Six months of planning, endless gear sorting and testing, constant training in the gym, shooting my bow as often as possible…and it all comes down to one week in the mountains of Colorado. When I first decided I was going to hunt elk in Colorado, I won’t pretend there wasn’t a voice in the back of my head saying, “can you really do this?” I think if we’re honest, most of us battle that self-doubt when we’re faced with a brand new and extremely daunting challenge. But, the beauty of running a blog is that once I put out to the world that I was going on this trip, there was no backing out (I mean, who wants to face that kind of public failure)!
So, the elk hunt has come and gone, and the experience was incredible! Spoiler alert: I didn’t fill my tag (but I did have a close call I’ll tell you about later). But, for all those who may be dreaming of their own first out of state elk hunt, I figured one more post reflecting on the trip, what I learned, what I’d do differently next time, and all that good stuff might be beneficial so you can head across state lines as prepared as humanly possible. For starters, if you haven’t been following along with this series, you can get caught up here. It’s okay, I’ll wait…alright, you’re back? Good…let’s get going.
Mountains are butt-kickers!
The first thing I can’t stress enough is that the Rocky Mountains are exactly that…they’re rocky…and steep…and designed to cause pain! I won’t lie, I went into this trip fairly over-confident. I train pretty hard all year round, and we have mountains in AZ that I’m always climbing, so I figured CO couldn’t be that much different. The mountains up there are unlike any mountains I’ve ever hiked! I knew the topographical maps looked pretty steep, and I had heard from other guys who had been there that it’s some steep country, but it just didn’t click in my head until I was at the base of a mountain staring virtually straight up. I don’t think I’ve ever climbed up a mountain where I was forced to go on all fours for certain sections or to rely on trees, branches, or rocks to help me pull myself up, but apparently that’s Colorado.
We got into elk on day-1 near the top of what I came to call “Suck Mountain” (It has a different name on the map, but I’m writing a letter to the Forest Service that they should change it). Each time up and down that mountain (about a 1,000-foot vertical climb), I tried a different route. Some were packed with blow-down, others were nothing but boulders and avalanche chutes that wanted to slide out from underneath you…it wasn’t until the fourth trip (on the way down the second day) that I stumbled upon a game trail down the steepest 600 feet of the mountain which became the least-bad route up and down that mountain. I had OnX track my route, and that became the way we took up and down every time we decided to climb Suck Mountain.
As far as helpful advice to the Rocky Mountain elk hunter: game trails can be life savers. Animals aren’t dumb, and they’ll carve the most logical route up and down a mountain. You can’t always count on finding one (and they’ll certainly not be on any map you look at), but if you can find one, just start following it up or down the mountain. Not only will it probably lead you to the least-bad route, but if it’s a freshly used game trail it may also help you stumble upon some animals…win-win! The other note I would give you is that we never ran into elk or really fresh sign until we were about at 11,000 feet in elevation. My first couple days up the mountain, I hiked up bow in hand because I wanted to be ready for anything. Once I realized the elk weren’t hanging out on the lower (and steeper) parts of the mountain, I switched to strapping my bow to the pack and breaking out the trekking poles. I would climb the steepest stretch of the mountain that way, and when it leveled out a bit (at 10,800 feet), I’d stop and switch to hiking with my bow in hand and a call in my mouth. It made my trips up and down that mountain so much easier (and less dangerous).
In short: train hard, hike smart, but don’t let the mountains scare you off. I definitely went up and down some sections where I thought, “I’m not sure I can do this.” Then, I would catch my breath, pick a route, and just start climbing. You can do more than you think you can, so be smart about it, but just commit to a path and climb that stupid mountain!
A Base-Camp provides peace of mind
I debated right up until we left whether we would hunt with camp on our backs, or set up a spike camp that we’d return to every night. I had heard that water is everywhere in Colorado (and it pretty much is), but I was nervous about finding a reliable water source up above 11,000 feet. So, even though it meant climbing and descending Suck Mountain over and over again, I opted to set up camp at about 10,000 feet and just a few hundred yards from a river.
If I had it all to do over again, I’d still opt to set up a spike-camp rather than hunt with camp on my back. If I could locate a reliable water source at a higher elevation, I’d probably move my camp up higher on the mountain (so that I could start out much closer to the elk), but I’d still opt for having that “home away from home” to return to. Having our stash of dry firewood, our food hanging in a nearby tree, the same water source to come back to every evening…it just provided so much peace of mind. I don’t think I can overstate the importance of the mental game when you’re on an adventure like this - when EVERYTHING is new and intimidating - and I firmly believe (at least for me) that having that reliable base-camp to return to every day helped boost my confidence. Yes, it means putting more miles on your boots every day, but it also meant a lighter pack while out hunting. [Granted, with a pack like the Exo, a heavy load just kind of melts away, but a lighter pack is ALWAYS a gift that keeps on giving]
Be prepared to adapt your strategy…and then adapt it again
I’m not sure what exactly happened during the 2019 archery season, but it seems that almost everywhere in the West, the rut was later than anyone expected. I was trying to time my hunt as close to the rut as I could get while still avoiding the muzzleloader season (which for some reason in CO, runs right in the middle of archery season…I don’t know why). Unfortunately, I timed it wrong, and I spent the week hunting absolutely silent elk. And in case you haven’t tried that before, silent elk are extremely difficult to hunt. Like most elk hunters, I went into the woods trying to call them in. But, it turns out, if you’re the only “elk” talking in the woods, it makes the actual elk extremely suspicious.
So, after a couple days of walking around making a bunch of cow-chatter and ripping bugles up every drainage I could find, I started to feel like the calls were probably doing more harm than good. Not a single bull responded, nothing came in silently to investigate what I was (believe me, I waited there a good long time just in case that’s what they were doing). So, I put the calls away and began still-hunting. I’d also set up on wallows or game trails for an hour or two, hoping for an unexpected ambush opportunity. While Suck Mountain was where we had the most elk activity, I also took a day to head in the opposite direction and check some new areas for elk sign, and I went for a Hail-Mary on the final day to a totally different area. The point is, I had my primary plans and strategies in mind, but I was always looking for some new opportunity or a different thing to try. There is a lot of talk in the elk hunting world about “running the playbook” and just sticking to your strategy no matter what (and some of those proponents are wildly successful). I, however, am a big believer in adapting and improvising based on whatever situation you find yourself in. Honestly, if I had stuck to my initial strategy, I don’t think I would have encountered a single elk. It was while adapting to a new method that I had my closest encounters of the week.
Listen, I’m all about hunting hard and making the most of your days in the field. But, with something as physically exhausting as a rocky-mountain elk hunt at extreme elevations, six days is a long time. Suck Mountain (and pretty much any range you’re in will have its own Suck Mountain) takes a toll on the body. Plus, your ability to recover from such a demanding day is limited when you’re sleeping on the ground at 10,000 feet. A couple things I did to make sure I could hunt all week (and not crap-out by day 4)…
First, I hiked in with only 3 days of food in my pack. Not only did that shave at least 6 pounds off my initial load, but this was my first time in this area and I wasn’t sure if it was going to pan out. If I hadn’t been into elk by day 3, I was going to be moving on to a Plan-B spot anyway. This way, I wouldn’t have to haul another 3-4 days worth of food back out of the woods. It did mean losing the better part of a day heading back to the truck to resupply, but we needed to recharge camera batteries, dump footage onto a laptop, and generally do some mid-week maintenance anyway, so I would still probably do it the same way next time.
The other thing I did was allow myself an intentionally lighter day part-way through the week. I had been into elk days 1 & 2 on top of Suck Mountain, but knowing that thunderstorms were coming day 3 and wondering what else the wilderness held, I chose to stick closer to some trails and check a brand-new area that 3rd day. We didn’t get into elk (or even fresh sign) that day, but we ruled out another spot where the elk weren’t, and the lighter day was a much-needed recovery day so that we could tackle Suck Mountain again. Yes, in the end it felt like wasting a valuable hunting day, but if we had gotten into elk (which was for sure a possibility) it would’ve felt like a brilliant idea. The point is to take the long view, try and listen to your body, and walk that fine line between pushing yourself hard to maximize your hunt and playing it smart so that you can endure through the whole week.
Is it worth it?
I’ve always held the view that the cost of your tag is the price you pay for the experience - it isn’t the price of meat. If you view it as meat costs, then it feels like a waste of money when you don’t tag out. When you amplify that cost with the price of an out of state tag (5 times more expensive than my AZ resident elk tag), it can be really easy to feel extra pressure to fill that tag. However, I look at it as a higher cost for the opportunity to hunt elk every single year if I want to (which I do). I would absolutely go back (and if I don’t draw AZ next year, I plan to). I may try to camp higher, I may choose a different week to try and time the rut better, but I’d potentially even head back to the same area since I have some fresh waypoints and boots on the ground experience back there (and I did get onto elk, even if they wouldn’t talk to me or give me a shot).
If you’ve been dreaming of an adventure like this, if you live somewhere without elk (or with very few tags available) and you desperately want to chase these things…you can do it! Believe me, I know it seems daunting (it certainly did for me), but it can be done. Just because my freezer isn’t full of elk meat right now, doesn’t mean this trip wasn’t an accomplishment. I went to a brand new state, into an area I’d never been before, backpacked in, and spent a week chasing elk in some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever been in. The fact that I was able to get into some elk and even came to full draw on one during a close call on Day-2…it’s all a success in my eyes. Yes, the odds are you’ll come back from your first DIY out of state elk hunt with nothing but half-thawed ice in the cooler, but the amount you’ll gain in terms of experience, knowledge, and grit is absolutely invaluable for your future as a hunter.
Anyone can do this with a little bit of planning and a lot of effort. At the time of this writing, the next archery elk season is 11 months away…you still have time, so start planning and get out there!