Important Colorado Elk Hunting Tips & Information


Welcome to ThinkVail – we hope you find this article about Colorado elk hunting tips & information helpful.

Elk and big game hunting is HUGE in Colorado and fosters positive benefits to the economy and its wildlife management efforts. Generating approximately $2 billion each year, big game hunting, and Rocky Mountain Elk hunting, specifically, is an important part of the Colorado experience.

Regulated hunting seasons manage and track the number and health of elk and deer and keeps herd populations healthy and sustainable. Hunters help to make sure the herds grow and thrive here, in Colorado!

More than 125,000 big game licenses are issued each year to hunters for several hundred dollars each. But it does not end there, studies show that the average hunter will spend upwards of $275 per day during their hunting trip.

Although Elk hunting is not inexpensive, it is unforgettable, and to bag a trophy elk in Colorado is thrilling.  This article will give you tips and advice to prepare for your  hunt so it will be more successful and less stressful.



See Also: Best Gear for Elk Hunting

Colorado Elk Hunting Tips & Information

What You Need

In order to hunt big game in Colorado you will need a License, Elk Tag and a Hunter Safety Card.

Hunter Safety Card

All hunters born on or after January 1, 1949, must complete hunter education certification course that is approved by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife and IHEA-USA. In order to apply for a hunting license. This insures that all hunters have the skills and information needed for a safe, successful, and fun hunt.


A limited number of licenses are available in Colorado and you must apply before the first Tuesday in April. Dates and fees change year to year so check all pertinent information with the Big Game Brochure (PDF).

There are four types of Elk Hunting Licenses available:

  1. Qualifying Licenses (available March 1)
  2. Limited Licenses (through an application & draw process in March)
  3. Leftover Limited Licenses (available in early August )
  4. Over-the-Counter Licenses (available in early August)

You must choose your preferred unit but realize that many units regularly meet their quotas in Colorado, so have a backup unit prepared in case your first choice is filled.  You will also need to decide on the method of hunting, including archery, muzzleloader or rifle.


Tags are additional permits aside from the basic hunting license that allows the hunter to pursue a particular type of animal (deer, elk, bear, moose, antelope, etc) They can get expensive, especially if you’re from out of state, but they’re fairly easy to purchase.

A single tag equals permission to harvest one animal. A tag is a physical permit that you carry on your person while hunting and then is attached to the animal immediately after you kill it. You must fill it out all the information including the date, time of harvest, location or hunting zone, animal gender and any descriptive features.

For more information about the regulations for hunting elk in Colorado check out the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Big Game Brochure

Elk Hunting Season

Big game hunting season in Colorado begins in August and lasts through November, with some restrictions based on animal and weapon. Archery season is first, followed by muzzle-loading and rifle season last.


  • Deer/elk/moose Sept. 2-30, 2021

Muzzle Loading (draw only):

  • Deer/elk/moose Sept. 11 to 19, 2021


  • Separate limited elk (1st season) Oct. 16-20, 2021
  • Combined deer/elk (2nd season) Oct. 30-Nov.7, 2021
  • Combined deer/elk (3rd season) Nov. 13-19, 2021
  • Combined limited deer/elk (4th season) Nov. 24-28, 2021

Visit Colorado Parks & Wildlife Website for more Hunting Season Dates


If you haven’t hunted in your particular Colorado unit previously and it’s not feasible to physically scout your Unit beforehand, then you should do some pre-scouting research online. Try easy mapping tools like Google Earth to find details like where the public access is, topography, water sources, migration paths, potential habitat and to preview what type of terrain to expect.

With more than a hundred units to hunt in, it can feel overwhelming, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the terrain or have never been here before. Check out the USFS hunting unit map, which covers the forest service and BLM federal lands of Colorado.

High Altitude

Most elk roam at higher elevations, usually between 8,500 – 10,000 feet above sea level. Scouting, hiking and climbing at this elevation can be exhausting and you must be in shape for it, so it’s important to be physically fit when elk hunting.

Hunting elk in the high country is very different and more demanding than hunting at lower elevations, it is more “climbing” than hiking and will make your lungs burn from exertion. In addition, the weather can be problematic, it can be cold and snowy even in the very early part of the season.

Altitude sickness is real and the symptoms can leave you with headaches, fatigue and shortness of breath. If you’re coming from a lower state, take your time getting here and let your body acclimate. You may want to take it easy the first couple of days upon arrival. You may also want to look into altitude sickness remedies to relieve symptoms.

Elk Behavior

Elk are big, wary and challenging to hunt. Most big bucks are nocturnal and only come out in the open at night. Their “day” begins in late afternoon. By the time the sun is up, they are already bedded down.

Autumn is the onset of the elk rut, or breeding season. It usually begins in September and lasts up to 2 months. Bull elk are most vulnerable at this time due to their focus on breeding with cows and competing for cows with other bulls. During this time, elk do a lot of bugling, posturing, and chasing.

Bulls can lose a significant amount of weight during the breeding season, because they are so preoccupied with breeding they forget to eat. Their food supply begins to dry up as the weather turns colder, there is less food and fewer nutrients in the food.

As snow begins to fall, elk begin to migrate to lower elevations where food is more accessible. Bull elk are typically the last to leave for the lower winter range. During the colder months elk will move as little as possible to conserve their energy.

Hunting techniques depend on whether you are hunting pre-rut, during the rut, or post-rut. Obviously, your choice of weapon will also play a big role in how you hunt, as does terrain, weather, elk numbers and bull-to-cow ratios.

Elk Characteristics

An average, mature, bull elk is about 5 feet tall at the shoulder, 8 feet long, and weighs approximately 750 pounds. This is a BIG animal, you must be prepared to field dress your animal, and to properly care for and transport up to 200 pounds of meat.

The huge rack of a bull elk is a prized trophy for hunters. It is not uncommon for a mature bull to have antlers more than 50 inches long, with 6 points, or tines on each antler, but more than 6 tines is not uncommon. Points can reach 18 inches or longer.

Elk Hunting Tips

There is little room for error when hunting elk, they are very smart, excessively wary and have highly advanced senses that alert them to danger. Here are some helpful tips to keep you in the hunt.

  • Stay Downwind – Always approach elk from downwind, or with a steady cross wind so the elk does not catch your scent
  • Stay Clean – Cleanliness minimizes your human odor. Take regular showers with scent-free hunter’s soap and change clothes often.
  • Stay Hydrated – Especially at high altitude, you will need water or you will get very thirsty, quickly. Use a bladder so the water does not slosh around and spook the herd or better yet use a water purification straw or portable water filtration system so you can drink from local water sources safely.
  • Limit Perspiration – Control your body temperature and prevent perspiration and sweat by wearing multiple layers of clothing that can be removed easily and stowed as you begin to get warm.
  • Scent Eliminating Spray – When on the trail use scent eliminating spray to reduce your human odor.
  • Use a Cover Scent – You can cover your human odor with various scents that are available such as pine tree, earth, skunk, either spray or wafer form. Apply directly to your hunting clothing.
  • Take Care of Your Feet – invest in a good pair of hiking boots and make sure you wear them a lot, to break them in, BEFORE your hunt, so you don’t get blisters and they are comfortable.
  • Keep Camp Clothes & Hunting Clothes Separate – Do not allow camp odors like cooking and campfire to be absorbed by your hunting clothes. Hang your hunting clothes away from your camp area.
  • Practice you Elk Call – Practice your elk call before your hunt so you are confident and proficient with it. When in the field, use it to get closer to elk or to get a bull to come to you, to see who’s “talking” to his cows. Once, you’re experienced, you can call or pull a bull to you.

Where to Hunt Elk near Vail, Colorado

Hunting Areas or Game Management Units near Vail, CO:

Lower Yampa 3, 11, 211, 301.

Upper Yampa 4, 5, 13, 14, 15, 131, 214, 441.

North Park 6, 16, 17, 161, 171.

Bookcliffs/Piceance 21, 22, 30, 31, 32.

White River 12, 23, 24, 25, 26, 33, 34, 231.

Eagle River Valley 35, 36, 44, 45,

Middle Park 18, 27, 28, 37, 181, 371.

Roaring Fork 43, 47, 444, 471.

Video about How to Apply for the Big Game Draw and Get your License

Local Colorado Elk Hunting Outfitters

Hiring a local guide or outfitter is a great idea if you are from out of state or unfamiliar with the area you are hunting. Guides and outfitters know where the elk are and are familiar with their habits and migration routes  they have also been on numerous hunts and know what to expect. They do all they can to make sure your hunt is successful and enjoyable. Outfitters can provide camp items, set up, maintain and break down your camp, provide meals and pack harvested elk meat out for you. They can do a lot or a little depending on your preference and your budget. Check out these local outfitters to help you on your next Colorado elk hunt!

AJ Brink Outfitters

A.J. Brink outfitters services guided hunts and drop camps in the Flat Tops and Rawah Wilderness.

Bearcat Stables

Offering hunt camps and packing services in units 44 and 45, some of the most famous units for Colorado elk and deer hunting.

Piney Valley Ranch

Magnificent private hunting ranch located North of the Vail Valley in units 35 and 36. Very limited hunting pressure on this nearly 50 square mile ranch. Expect bucks that score a minimum of 180 Boone and Crockett! Enjoy the sound of big bulls bugling throughout the ranch.

Colorado Outfitters

Offering a full range of hunting, fishing and pack trips in the Routt National Forest, Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area, the White River National Forest and the famous Eagle’s Nest Wilderness.



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We hope you found this article about Colorado elk hunting tips & information helpful. Have you ever hunted elk in Colorado? What is your favorite game management unit to hunt in and why? What is your must-have item for a high country elk hunt? Please leave comments, thoughts and stories about your experiences hunting elk in Colorado we would love to hear all about it.


Related Articles: Best Gear for Elk Hunting


View Comments

  • Great information about hunting elk, my wife and I are very interested in doing this and we have learned a lot from your article and really liked the videos.  We have family living in the Vail area so the listing of the game management units that are in that area was much appreciated. Thanks again for sharing these details

    • Hi Danijel, so glad you found Colorado elk hunting tips & information helpful.  Good luck planning your elk hunting trip in the Vail area and check out, a comprehensive website about everything in the Vail Valley.

  • Great post about Colorado elk hunting tips & info.  I just got back from an amazing elk hunt in Eagle county in the White River National Forest.  I went with an experienced outfitter who was incredibly knowledgeable and made everything from making camp and scouting, to packing out our elk really easy and a lot less work than it should have been.  It was still very demanding, but it was an incredible experience and I am so glad I was able to do it.  I would highly recommend a local guide that knows the area for great results.

    • Hi Rodarrick I am so happy that you found Colorado elk hunting tips & information helpful and  that you had a wonderful time while you were here in the area.  The White River National Forest is a beautiful place with spectacular terrain, it is truly unforgettable.  We do have many guides in the area and they are a great resource to answer any questions you have regarding big game hunting. If you plan to hunt elk again make sure you check out the article Elk Hunting Checklist for all sorts of essential items to make your hunt a success.

  • Hi, I enjoyed reading about these Colorado Elk Hunting Tips. Colorado Elk Hunting has always been on my bucket list.  Me and three other friends have decided that we will do this next year for our 50th birthdays. We do have  experience with deer hunting and other game hunting but it all in the east and I know that hunting and getting licenses is more demanding and complicated in the west.  So we are starting our research early to make sure we have all of our ducks in a row when the season comes round again. Thanks for the links to the Colorado Wildlife and Parks as they are the ones to get our licenses from and a great source for information.


    • Hi Jake I am so glad you enjoyed the article Colorado Elk Hunting Tips & Information. A Colorado elk hunting trip would be an amazing (and memorable) way to celebrate your 50th birthday, great idea!.  Yes the requirements for elk hunting in colorado can be a little complicated, make sure you read the yearly guide that the Colorado Wildlife and Parks publishes to help you with the guidelines and requirements.  There is also good youtube videos that will walk you through registering for a license and figuring out what is the best game lots to hunt in.  Remember that you need a Hunter's safety card, a license and tag but you will have an unforgettable adventure and hopefully you will go home with a trophy buck! 


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