This year I hunted outside of New Mexico for the first time. After the hunt while traveling for work I spent the 4 hour flight writing a detailed account of my hunt. Its been 14 years since I was last drawn for an elk hunt, and this hunt made me realize my elk hunting skills need work, which is why I wrote everything I could down. I only saw one elk, but I still had a great time enjoying gods creation.
It's long, boring, poorly written and full of typos so read at your own risk.
Thursday October 20th. I called the forest service office to ask about snow depth at higher elevations and road closures. The administrative roads remained closed and snow depth above 10,000 feet was between 12-24 inches. The ranger also volunteered to me that there were very few elk in the area. They had gone up to the second meadows area to check on an outfitter for the first rifle season and although the elk were bugling the day before opening day they disappeared. I had been thinking of going to another unit but decided I give unit 81 a chance since I had scouted the area. So after talking with some friends and family I decided to see how it went for 2 days then drive to unit 70, which has the highest success rate of any OTC unit any nearby.
Friday, Oct 21st. Drove from Albuquerque to unit 81, arrived at the Ruybalid trailhead around 10am. Looking up at the high country there did not seem to be much snow so I decided to use some old hiking boots instead of my snow boot since they were lighter. About 15 minutes up the trail I realized I had forgotten some things and turned back. Since I had lost some time already I decided to take some pictures. It was 11am before I was on my way up the mountain to the plateau. I have gotten used to stopping and looking around while hunting and was doing this up the mountain. Basically anytime I would start to breathe hard or sweat I would stop, rest and look around. This of course slowed my rate of ascent to the plateau. I never weighed my pack but my guess is around 50-60 lbs. Three outfitters passed me on the way up. The first was alone and was riding his horse while reading a book with 3 other horses in tow. He was a little startled when I greeted him. He told me he would have 3 hunters in the area but they would not camp up top but would rather ride up the days they would hunt there. Two other outfitters with hunter passed me on the way up but only greetings were exchanged. The last group had a boy leading the way (around 11 years old was my guess).
I had estimated it would take me 3 hours to reach the top of the plateau (conservatively I thought), the reality is it took me 4 ½ hours, partly because I keep stopping. As I topped the plateau I rested and gathered my bearing. I was then greeted by a hunter name John who was camped nearby in a patch of trees and had seen me come up the trail. We talked for a while, he had come up the day before and was waiting for a friend who would come up opening day. They planned to hunt the east side of the plateau but had not seen much sign. I wanted to hunt the west side so I was not that discouraged yet. Since I was tired I knew I would have a hard time making it to where I wanted to camp (Victoria Lake) before nightfall, but I was going to try. I passed the camp of the first outfitter I waved but he was busy setting things up for his hunters, they even had an outhouse. The other two outfitter took a southern trail so at least there would not be anyone camping where I wanted to camp. I walked slowly and I reached a lake called Alverjones Lake. Since it was getting dark I decided to find a place to set up camp. I crossed a small stream which would be a good water source. So I found a flat spot overlooking the meadow about a 100 yards from the stream and set up camp. I gathered some firewood and pitched the tent. I started a fire and planned the next day’s hunt. That night was cold but not unbearable.
Saturday Oct. 22nd, (Opening day). I had set the alarm on my cell phone for 5:15pm instead of 5:15am. So I woke up around 30 minutes late. This meant I would not get to the hill I wanted to spot from before daybreak. I started walking west (without a pack), since I was going to be late I decided to check the timber for sign. This is when I realized I did not have my tag with me, I unchambered my round. I was hoping I had not left it in the jeep. I decide to press in the hopes I could get an idea of where the elk were for rest of the hunt. Unfortunately the snow in the dark timber was much deeper than I had anticipated and walking was very slow and noisy, what was worse is that there was no elk sign. I got to the area around Victoria Lake and decide to check the area around the timber for evidence that elk were using the meadow and bedding in the timber. Again there was none. I went up the hill I had identified on Google earth and went only about half way up since it was late. I glassed the timber and the snow leading up to the timber looking for tracks leading into the timber or perhaps even an elk at the edge. No luck. I started walking back to camp in the hopes I left my tag in my pack. I could not find my tag in my pack and was worried I would need to walk back to the jeep. I was out of water so I collected some from the stream and boiled 2 quarts. I had started to collect my gear to hike down to my brother’s jeep cherokee which I had borrowed for the trip, when I saw my tag in it’s florescent orange holder on the floor of my tent. What a relief. Since I was going to stay longer I needed more water and to collect more firewood. So I boiled another 2 quarts and collected enough firewood for the next 2 nights.
Afterwards I started to the northeast from my spike camp. Almost immediately I saw another hunter, we talked for a while. He was from, Tennessee and had hunted the area the year before, during the archery season. He had hiked up for the day since his brother who was with him could not make it up the hill. He told me it took him 2 ½ hours to get up the hill, which made me feel real old since he did not look to be in great shape, of course he did not have a pack on. I heard the same report from him as the hunter the day before, which he had run into earlier, very little sign of elk. I left on my way to find elk. I hunted with the wind to my face, and although the snow was not as deep as it was on the west side of the plateau, it was crunchy and noisy. I found only old tracks and no fresh droppings . About half the tracks I found were accompanied by boot tracks, undoubtedly from hunter from the first rifle season. I traveled north until I reach the north end of the plateau near no-name lake (yes that is the actually name of the lake on the map). I hunted until it got dark and headed back to camp. Using my GPS as my guide I started my way back to my tent. My GPS is sensitive so sometime when I was traveling in the right direction it would tell me camp was the other direction, then the arrows would flip back. I pulled out my backup compass and made sure I was traveling due south most of the time. I was relying a lot on technology, since if either my headlamp or GPS failed to function I would have a real hard time finding my way out of the thick timber and deadfall.
I got to my tent around 8:30pm and started a fire. Drying my socks and hiking boots on the fire resulted in burning one pair of socks and a hole in the other. I still had one more pair in the pack. That night seemed much colder that the first. I do not know if it was because I was coming down with something or just that I keep putting my arms outside the sleeping bag or maybe it was just significantly colder, but every hour or so I would wake shivering and coughing up phlegm. I would fluff up the bag and go back to sleep.
Sunday, Oct, 23rd. I woke up late (just before sunrise as would be the norm of the trip) and started off to the northwest and hunted until around 11am. Again there was very little sign of elk to be found, and what little I found was old and accompanied by boot tracks a lot of the time. I did find a cattle calf eaten by predators with the ear tag still in place. The tracks were old and deformed so I could not tell what had eaten the calf. It was most probably a cougar but on the trail head I noticed some of those who signed in were investigating some wolf sightings.
After getting back to camp around 12:30pm I decided to try another unit. The nearest reasonable unit in Colorado with a high success rate was 4 hours away (unit 70). So I packed up camp on my back and headed back to the jeep. On the way back I must have made a wrong turn because I was going down a canyon I did not recognize. There I found another calf that had been eaten my predators. Using my GPS I cut across some timber found the trail and got to the edge of the plateau. The trip from the top of the plateau to the bottom took me 2 ½ hours since it was downhill and I was stopping less. I got the jeep about 4:30PM and decided to try to find a place to hunt that evening and then drive at night. I noticed that my straps on my pack where coming unstitched at the seams, so if I would have gotten an elk up there I would have had an even harder time getting the meat down.
I started driving down forest road 250, looking for a place to hunt that evening. Every place I thought might be promising had trucks and/or horse trailers parked there. I would stop every now and then and glass the area for elk. I finally decided to make my way to highway 160 near Pagosa springs, which was about 30 mile away down a gravel road. Although most of the snow had melted there was a patch of snow near a place called Summitville that was very deep. When I first tried to drive across the patch of snow I had moved a little right of the road and bottomed out on the snow. I backed out and tried again right up the middle. I was confident I could make it since there were tracks in the snow already. I drove about 50 yards and bottomed out again. This time I could not back out. I was worried I’d be stuck there for a while. I got out of the of my brother’s jeep cherokee and noticed that the left side wheels where off the ground spinning and the middle was bottomed out on the snow. On further inspection the tracks ahead of me on the show seemed to be ATV tracks. Noting that my right side wheels where on the ground I figured if I turn the steering wheel to the left I might be able to back out. It worked. I drove back looking for another route. I finally stopped to look at the map on my laptop to find the other route I had seen earlier but I had not download that map and had no internet access. A local stopped to check on me and informed me that if I could not make it over Summitville I would have to drive all the way to Chama, New Mexico and drive northwest to highway 160. This took me an extra 2 hours.
I drove to unit 70 and looked for the trail head I had seen on my map. I could not find it and finally just parked and slept in the jeep.
Monday, Oct. 24th. The next morning I started looking for the trailhead and still could not find it. It seems the road on my map had been closed. Finally I gave up and drove to Lizard head pass off highway 145. This trailhead did not have any cars or trailers parked there, although the where some recent horse tracks on the trail. When I reached the top of the hill on lizard head trail, I decided to get off the trial since on the map it seemed it would be easy to reach Wilson meadow where I wanted to go. I hunted a drainage where I found a fair amount of sign which was at most a few days old. I came across a huge meadow a 1000 feet down which I at first assumed was Wilson meadow. I started glassing the edge of the meadow and saw some developed dirt roads. I walked some more and could see old buildings at the end of the meadow. This could not be Wilson meadow since it was wilderness, maybe it had been a mining camp before it became wilderness? In any case, if elk where to come out that evening in the meadow, getting them out would be a very difficult so I did not wait for evening. (This may be a good spot at a future date with more time, or horses).
On the way back I found the trail and realized it could not have been Wilson meadow. I made it to the jeep with about 45 minutes of legal shooting light. There was a guy with a couple of dogs parked at the trailhead, we talked a minute and I got in the jeep and crossed the highway to hunt some national forest on the other side. When I got the other side the oil light on the jeep came on before I had a chance to hunt. I checked the oil and drove to the where I had parked on the trailhead to see if there was oil on the ground. There was no oil on the ground so it seems the jeep is burning oil and not leaking it. The guy with the dogs was just about to leave when I asked if he by chance had a quart of oil. It gave him 5 bucks for the quart to make me feel better, although he offered it for free.
That night I drove to a section of national forest the other side of Telluride and Delta Colorado. I drove through the access roads to get up to a road called last dollar. I drove in the dark to a trailhead leading to the Mount Sneffles wilderness area, the trail was called whipple trail. I notice on the way up in the dark there was a lot of open area and aspens so I figure I could walk the trail and glass the area.
Tuesday, October 25th. As I started up the trail at daybreak it started to snow and the fog started rolling in. Needless to say glassing was not going to be productive. So about half-way into the trail I turned around and walked back to the jeep. Right where I turned around there was some woman clothes scattered around, I wonder what the story was there?
I got back to the jeep and drove further up the mountain. I got off the road and started walking, after a while I found a campsite that was recently abandoned with a fair amount of firewood that was left behind. Then a little farther up some other hunter were abandoning their camp. I did not get to talk to them since they seemed in a hurry. It was snowing and driving up I could not pick up any radio stations with weather reports I started to worry. I walked for about an hour more and headed back to the jeep. I decided I should be on the other side of lizard head pass if the snow got bad. I drove trying to get a weather report until I got to a town the other side of the pass called Rico. The guy at the gas station told me there was only going to be around 4 inches of snow. He also told me about a place in unit 71 called scotch creek which was good for elk, so I went there to hunt that evening.
I drove and picked a spot up a good size hill. I found some game trails with sign a couple of days old. I walked up to a saddle on the hill above a drainage and waited with the hope some elk would use that trial that evening. No luck, so I made my way back to the jeep.
I decide to go back to unit 70 since the gas station forecast was mild. As I came to Lizard Head pass the snow started coming down really hard and I could not see too far ahead of the jeep. So much for the weather forecast the gas station guy gave me. Although I was sure the pass would stay open I was worried I would not be able to make it up the access road (I still had the incident at Summitville in the back of my mind (what a wuss). I decide to turn around, but could not decide where to hunt. I was not that impressed with scotch creek, so I decide to try some of the national forest between Durango and Pagosa Springs. I finally picked an access road but must have passed the turnoff, since I never made it to the national forest before I was on another state highway. I just drove to Pagosa Springs and drove north from there on a road named la piedra road. I got to a trailhead where 5 large horse trailers were parked. I got to sleep around 12:30 am.
Wendesday October 24th (last day of the hunt). I got up and drove up the road a bit. It started snowing and I figured if there were elk in the area I could see the tracks if they crossed the road. Every now and then I would stop and get out to look for fresh track. After a while I did spot the body of and elk. I stopped a little ways down the road, loaded my gun, put on warm clothes and my hunting vest. I started for the spot I saw the elk hoping I could follow it’s tracks figuring all the time and noise I made getting ready would have spooked it. When I got to the clump of tree near where I saw the elk I heard a lot of noise and the animal running off. Unfortunately there was not enough snow there to track the elk. I walked around trying to figure out which direction it might have gone, but no luck. This was the only elk I saw and I never saw whether it was a bull or cow.
I was down to my final afternoon and since this hunt had turned into a scouting trip I decided to go back to the unit I started in (at this point there was not good reason except the hope that if I went to the area I scouted with my sons this summer I would get lucky). My brother-in-law camps in unit 81, right around the state-line. He gave me a general description of the road they use which crisscrosses the state-line back and forth. I was hoping I might catch a straggler elk trying to cross into New Mexico. I found a road, but the snow made it impossible to get to the desired area. I drove back to the highway and decided to try an area that was suggested to me as a plan B (Red Lake). I drove up to the trail head looking to elk track as I drove up. I got out and walked a little ways in the deep snow again looking to tracks, no luck. Finally I decided to go up to the main area where my boys and I had scouted. I drove until I reached a sign saying the road was closed. Given the experience with deep snow and the jeep I decide not to proceed. I turned around and drove to a road I had seen earlier that seemed to go to Carson National Forest in New Mexico. I got to the state line and walked on the Colorado side glassing the open areas in hopes of finding that one elk who had not crossed the state-line yet. Legal shooting light ended and my hunt was over for this year.