Many hunters know the general location they intend to hunt based on past experience, contacts, recommendations, etc. However, if you’re new to Colorado elk hunting, there are a few things worth considering:
Colorado’s largest elk herds occur west of the Continental Divide.
Colorado’s highest elk densities generally occur in association with aspen, oakbrush, and mountain shrub habitats.
Public-land hunting opportunities span everything from remote wilderness areas to heavily-roaded forests and rangelands.
Once you’ve determined the general location you plan to hunt, the next consideration is when you plan to hunt. If you plan to hunt early in the season (e.g., late August through mid-October), a majority of elk are likely to be at higher elevations. If you plan to hunt later (e.g., late October through December), elk are likely to be mid-slope or even down on winter range just above the valley floors or plains. Many rifle hunters head to the field in late October and early November. At this time of year, maintaining flexibility with your hunting plans can be an effective strategy. Elk can be anywhere on the mountain depending on weather events, and it is best not to lock yourself in to exclusively hunting one spot. Elk are large, herd animals that leave abundant sign. If you’re not seeing evidence in your primary area, it’s advisable to seek out other areas.
After deciding when to hunt and factoring in weather, the next step is to evaluate habitat in terms of forage, security cover, and roads. As a recap, elk prefer habitats with abundant understory, which typically include aspen, oakbrush, and mountain shrub habitats. These habitat types are often intermixed with, or adjacent to, conifer forest. Areas with mosaics of aspen, shrub, and conifer are preferable to large, unbroken expanses of spruce-fir habitat, for example. During hunting season, in particular, elk will tend to avoid roads and place a heavier emphasis on seeking out security cover or refuge areas. It is useful to consider the spatial arrangement of public and private land parcels on the landscape you intend to hunt. If public-private parcels are intermixed, hunting public land near private land may be advantageous as animals will likely move between private and public land in that scenario. On the other hand, hunting public land adjacent to large blocks of private land with minimal hunting pressure will be less ideal. In Colorado, it is the hunter’s responsibility to know land ownership boundaries and not trespass, even where private land is not fenced or signed.
Ultimately, these various considerations should help you assess the overall landscape you intend to hunt: Is there ample forage and security cover? Are you far enough away from potential refuge areas (e.g., large blocks of private land, National Parks) such that elk will likely remain on public land even when pressured by hunters? If so, where are elk likely to go when pressured? What are the relative road densities across the landscape? Are there “holes” that you can access? When you factor in all these considerations, it should be possible to assess a large landscape and identify specific spots to hunt. In summary, areas to select are those that provide abundant forage, ample security cover, fewer roads, and do not have obvious refuges.