Welcome to hunting in Colorado! We are going to provide you a general overview of a multitude of topics, many of which will lead you to other areas of the website with more specific and detailed information. If you feel that we have left out a valuable topic, please contact us and we'll get the skinny from local experts and cover that as well.
Colorado Hunting: The Dream
Admit it, hunting in Colorado is a dream come true for many. Heck, for those of us who live here, we are living the dream. We have met hundreds of hunters over the years. Some used to be clients from guiding, many we've met while hunting, and others just from casual conversations, which eventually turned to Colorado hunting. The common thread of all these friends and acquaintances is that they all want to be part of the Colorado hunting dream.
Many that live here, at one time, lived somewhere else and dreamed of becoming a permanent resident of this awesome and beautiful land. The stories varied greatly but the dreams were similar and the results were the same. Now, our backyard is also our playground, just waiting for our next adventure. Of course, our dream is all about Colorado hunting. Although elk is the most popular big game animal, there are a total of 10 species of big game animals; one would have to travel outside the lower 48 states to find another hunting paradise of equal caliber.
Colorado Hunting: GMUs
The whole state of Colorado is divided into Game Management Units (GMUs), the boundaries of which are defined by rivers, drainages and mountain ridges for the purpose of managing wildlife in geographically differentiated areas. As of this writing, there are 183 GMUs. For anyone taking a Colorado hunting trip, knowledge about these GMUs is a must. You can go to The Colorado Division of Wildlife's website under Big Game Brochures and find two great resources to help you up the learning curve. The first is the "Big Game Hunting Interactive Brochure," which shows all the various GMUs and descriptions. If you want a hard copy, just call the Colorado Division of Wildlife and request one. The second is the "Interactive GMU Maps." This electronic mapping system can give you the skinny on the lay of the land as well as migration routes and ranges. Of course, don't forget about using Google Earth.
Colorado Hunting: Tag Options
Colorado is the only state that still offers over-the-counter bull elk tags, which allows you to hunt in most of the state's GMUs just by applying for it. Other than that, it's pretty much by draw only unless you apply for a bear tag with caps, which means tags are on a first-come first-served basis until a specific number is reached. For someone that may have missed the drawing, and depending upon the GMU, there may be some leftover tags. To learn more about the Draw system, you can go to the Hunting section of the Colorado Division of Wildlife. You can also ask to be put on their mailing list to receive an annual big game hunting brochure.
Another option is to participate in a draw for private land hunts via Ranching For Wildlife (RFW). Private ranches with at least 12,000 acres may partner up with the Colorado Division of Wildlife to provide Colorado hunting opportunities to help manage game on large tracts of private land. Currently, there are over one million acres of available hunting land in the RFW program.
All private landowners in Colorado with at least 160 acres can register their property with the Colorado Division of Wildlife and apply for special vouchers. Up to 15% of hunting tags per species (only in limited draw areas) may be allocated to private land owners who can apply for his or her share of vouchers (up to a max of six) via the lottery or draw system. Any Colorado hunting adventure that includes private property will certainly add more hunting options. Interested hunters must contact the landowner for permission to hunt and to receive a voucher, which will probably mean paying a fee. For more information about where you may hunt (private land vs. public land) with a private land voucher, please go to our FAQs page.
Colorado Hunting: Regulation
There are multiple ways to find out about Colorado hunting laws and regulations. The easiest and most recommended is to contact the Colorado Division of Wildlife and request a Big Game Hunting Brochure, aka Big Game Regulations Brochure. Since a new one is printed every year, the exact link changes so look for it on this page.
As you already know, "situational" regulations are not always easy to find. So, there are two ways to get your answers to specific or situational questions. The first is to go to our FAQs page and see if your question is already posted. If not, feel free to send us an email and we will inquire on your behalf. We will notify you when we get the answer and also post it to our FAQs page for the benefits of others. The second is to contact the Colorado Division of Wildlife directly.
Colorado Hunting: Where to Hunt
Where to hunt in Colorado is determined by a multitude of factors, which we'll discuss shortly. Generally, the state is divided into two separate and distinct regions: East of Interstate 25, which is plains country, and West of Interstate 25, which is mountain country. Of course, the only species of animal found in the plains country are Antelope, Whitetail Deer and Mule Deer. All species can be found in abundance in mountain country with the exception of Whitetail Deer.
Other considerations are species of animal, GMU, health, equipment and season. For example, hunting certain species of animals such as bighorn sheep or mountain goat is not an option for some hunters. Elevation, terrain, health limitations, and even the inability or lack of opportunity to get "in shape" may prevent this from being possible. Mountain lion hunting almost always requires that one hunt during winter time with an outfitter. Plus, all three of those species have a much smaller range and specific habitat. On the other hand, elk and mule deer are widely dispersed west of I-25.
For most seasons, Colorado hunting weather is always unpredictable and access to hunting country without proper transportation (and the experience to use it effectively and safely) can be a problem especially if one chooses a later season. Although the odds of hunting in any season during blizzard conditions or severe adverse weather are unlikely, it does happen, and frequently.
Since the beginning point of any Colorado hunting trip is determined by the game animal to be hunted, one needs to do his or her homework to find the areas of Colorado which has all the criteria needed for a successful hunt for the species of interest. Some of the best resources to get started are our FAQs, Hunting Tips and the Colorado Division of Wildlife. In addition, here's one of the most novel ideas that most hunters overlook - ask!
Colorado is one of the few states that has an abundance of hunting acreage and places to hunt, which total about 27.63 million acres or 42% of the whole state. This number represents the acreage available to public land hunters with less than four percent being private land but made available for public use through special partnerships with the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Of course, this does not include acreage available via trespass fee arrangements, voucher tags purchased from private landowners, and outfitters.
In the plains area of the state, there are two National Grasslands: Comanche National Grassland and Pawnee National Grassland, which comprise approximately 682,000 acres. In the mountain country, there are 11 National Forests: Arapahoe N.F., Grand Mesa N.F., Gunnison N.F., Pike N.F., Rio Grande N.F., Roosevelt N.F., Routt N.F., San Isabel N.F., San Juan N.F., Uncompahgre N.F. and White River N.F., all of which comprise approximately 14.83 million acres. The highest elevations and much of the rugged country to hunt in Colorado are found in the national forests.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has approximately 8.4 million acres located in mostly western Colorado, which is probably the most diverse hunting land available in Colorado. Beginning from low elevations and broad mesas covered with sage brush, oak brush and service berry, much of BLM land reaches up to mountainous terrain covered in Aspen, Pine and Fur, and even rises to alpine treeless tundra.
Colorado has 36 Wilderness Areas scattered all over the mountain country of the state, which is west of Interstate-25 that total 2.9 million acres. The largest is Weminuche with 492,000 acres (769 square miles) and covers six GMUs. The next closest in size are the Flat Tops with 235,000 acres and Sangre De Cristo with 226,000 acres.
Colorado State Trust Lands has a leasing arrangement with the Colorado Division of Wildlife to allow public access to approximately a half million acres, much of which is available for hunting. For those interested in pursuing hunting activities in these areas, you'll need to visit State Trust Lands and get a copy of the regulations brochure, which describes each parcel along with directions, season dates, acreage, GMU, and most importantly, which big game animals can be hunted.
As previous mentioned, Ranching For Wildlife adds another one million acres of private land for Colorado hunting opportunities.
Colorado Hunting: What to Hunt
Colorado is blessed with ten species of big game animals: elk, mule deer, black bear, mountain lion, antelope, bighorn sheep (Rocky Mountain Bighorn and Desert Bighorn), moose, mountain goat and whitetail deer. By far, elk are the most sought after given the fact that Colorado holds the world's largest number of elk (286,510 - 2009 est). The largest herd of elk in Colorado and the world, which comprises 15% of the total elk in Colorado, is found in the White River National Forest and surrounding area. Herd counts are determined by Data Analysis Unit, which consists of multiple GMUs and represents a distinct herd.
For one new to Colorado hunting, he or she may want to check on the number of animals (animal density) in the GMU to be hunted. This information can be found by going to Post-Hunt Population Estimates by Unit. It takes awhile for each year's statistics to be posted, so you may have to scroll through prior years to get complete data for your animal of interest.
Colorado Hunting: When to Hunt
Since most of the species have very limited seasons, hunting options are fairly limited. However, elk hunting has the most available options with mule deer a close second. Bow season for both species begins the last weekend in August and ends the third weekend in September. The weather is typically very warm and sometimes just downright hot, which makes for not-so-good hunting. Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule. Also, be aware that thunderstorms and lightning - a hazard not to be taken lightly - can occur frequently this time of the year. Snowstorms and even blizzards are possible.
The elk rut, however, is just around the corner. The best time to bow hunt elk is during the height of the rut, which would be the last two weeks. That's not to say you can't be successful earlier in the season; the action is just a little slower. Since the mule deer rut is not until November, hunting for them is always best early and late in the day.
There are four rifle seasons to hunt elk; the first is "elk only" and the last three coincide with mule deer hunting. These overlapping seasons are referred to as Combined Seasons. The first two rifle seasons occur in October; the last two rifle seasons occur in November. For rifle hunters, the first "elk only" season may provide an opportunity to hunt during a rut. The primary rut is typically over with by then, but there always seems to be some cows that were missed, so a "secondary" rut, as some call it, takes place. However, don't be thinking that you'll be able to find the big herd bulls participating; they usually won't.
Just remember, this is mountain country and the later you decide to hunt, the odds are greater that you'll be hunting in snowy weather. Of course, this can also be advantageous for many reasons. Animals are easier to spot with snow on the ground. They are also on the move more as well as being more active for longer periods of time during the day. Depending upon the amount of snow, they may be herding up and in their "wintering" mode, that is, transitioning from high country to low country wintering range.
Elk have a tendency to stay in the high country the longest. Snow does not necessarily motivate them to relocate to lower elevations unless snow is significant and covers up grazing food, or snows come late in the season and instinct drives them downward just by default. Mule deer, on the other hand, go into their wintering and transitional mode as soon as the snow starts to flurry. So, in regards to where to hunt muleys, one needs to stay up-to-date on the weather.
Colorado Hunting: What To Bring
This may seem like a no-brainer to many, but hunting in Colorado has its own set of unique challenges that don't really pose a problem elsewhere. One of the foremost reasons is because of our location on the map: our state is split in half by the Continental Divide by virtue of the Rocky Mountains; the Jet Stream frequently dips below us; and yet we are still close enough (meteorologically speaking) to the Gulf of Mexico to be influenced by the Gulf's weather effects. All of these form a mix of extreme terrain and unpredictable weather conditions. Mountains also have a tendancy to make their own weather and to exacerbate conditions that may be harmless elsewhere.
Foremost, you need to read our Checklists. It has several extensive lists that cover most things. You may also want to check out FAQs and Hunting Tips. So, our endeavor here is to just highlight the importance of reading those sections. It is imperative that you know why hunting here is different from your home state. Every year hunters get lost, stranded and some even die because of oversight, not paying attention to detail and not adjusting to those differences. The things we discuss on this website are for your benefit so you can have a wonderful experience and go back to your family safe and sound; they are not for taking up space or for verbose endeavors. You should especially take note if you live east of the Continental Divide.
Colorado Hunting: What To Get Here
Other than the obvious, there's just a few things we want to highlight. If you have read our Hunting Tips, you would have noticed a section about the Safety Kit. Some of the items that make up a safety kit may not be easily found in other states. Of course, this mainly applies to do-it-yourself and outfitter-provided drop camp hunters. As a matter of fact, if you do any sort of backcountry hunting, whether in Colorado or elsewhere, you need a safety kit.
Depending on how you arrived in Colorado, you may need to have your equipment checked out. Rough handling by the airlines can certainly "un" fine tune your weapon. You may have even sent your weapon ahead of time via UPS or other provider. Never assume your weapon is ok. Every town in Colorado has at least one outdoors or sportsman-related business to ensure your equipment is performing as expected.
In regards to maps, many states have little or no National Forests or BLM land, which results in few regional offices that supply maps. Also, available maps for Colorado may be limited or unavailable. You may also want maps with more detail or on a different scale. Colorado is where you want to purchase your maps if you have no other resource.
Many Colorado hunters come from states where getting stuck is a foreign concept. Off road travel on mountain roads is just not available. If you come to Colorado and have any inclination whatsoever about hunting where you have to drive off a paved surface, you may want to invest in tire chains. The cost of a damaged vehicle, unwarranted risk to human life, and the cost of hiring a tow truck is more than sufficient reason to spend a few bucks on a decent set of tire chains. However, that is only the first step. The other part of that equation is to learn how to put them on properly, in good weather, multiple times, and get comfortable doing it.
Colorado Hunting: What To Expect
Most of Colorado's hunters hunt elk, so if you are ever going to see an elk in your lifetime, you can surely expect that the odds are in your favor. If you have never hunted Colorado before, then we suspect that you are probably on cloud nine. If you are using one of Colorado's outfitters, then he or she will provide - or at least should provide - an overview of what to expect. We suggest that you expect to have a great hunt first and foremost, and filling a tag is icing on the cake.
Hunting in Colorado is physically challenging, so expect to get tired, winded, have achy muscles, blistered feet, and sunburnt. That being said, we offer lots of advice on the website to either mitigate those effects or what to do when you suffer from them. So, heed the advice offered or suffer the consequences. Just remember, whatever the extent of the pain, you can always heal up after you get home. Also, some of the advice may be just what you need to ensure you get back home, alive!
It is also just as important to discuss what not to expect. If you use an outfitter, don't expect miracles. They have no control over the elements, the animals, your attitude, or your hunting prowesss or lack thereof. Don't set your expectations so high that you can't allow yourself to enjoy the hunt. Just remember, most hunters can only dream of coming to Colorado to elk or mule deer hunt, and a few get lucky enough to bag an animal. Hunting Colorado's big game means one must be willing to compromise quickly and adjust to changes. The animals and weather will dictate your hunting options and will force changes upon you in the blink of an eye, so being flexible is a great asset.
Colorado Hunting: How To Prepare
There are two basic areas of preparation that we like to stress, the mental and physical. Although mental preparation is usually not an issue, having the wrong attitude is the sure-fire way to ruin a Colorado hunting trip for yourself and your hunting partners. The usual crux of the problem is focusing only on killing an animal. Sure, that's what we all want, but having a great experience should be the quintessential mindset for any hunter. And, if you are one of the few lucky hunters that bag an animal, well, it just don't get any better than that!
The lack of physical preparation is typically the biggest problem. Hunting success and conditioning are [always] positively correlated! There's no quicker way of stacking the odds against a hunter than to be out of shape and not able to handle the terrain and altitude. Of course, there is nothing that a hunter can do to overcome the altitude, however, conditioning lessens the initial effects and shortens the "adjustment" curve. Time is the main ingredient to negate the altitude but most Colorado hunters are not going to hunt long enough to reap the benefits.
Now, that's not to say one can't have a great time and get an animal unless he or she is in great shape. But, you sure will place the odds in your favor and the adjustments will be less painful. With all that being said, if you are one who cannot get the conditioning you need, then hunting with one of Colorado's outfitters may be the best choice for you. Every Colorado outfitter can deal with any problem, inability, or handicap to give any hunter maximum advantage.
Colorado Hunting: DIY Hunting
Do-It-Yourselfers make up the vast majority of Colorado's hunters, and most of those hunt elk. Although elk are the biggest attraction, our mule deer population is nothing to sneeze at as well as our other big game species. DIY hunting is probably the biggest thrill one can have, but it can also be one of the biggest challenges. Our advice: do your homework plus read everything on this website! Hunting in general is expensive. Hunting in Colorado is more expensive, especially for nonresidents.
Unless you are a seasoned Colorado hunter, we suggest you keep things simple: hunt one species of animal, two at the most. For example, hunt bull elk only or get an either sex elk tag. Or, if you've already killed an elk in a previous year, then go after a mule deer. The point is, whatever animal gets your blood pumping, go after that animal only. Don't spread your interests thin by throwing multiple tags into the mix. However, if you do have multiple tags, then know how to concentrate your efforts to maximum advantage. For example, let's say you have tags for elk and black bear. In this case, concentrate all your efforts on the elk. If you're blessed with getting one, then hunt over the gut pile for your black bear.
Colorado Hunting: Outfitters
Colorado is blessed with an abundance of top-notch outfitters, this we can personally attest to. If you decide to use an outfitter for that hunt of a lifetime, you can do no wrong. Colorado has hundreds of outfitters and fewer than 200 are classified as hunting outfitters. Most will provide hunts for elk and mule deer, which are the two most sought after species. And, there are plenty of outfitters who provide hunts for the rest of our big game species. Go to our Outfitters section, which is your destination to find an outfitter who will meet your hunting needs and prefernces for that hunt of a lifetime. This section also has lots of additional information about Colorado outfitters.
Colorado Hunting: Maps
To hunt in Colorado means one must study maps. Nowadays, with the use of GPS and mapping programs, you can just about find any type of mapping system that fits your needs. Our recommendations: learn to read maps, declination, GPS and compass, longitude (long) and latitude (lat). Don't bother with UTMs because most coordinates are provided via long and lat. However, if you get lost, you may want to know how to easily convert long/lat to UTM because that is the system that some search and rescue teams use.
Maps come in various topographical scales that determine the extent of detail. For example, a typical BLM map is 1:100,000 scale, which basically means that each centimeter on the map equals one kilometer on the ground. For those of us who aren't exactly up with the metric system, one inch on the map would equal 1.58 miles on the ground. Obviously, this scale doesn't provide much detail. The most popular map is the 1:24,000 scale, which is also known as the 7.5 minute series or quadrangle. This scale works out to be 6 2/3 football fields or 667 yards per inch on the map, which means a lot of detail.
Unlike many states, Colorado is laid out in a North-East-South-West grid, which makes it much easier to follow property lines. Since all maps don't show private property, you may need to have more than one map. Original survey markers in Colorado, which are not vastly numerous, were used to provide the theoretical geographical coordinates statewide. So, a good rule of thumb is to assume that coordinates provided by any source are only approximate and you should leave a buffer between you and private property. If you are using a GPS to track your line of travel, please note that each "second" of long or lat is approximately 100 feet on the ground.