How To Plan A Colorado Elk Hunt: The Complete Guide

Thinking of planning an elk hunt in Colorado? Elk hunting in Colorado can be one of the more rewarding big game hunts in existence, provided you do your research. It’s critical that you plan your hunt accordingly.

Yes, that means planning on things going wrong.

Planning a Colorado elk hunt needs to start at least a year in advance.  This is especially true for the out of state hunter.  Before you can submit an application for a tag in April there are steps and decisions you will have to make.

The opportunity to bag an elk in Colorado is very high. Despite a dwindling herd due to over hunting at the turn of the century, the Colorado elk population has successfully been restored, soaring to around 280,000 elk today. This makes the elk population here one of, if not the largest, in the entire country. Colorado is also one of the easiest states to secure an OTC tag in one of their 93 hunting units.

Everything you need to know to plan a Colorado Elk Hunt

We made every attempt to ensure that this guide to planning a Colorado elk hunt as thorough as possible. For many of you, that means some of this information may be similar to what you already know about elk hunting.

With that being said, here are some articles that those of you who have already completed an elk hunt here may find valuable.

  • DIY Elk Hunting Gear Checklist
  • Guided Elk Hunt Gear Checklist
  • Complete Guide To Calling Elk
  • What’s The Best Time of Day To Hunt Elk?

Hunter’s Safety Card

First and foremost is a hunter’s education card.  Every state offers a hunter’s safety course.  Contact your state conservation department for dates and times when this course is offered.  It may seem tedious to some people, but this requirement helps to keep everyone safe.

Big Game Brochure

The next step will be to contact the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department and ask for a Big Game Brochure.  This brochure is also available for download at their website

In this brochure you will find information on season dates, license information, youth hunting, general information, hunting laws, applications, and preference points, hunt codes, antler point restrictions, land closures, game management unit description, and a whole lot more.  This is a must have to read and review.  Even if you have hunted in Colorado before, this brochure will contain any information on new and changed laws.  Not being aware of a hunting law will not work as a defense if you violate one.

When to hunt

There are several hunting seasons in Colorado, depending on your weapon of choice.  For this article, we will plan for a rifle hunt.  Colorado has 4 separate riffle seasons plus 1 muzzleloader season for elk.  The dates for muzzleloader are in mid-September.  The four rifle seasons are from mid-October to mid-November.

Muzzleloader Season

During the muzzleloader season in mid-September, the bull elk will typically be very vocal.  Bugling can be heard echoing across the timber.  This is a good time to use pre-rut tactics, such as calling and imitating a cow elk.  The days are typically mild, with cooler nights.  At higher elevations, there is a chance of rain or snow.  The forest is beautiful this time of year as the aspen tree’s bright yellow leaves contrast with their white bark.

Riffle Seasons

The rut is winding down by the time rifle seasons hit in mid-October to mid-November.  The weather is a toss-up during this time, from mild to blizzard conditions.  You will need to pack for both types of conditions.  Weather during this time will have a big effect on elk behavior.  During mild weather, they will tend to stay in the dark timber on north-facing slopes.  When the temperatures drop and the snow is accumulating, they will start to migrate out of the high country to lower elevations.  There are large areas of public land in the lower elevations, but there is also a lot of private land.  You will need to keep this in mind when deciding which rifle season, and where you want to hunt.  The 1st and 2nd seasons are usually better in the high country.  The 3rd and 4th seasons tend to be better at the lower elevations.  But in any case, you are at mother nature’s mercy.

Where to hunt

Next, you will need to decide where you want to hunt.  The region with the largest elk herd in the country is in the Northwest quadrant of the state.  You find this by dividing the state in fourths using Interstate 25 and Interstate 70 as dividing lines.  Yes, there a lot of elk in that quadrant, but there is also a lot of hunters.  The other three quadrants still produce successful hunts mainly because of less hunting pressure by fewer hunters.  Colorado Parks and Wildlife offers an online tool called CPW Hunting Atlas .  This is a good place to learn more about identifying summer range, winter range, and migration routes.

You have the choice of hunting on either public land, private land, or ranching for wildlife land.  These choices are sectioned off into game management units (GMU).   You will need some good maps and the skills to read them!

What’s better, public land Colorado Elk Hunts or Private Land?

Obviously, each has their benefits. For the true do it yourself hunter, public land is the most accessible. If you’ve had the luxury of already having hunted Colorado, you may have private land contacts.

Public land:  Colorado has more than 23 million square miles of public land available.  The most important thing is to know the boundaries of the GMU unit you are in supposed to be in.

Private land:  Outfitting services often have access to private ranches that will let you hunt for a “trespass” fee.  If you are not using an outfitter, you will need to get permission from the landowner.  You can obtain ownership records and plat maps through the county clerk where you plan to hunt.  Use this information to contact the owner about making a hunting contract for the time of your planned hunt.

Ranching For Wildlife (RFW):  Colorado parks and wildlife has partnered with some landowners to improve habitat on their ranches.  This program provides free hunting access for Colorado residents who draw a license to hunt their land.  Preference points are required to be able to draw a license for this program.

I want to mention again the online Hunting Atlas tool CPW Hunting Atlas.  There are tutorial videos that explain how to use the sight.  Also, you have the ability to print up maps of each game management unit.

Statistical reports:  Deciding on which GMU unit you want to hunt can be based off throwing a dart at a map, the location of family and friends in the area, or tradition.  But, for those hunters who want to put a little more time and study into their decisions, Colorado publishes several statistical reports.  These reports contain license quotas, application statistics, post-draw statistics, number of preference points used to draw each license and harvest reports.  Here is a link on how to read the reports online and here is a link to the reports on elk  .

Applying for a license:

After you get your hunter’s safety card, learned to local laws, decided to hunt and where you want to hunt, it is time to apply for a license.  The license will include the species of game, sex, game management unit, season/dates, and method of taking.  When you submit your application, you may apply with up to four hunt codes for one application fee.  Your credit card will not be charged until you draw a license.

Colorado Elk Hunting Dates to remember (these may vary by year):

It’s highly important that you check with the State of Colorado prior to planning your elk hunt there. We recommend knowing these dates as soon as they’re made public.

Yes, even if that means checking with the Colorado DNR website on a monthly basis.

March 1st = Qualifying Licenses go on sale.  These are required before applying for the big game draw.  These are explained in the CPW Big Game Brochure.

March 1st = Limited license big game applications will be available

April 2nd = at 8 p.m. MT is the Deadline for applications and corrections.

June = leftover draw list is sent out

June 26 = at 8 p.m. MT is the Deadline for the Leftover Draw application

Aug 2 = Leftover draw payment due

Aug 6th = at 9 a.m. MT Leftover Draw Option becomes available

Aug 8 = Over-The-Counter Licenses with caps go on sale

Aug 8 = Over-The-Counter Unlimited Licenses

Aug 9th = at 9 a.m. MT Leftover Limited Licenses become available

Types of CO elk licenses:

Qualifying Licenses = These must be purchased before you apply for the big game draw.  The licenses are spring turkey, annual small game, annual resident combination small game/fishing and veteran’s lifetime resident combination small game/fishing.  A $10 habitat stamp will be added when you purchase your qualifying license.

Limited Licenses = These are the applications that go into the draw.  This is a process that awards licenses to hunters for specific units and dates.  They include public-land hunts, private land only licenses, and Ranch for Wildlife licenses.

Leftover Draw Option = If you are unsuccessful in the main draw there is still hope.  The unsuccessful applicants have the first chance at any remaining limited licenses.  You have to mark the box on the application for “leftover draw” to be considered for this chance.

Leftover Limited Licenses = These are any limited licenses available after the draw and leftover draw.  These are available to residents and non-resident hunters.  Preference points are not needed or used for these licenses.

Landowner vouchers = Landowners apply for these through the draw.  They can then sell these vouchers to a hunter.

Over-the-counter licenses with caps = a preset number of licenses available on a first-come-first-serve basis, available for residents and non-resident hunters.  Preference points are not needed or used for these licenses.

Over-the-counter unlimited licenses = There is an unlimited amount of these licenses available for both residents and nonresidents.  Before the season they are available by phone, online or at a CPW office.  After season starts, they are only available to purchase at a CPW office or license agent.  You do not have to go thru the draw for these, but they have limited dates.  Bull elk over-the-counter unlimited licenses are only available for the 2nd and 3rd rifle seasons and only in certain units.  There has been some hunting pressure on the elk and they might not be so easy to find during these seasons.  So, keep this in mind.

Preference points

You have probably heard of preference points.  These are points that might be required for certain units.  Ninety to ninety-five percent of the units require zero or one preference point.  It will be important to know which units require preference points when you are planning your trip.  Preference points are earned when you are unsuccessful in drawing a license for your first-choice hunt.  They can also be purchased through the application process.  If you are planning on purchasing a big game leftover limited license, preference points are not needed and accumulated points will not be used.

What fitness things should you consider?

Elk hunting is no joke. The altitude combined with the constant climbing to glass can catch up quickly with a hunter, so it’s important that you take physical fitness very seriously when planning your hunt.

Altitude sickness

Altitude sickness is a real thing and can ruin the hunt of a lifetime very easily.  It is caused by low levels of oxygen in the air which leads to low oxygen in your blood.  The symptoms can range from hangover type symptoms to symptoms that will require emergency evacuation.  It is a good idea to research altitude sickness and discuss it with your doctor before your trip.  This is especially true if you take any medications for your lungs.

Physical Fitness

Every year there are hunters that underestimate the physical excursion that comes with an elk hunt in the Rocky Mountains.  It doesn’t matter if you have a do-it-yourself hunt or hire an outfitter it will take a physical toll on you.  For starters, the air in the Rockies is thinner and just taking a breath can use up more energy.  Then plan for the fact that you will more than likely be caring a loaded pack on your back, along with a rifle.  The best places to find the elk might be a few days hike from any kind of civilization.  If you are lucky enough to bag an elk, there is a substantial amount of weight to pack out.  Elk are considerably larger than a whitetail deer.

Use an outfitter or do it yourself?

There are two basic types of hunts and they both have their pro’s and con’s.  If this is your first- time hunting elk in Colorado, we highly recommend hiring an outfitter based in Colorado.


  1. An outfitter will give you a list of supplies you need to bring. They will provide the rest of the supplies as part of their fee.  Having less to pack on the plane will definitely be a plus.
  2. Outfitters will do the scouting for you ahead of time. They want you to at least get a shot at an elk.  They have a reputation to keep.  Making that shot count will be up to you.
  3. Several outfitters use horses. These horses are acclimated to the altitude and trained to handle every situation that comes up during a hunt.  Besides, it might be nice to have a pack animal help carry out that big trophy.
  4. An outfitter should know the land well and will help to keep you from getting lost. Every year there are reports of hunters lost in the Rockies.


DIY Elk Hunting

  1. Do it yourself hunts in the Rockies are for the diehard outdoorsman. You will have to plan and pack your whole camp.  There is a large list of supplies you will need.  We will cover them in part two of this series.  But for now, know that your most important supplies are: Water purification tablets, a good map with a GPS system, first aid kit, and clothing for mild weather to blizzard conditions.  Don’t forget your rifle and ammo of course.

What should you pack for your elk hunt?

We’re working on a complete DIY Elk Hunt Gear Checklist, as well as an outfitter guided gear checklist. For starters, find a top long range rifle that fits your budget. We also recommend getting a good elk hunting backpack and starting your planning as soon as possible.

For for archery elk hunters we recommend investing in a high quality rangefinder. Buy a set of rangefinder binoculars if you’re going on a rifle hunt. Purchase clothes that will suit the weather, but keep an eye on the 10 day forecast and plan accordingly. Most importantly, have fun!

Want to learn more about hunting elk in Colorado? Visit the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Website.

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