that is rich with sea life fossils, Fossil Ridge is a classic wilderness area. Granite peaks overlook numerous alpine lakes, streams and lush green bowls that rest at the head of long, timbered valleys that are filled with elk.

According to the latest CDOW population estimates, there are over 3,500 elk living in GMU 55, with a bull/cow ratio right at 30/100. Although these numbers pertain to GMU 55 as a whole and are not exclusive to this wilderness area, you can bet the farther you get away from the heavily hunted roads, those ratios will creep up.

According to Brandon Diamond, CDOW terrestrial biologist for the region, what's unique about Fossil Ridge is that it sits directly between the elk's summer and winter ranges. As the season progresses and the snow begins to fall, area elk populations move through the wilderness, which no doubt provides good shot opportunities for the willing hunter.

Last season's harvest numbers show that hunter success matched the statewide average of 22 percent. Although those numbers aren't stellar, they by no means measure the success of hunters who decided to hunt in the more remote wilderness. According to Diamond, hunters willing to get off the beaten path and head back into the more remote areas tend to find greater success.

One of the more remote areas within the Fossil Ridge wilderness is the Crystal Creek drainage, which is located on the west side of the wilderness. Since there are only a couple of trails offering access to this large drainage, getting there can be a back-breaker. However, the rewards can be a pack full of meat.

To the west is GMU 54, and it encompasses most of the West Elk Wilderness. It claims the title of Colorado's fifth-largest wilderness, offering hunters 176,172 acres of elk-dense habitat. With elevation ranging from 7,500 to more than 13,000 feet, and its granite peaks protecting it from virtually every side, the West Elks is one of the most rugged wildernesses found in Colorado.

Home to the Sapinero elk herd, the latest population numbers show it to be over 7,200 strong, with a bull/cow ratio right at 25/100. Because these population numbers are slightly above objective, hunters willing to tackle its steep peaks should have excellent opportunities to fill their freezer with some succulent elk steaks and perhaps some bone for the wall.

Its size, remoteness and shear ruggedness makes the West Elk an excellent wilderness area. Because of these factors, hunting pressure is much less, which gives bulls a chance to age. In fact, when I deer hunted this wilderness a few years ago, there wasn't a day that went by that I did bump into some bulls, several of which were heavy 5x5's. I sure wished I had an elk tag in my pocket.

Last fall, West Elk hunters exceeded the statewide success rate of 22 percent, with a success rate of nearly 30 percent for all manners of harvest. Second season hunters with an over-the-counter bull tag had a slightly better succes rate of 31 percent, while third season hunters came in with a slightly lesser number of 27 percent. Although these may not seem like great numbers, when you compare them to other over-the-counter areas across the state, which were less than 20 percent, and consider the ruggedness of the GMU, it makes you think twice.

According to Diamond, elk numbers are well-dispersed throughout the wilderness, so just about any drainage with dark-timbered ridges and lush meadows will be good. He stresses the key to being successful in this rugged unit is to get back into the wilderness and be patient.

For the guy heading in with a pack on his back and plans to stay awhile, Diamond suggests hunting around Rainbow Lakes, and the Red Creek, Castle Creek and Mill Creek drainages. These areas are remote enough to get into elk and to leave the average hunter behind.


The second largest wilderness in Colorado is the Flat Tops, with roughly 235,000 acres within its boundaries. In stark contrast to the West Elk's steep and rugged terrain, the Flat Tops pretty much takes after its name sake, with the occasional peak rising 1,000 feet above the high plateau.

Encompassing parts of the Routt and White River National Forests of GMU's 12, 24, 25, 26, 33 and 34, the Flat Tops is home to the White River elk herd, Colorado's largest. The latest count shows nearly 45,000 elk roaming the hills there, with a bull/cow ratio of 28/100. This is above the CDOW population objectives of 32,000 to 39,000, so elk hunters should be prepared to see elk in good numbers this season.

Last fall hunter success varied throughout these GMU's, with GMU 12 providing hunters a success rate of 39 percent, and GMU 24 coming in at the number-two spot with 24 percent of hunters killing an elk. GMU 33 had a success rate of 21 percent, while GMU's 25 and 26 round out the fourth and fifth spots at 20 percent.

According to CDOW terrestrial biologist Darby Finley, the best early-season hunting is found in GMU's 12 and 24, and as the snow begins to build, elk migrate west to lower elevations into GMU's 23 and 33.

Keep in mind that the Flat Tops is not known to spit out gagger bulls. That's not to say some very nice bulls aren't killed there every season. However, if you're looking for good numbers of 4- and 5-point bulls, Darby feels it's hard to beat what the Flat Tops has to offer the wilderness hunter. Darby says the key to finding the bull you want is to pay attention to the weather and set up on migration routes from east to west.


Rounding out this wilderness elk foursome is the South San Juan Wilderness; and although it seems to take a backseat to many of Colorado's wilderness areas, it really shouldn't. In fact, I took my first bull in this unit many moons ago, and some of my recent experiences have produced many bull encounters.

Located in southern Colorado's Rio Grande and San Juan National Forests, the San Juan encompasses nearly 159,000 acres that predominately lie in GMU 81. Carved by volcanic activity, the imposing terrain is typified by steep slopes as high as 13,200 feet in elevation, above vast valley floors. Just one look at this region and you'll know that elk live there.

In fact, the latest population estimates of the Lower Rio Grande elk herd show a thriving population of 6,900 elk, with a bull/cow ratio of 36/100, which is one of Colorado's top ratios for an over-the-counter unit. Because bull numbers are high, hunters who put in their time can expect to see good number of them that meet the 4x4 legal limit, as well as the potential for a trophy-class toad or two.

There are numerous trailheads that offer access to this area, and because of this you can expect to find hunting pressure in the fringes, but don't let that discourage you. Elk tend to be in pockets here, so when you find a few, you're likely to be in the thick of things. Another aspect of this area is that it seems to be better early than late. Once snow begins to fall, elk quickly head south to New Mexico and to the foothills east, says CDOW District Wildlife Manager Rod Ruybalid. Once the elk start to move, it's a good idea to set up in a major drainage and wait for a bull to slip by.

Regardless of which Colorado wilderness area you decide to hunt, all have the potential to put an elk or two in your lap, and if you work hard enough, maybe some headbone on the wall.

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