Colorado is a hunting paradise. The state is home to 10 big game species that are found anywhere from the sprawling plains filled with sagebrush to the lush cottonwood river bottoms to the majestic Rockies. But no species is more popular among hunters than the Rocky Mountain Elk. These big animals are found throughout most of the state, and both resident and nonresident hunters have excellent opportunities to harvest bulls and cows. Colorado elk hunting is some of the best that the West has to offer.

While Colorado offers excellent elk hunting opportunities and access, hunters still have to spend a lot of time planning their trip. This means understanding tag allocation, hunting units, elk habitat, access points, season dates, success rates, and more. I’ve been a Colorado resident my entire life and have had success in many different areas of the state. I’ve also spent years looking over maps, harvest data, and population statistics to give me the best chance at punching tags every year. To this day, I still make sure to comb over newly released information to help my odds in the field.

So, how do you start planning your Colorado elk hunting trip? We put together this guide to help you better understand how to get tags, what seasons to hunt, and how to find elk in the Centennial State. Make sure to also consult the Colorado Division of Wildlife website and other online tools like GoHunt for harvest success rates and other information.

colorado elk hunting
The author with a great bull taken during one of Colorado’s elk rifle seasons. Jace Bauserman

Colorado’s Elk Herd and Tag Allocation

According to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the state’s estimated elk herd count is 280,000 animals. This is the largest population of elk on the planet. The animals are spread across the state from the open prairies to the dense timber in the mountains. Colorado’s elk management plan centers around opportunity. The state offers—for residents and nonresidents—OTC (over-the-counter) licenses for nearly half of the state’s Game Management Units during archery, second rifle, and third rifle seasons. 

These OTC licenses ensure hunters can hit the elk woods every year, and while hunting on OTC tags, they can accumulate preference points in units that offer elk permits on a limited quota, which usually means a better chance at a mature bull. For example, I hunted OTC archery in multiple units for seven years. During that time, I applied for Colorado’s annual big game draw (the deadline for 2024 is April 2) while banking preference points for a coveted archery unit.

Colorado’s preference point system rewards applicants who apply to the annual draw and are unsuccessful with a point. The more points a hunter accumulates, the better their chances of drawing a limited permit. When hunters draw a limited license, their preference point count returns to zero. 

In 2021, my seven preference points were enough to get a limited draw archery tag in my target unit. The hunt was remarkable, and I harvested a respectable bull. Now, I’m back to hunting OTC tags and, once again, building points. License allocations for limited draw tags have changed for 2024. In past years, nonresidents received 35 percent of all limited draw permits. Now, nonresidents only receive 25 percent.

colorado elk hunting archery season
A hunter glasses a nearby ridge during Colorado’s archery elk season. Ryan Chelius

Colorado Elk Hunting Seasons

Colorado’s elk season structure allows hunters to get into the woods with multiple weapons at various times of the year. Colorado has two primitive-weapon seasons—archery and open-sight muzzleloader—and four regular rifle seasons. First and fourth rifle permits are available through the draw, as well as first rifle early bull and private-land only tags. The second and third rifle seasons offer OTC tags. Read your regulations carefully. 

Season dates for 2024 are:

  • Archery: Sept. 2-30
  • Muzzleloader: Sept. 14-22
  • First Rifle: Oct. 12-16
  • Second Rifle: Oct. 26-Nov. 3
  • Third Rifle: Nov. 9-15
  • Fourth Rifle: Nov. 20-24

Colorado Elk Hunting Tips

Though Colorado’s elk herd is managed for opportunity, plenty of draw units offer remarkable trophy potential. Some of the state’s most coveted GMUs include 2, 201, 76, 40, and 61. More information about draw odds, success rates, population estimates, and estimated harvest is available on the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website.

You will also find a hunt planner, interactive public land maps, and more on the website. The more time you spend planning your elk hunt, the better experience you will have. Crowds are an issue when hunting OTC units with archery equipment and during the second and third rifle seasons. Colorado is one of the last remaining states with OTC tags that allow hunters to show up, buy a tag, and hunt even if the season has started. 

If you go the OTC route, I have two recommendations. First, use a top-end scouting app like HuntStand. I like its updated monthly satellite feature, which provides access to updated aerial images. Study your hunt unit and look for areas off the beaten path away from roads with excellent elk habitat. There are a lot of hunters who go deep into the backcountry, which makes finding solitude hard, but not impossible.

Since the get-off-the-beaten-path idea is so popular, I use my HuntStand App and mark 10 to 12 “elky” locations close to roads and trailheads. Over the past couple of years, I’ve killed bulls less than a mile from my truck. How did I do it? I bounced in and out of areas and found pockets of elk that hunters were walking by. Never walk by elk to get to other elk.

colorado elk hunting
The author with a 5×5 bull elk taken in Colorado. Jace Bauserman

Hunt Tip: Colorado has multiple wilderness areas that restrict travel to foot and horseback, eliminating ATV and side-by-side compeition. If you’re in good enough shape, look for these areas. When I decide to go deep, I look at GMUs with a solid elk population and wilderness access.

Five More Colorado Elk Hunting Tips:

  1. Stay mobile
  2. Have multiple close-to-roads/trial areas marked on your map
  3. Use your vehicle, UTV, ATV, etc., to bounce in and out of areas
  4. When you find elk, hunt them
  5. Stay positive. Remember that it only takes a single bull to make a successful trip 

Other Opportunites

Colorado also makes it possible to put more than one elk tag in your pocket yearly. Hunters can possess one List A permit, which includes any OTC either-sex archery or OTC antlered second and third rifle permits. All first-choice draw permits are also List A licenses.

That said, a hunter can get up to two List B tags, which include private land only antlerless licenses, antlerless licenses in specific units (see Colorado Big Game Brochure), and licenses for specific hunt codes. A hunter can also get unlimited List C tags and any A or B licenses. Also see the Colorado Big Game Broucher for all List C licenses.

Set Realistic Goals

Every year, I run into hunters in OTC units who tell me, “I just want to kill a respectable 300-inch bull, nothing too big.” I bite my tongue and then chuckle to myself as I walk away. When hunting OTC units, expect to find lots of four- and five-point bulls. A legal bull in a Colorado OTC unit must have four points on one side or a brow tine at least five inches long. I’ve been a Colorado resident all my life, and when hunting OTC tags, I harvest the first legal bull that gives me an opportunity. If your goal is to kill a 300-inch (or bigger) bull, I suggest you wait until you obtain a limited draw permit. 

Do Your Homework

Last season, I harvested three bull elk in Colorado. It was an epic year, and some luck was involved for sure. However, I credit most of my 2023 elk success to the time I spent reading over Colorado’s Big Game Brochure and studying the informative elk data and statistics the CPW publishes on its website. 

My studies allowed me to find numerous fringe areas where List A, B, and C tags were available and hunting pressure was low. Most of my 2023 elk hunt locales wouldn’t make the state’s weekly elk hot-spot highlight reel. Most were the opposite. I chose units with low elk populations, sub-par bull-to-cow ratios, and horrible success rates. My reason for doing this was simple: I knew I could get away from other hunters, and if I were fortunate enough to find elk, I would have them all to myself. 

Colorado Elk Hunting: Final Thoughts

Colorado is a tremendous elk hunting state. Bulls and cows are plentiful from north to south and east to west. The key is knowing your options and then taking the time to make a 2024 Centennial State elk hunt a reality. Even if you don’t find success on your maiden voyage, the experience gained and new-found knowledge will bring you back year after year. Soon, you’ll find several productive areas that, with a lot of effort and a little luck, will fill your freezer and your wall often.