Colorado Elk Hunting
Travis Smola

Everything You Need to Know Before Planning a Colorado Elk Hunt

Colorado isn't short on draws for lovers of the outdoors, but no state captures the hearts of elk hunters like the Centennial State. It's widely considered the premiere North American destination for non-resident elk hunting for a number of reasons, but its substantial herd, the ease of obtaining a hunting license, and favorable success rates lead the way. However, no matter how you plan to approach your dream hunt, there's a lot to digest before you start dishing out money. Where do you find a hunting guide? Do you use a rifle or a bow? How do you get a license?

We'll answer all your burning Colorado elk questions in this complete guide.

Season Dates

colorado elk hunting

Getty: Arterra

Because blocking out the time of your hunt is important in planning, we'll give you all the hunting season dates right off the bat in order to make it easier. These dates are for 2022 and come straight from Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Archery Season: Sept. 2-30.

Muzzleloader Season: (Draw only) Sept. 10-19.

Rifle (Separated into three seasons)

  • First rifle season: Oct. 15-19
  • Second Rifle Season: Oct. 29-Nov. 6
  • Third Rifle Season: Nov. 12-18.
  • Fourth Rifle Season: (Combined deer/elk season, limited) Nov. 23-27.

Hunting licenses/tags

One of the more confusing parts for potential elk hunters is Colorado's system of getting tags and licenses. We'll attempt to eliminate that confusion as best we can.

First, we'll go over the license fees. For a cow you're looking at $526.17 for non-residents. For residents it just simply a resident tag for $57.90. If you're a non-resident, you're going to be shelling out $700.98 for your license to shoot a bull. Youth tags are more reasonable: a resident elk tag is just $16.32, while the non-resident is $107.43.

As a little bit of added value to buying a non-resident tag, they also act as a combination license for fishing. So, bring a pole with you if you're camping to get a little extra out of your trip.

Things do get a little more complicated when you start to get into draw-system elk tags. Generally reserved for only the most popular areas, these tags are attainable and aren't as hard to get your hands on as you might think. Colorado has done away with paper applications for big-game draws, meaning you'll have to pick up the phone or hop online to enter the lottery. Before you apply, you'll first need to buy a "qualifying license," which only applies if you're trying for a draw and not for an over-the-counter license.

CPW buries the info on qualifying licenses in their big-game brochure and website, so we're going to list them here for your convenience:

  • Spring turkey
  • Annual small game
  • Annual resident combination small game/fishing
  • Veteran's lifetime resident combination
  • Small game/fishing combo

If you're using CPW's website, you won't be able to access the draw section of the website until you purchase one of these listed licenses.

Things get even more complicated once you get to the next section of the application process. CPW wants to know if you're hunting alone or in a group, and if you're in a group you'll have to enter additional information about your group members. They will only award tags to everyone or no one. There's no in-between, meaning there won't be a situation where only some members of your party get to hunt while others do not.

One thing that seems unnecessarily complicated by CPW is their hunt code system. For that reason, we're attaching a screenshot of that part of their guide that hopefully explains it well enough.

So, as an example, if you wanted an either-sex elk tag in game management unit (GMU) 50 with a rifle in first season, your code would be "E-E-050-01-R." If you're on private land, there is also a letter "P" to designate that.

Note this example is just one I made up for this article. In short, you must figure out the limited-draw GMU you'll be hunting and the exact dates and weapon you'll be using in order to apply.

Also note that you're given an opportunity to fill in a "second choice" for a hunt area if the first one isn't available. It never hurts to have a back-up hunt plan in mind.

Another confusing part of Colorado elk hunting has been the preference point system. You earn points that better your odds of getting a tag each year you are unsuccessful at drawing one. The more points you accumulate, the better the odds. It is worth noting that for elk you can only get one point per year.

It can be perceived as a bit of a headache, but it will be worth it when you hear that first bull bugling on a frosty fall morning in Colorado!


If you dread the idea of navigating a draw system, or simply don't feel like waiting to land a tag, there is an effective alternative. In Colorado, you have the option of over-the-counter elk permits, which fortunately didn't go on sale until Aug. 2, so there could still be some available.

Refer to the CPW's hunting guide to see the full maps of where these licenses are available.

There is a flip side to this coin, however, as these will sell out quickly in more popular areas, but GMUs with high hunting pressure and low success rate will typically last considerably longer. You'll have to purchase OTC archery and plains elk OTC licenses at brick-and-mortar locations, but everything else is available online or over the phone. Just like a drawn hunt, though, you'll have your work cut out for you, as any elk hunt requires a great deal of research and planning, as well as permission should you hunt take you onto private land. While your odds of a harvest aren't quite as strong with the OTC approach, this is certainly the easiest way to secure a Colorado elk hunt.

Finding a guide

Colorado Elk Hunting

Travis Smola

Outfitters prove their worth in the field, but also at the counter, as not only will they greatly increase your chances of seeing an elk, but they also know exactly what tags you need. A guide is especially useful if you've never hunted elk before, but also if you're simply unfamiliar with the area. DIY hunts are great, but sometimes it's nice to have an expert to lead the way, especially when there's as much on the line as there is during an elk hunt in the Rocky Mountains. They commonly have access to private hunting land, where you can hunt without fighting competition or maneuvering the pressure you'd find at a crowded National Forest or BLM land. Not to mention, you'll inevitably take the butchering process too lightly, as few people have ever field-dressed a 600-pound animal.

Most elk guide services are available in the western part of the state where the elk population is the densest, as is the vegetation. Despite these hunts being extremely physically demanding, though, they also tend to offer breathtaking visuals that a guide will surely feature. They'll usually offer hunts between four and seven days long, offer "2 to 1" or "1 to 1" packages, which means "two hunters, one guide" or "one hunter, one guide."

If you're concerned about going into the wilderness alone, you might also see the option of what's called a "drop camp," which is ideal for multiple hunters, as an outfitter will help you pack your gear in and out. One of these camps typically runs each hunter about $1,500-$1,800.

If you want a little more freedom and responsibility in your hunt, you could also go with a semi-guided hunt, where the guide will point you in the right direction, but won't necessarily hold you hand from start to finish. You will pay a little more money, however, as these are typically anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000.

For those who want the best chances of harvesting a bull and willing to pay more, there's nothing better than a fully guided hunt, which typically runs from $4,000 to $9,000. Rates vary by area, as well as method, as some guides actually charge more for an archery hunt than a rifle hunt. However, they'll often pick you up from the airport, prepare your meals, process the meat, and offer taxidermy services. So make sure to look at how much is included in your package before you purchase!

What to bring and how to prepare

What gear you're going to need completely depends on where you plan to hunt, and more importantly how you plan to sleep. If you're going to stay at a high-end hunting lodge, you're going to pack much lighter than if you choose to camp. However, if you're doing a backcountry trip during the peak of the rut, you should be find with a decent backpack with a frame and standard backpacking gear.

Here is a short list of items you'll probably want to consider:

  • Quality hiking boots
  • Rain gear
  • Binoculars or spotting scope (most guides will have a spotting scope)
  • Extra ammo or arrows
  • License and proof of hunter education
  • Quality flashlight or headlamp (preferably both)
  • Backcountry backpack
  • Canteen, bottle or bladder system for water
  • Extra pants, shirts, socks, and spare shoes
  • Thermal wear
  • GPS unit/spot locater (in case you get lost)
  • Camera
  • Blaze orange or pink, if hunting firearms season (note: Colorado does NOT count orange or pink camo patterns as meeting legal requirements for safety colors)
  • Knife
  • Packable saw
  • Gloves
  • Warm hat
  • Game bags

Whatever you decide to pack, you don't want to cut any corners when gearing up for a Colorado elk hunt. Your physical health is everything in the Rocky Mountains, and elk hunting will put your body to the ultimate test. Make sure your boots are waterproof and comfortable for a lot of miles. Stay on the safe side and break them in first! Most of the best elk hunting opportunities are in high country—5,000-10,000 feet—so you're going to need all the help you can get from your gear.

The best thing you can do in the meantime is get your body in shape for what's ahead of you. I recommend practicing some long-distance hikes with a heavy pack through the highest terrain near you, so that those hills aren't as daunting when it's time for the real thing. If you're packing a few extra pounds, you'll probably want to try and lose as much as you can before your big trip. The hardest part of elk hunting is the terrain, so don't take it lightly!

Without a doubt, an elk hunting is the trip of a lifetime, and one in Colorado sits atop most hunters' bucket lists for a reason. Even if you go for 10 days, though, it will go by far quicker than you could ever expect, so try to enjoy every second of it and take it all in. Good luck to all the hunters in 2022!

For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis YouTube channels