While many people dream of wilderness hunts, the realities of the physical and mental hardships involved are not for everyone. For those who are willing to endure the difficulties of the backcountry, the reward of light hunter pressure, incredible scenery, undisturbed animals, and more mature bucks and bulls await. A wilderness hunt is almost never your best bet at harvesting an elk; success rates tend to be much lower than in units with a good road system. Backcountry hunts can be conducted anywhere without a good road network, but most of the places in the west where you can get more than 3 miles (as the crow flies) from a road have been given (imposed?) wilderness designation. To hunters, this means no motorized vehicles, no wheeled vehicles of any sort, no chainsaws, no bicycles, no game carts.
Some truly vast wilderness areas exist in the lower 48, most notably Idaho’s 2.3 million Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Other large wildernesses that approach or exceed one million acres in the lower 48 include Idaho’s Selway-Bitterroot, Montana’s Absoraka-Beartooth and Bob Marshall and Wyoming’s Washakie (“only” 700,000 acres, but borders the 350,000 North Absaroka and Yellowstone National Park) Wilderness Area. Along with the large wilderness areas, most states offer some sort of special early rifle hunting seasons to take advantage of rutting elk, early snowfalls, and difficult game access. One of these days, I’ll do an article on some of these other special hunts.
Colorado does not have any wilderness areas that rival the size of Montana, Wyoming, or Idaho’s wilderness areas, nor does it have much for September rifle elk seasons the way those other states do. But Colorado does have over 3 million acres of wilderness areas that are open to hunting. The earliest rifle elk seasons in Colorado open in early October, but only in special trophy units, and two other exceptions that I’ll get to in a future article. So, the only way to take advantage of elk hunting in Colorado’s wilderness during the usually-mild weather of September is during the primitive weapons seasons. The archery season extends 5 weeks in 2011 from August 27th through September 25th, while the limited muzzleloader (open sights only!) seasn overlaps the middle of archery season from September 10th through 18th. 1st and 2nd rifle seasons in mid to late October will be the first opportunities at elk with centerfire rifles in Colorado. Few people will brave the possibility of severe weather in the backcountry during 3rd or 4th seasons.
I’m not going to dwell on the difficulties involved with wilderness hunting in this article. It’ll have to suffice to say that 4 miles from a road, off of a trail is about as far as most people can hunt in a day and get back home. It may not sound like much, but anything beyond that is going to require backcountry camping. In some of the smaller wilderness areas, 4 miles will allow you to get to the deepest points, in others, it’s just barely scratching the surface. If you’d prefer to truck camp, focus on the smaller wilderness areas so you don’t feel like you’re at a disadvantage. Conversely, if you’re up for backcountry camping, focus on the largest wilderness areas that can’t be effectively hunted by truck campers. What I am going to do here will be part of a multi part series reviewing most of the wilderness areas in Colorado, including some of the unique opportunities that exist in those places.
Let’s start with Colorado’s largest wilderness: The Weminuche Wilderness Area. Nearly half of the unit is in unit 76, which has been managed for quality elk hunting for many years. At 490,000 acres, it is nearly twice as large as Colorado’s next largest wilderness areas and is the only place in Colorado where you can get over 12 miles from a road in all directions. Large portions of units 74, 75, 751, 77 and 78 also fall within the Weminuche Wilderness Area. Those are all OTC archery and 2nd and 3rd season rifle units. Unit 76 had an early October rifle season for the first time in 2010, with hunters notching an 80% success rate on bulls. 76 is also one of the easier to draw trophy units, partly by being overshadowed by the northwest trophy units and Unit 61, and partly due to an undeserved reputation for being “shot out”. Resident archers can draw with just 4 preference points, while nonresidents can draw with 8.
A significant portion of the Weminuche is above timberline; much of it is sheer rock and unsuitable habitat for deer and elk. Elevations extend from just below 8,000 feet along the Animas, Florida, Pinos and Vallecitos Rivers to beyond 14,000 feet on Mount Eolus, Windom Peak and Sunlight Peak. There is a good mix aspens and pines at the middle elevations, changing to spruces and firs at the higher elevations. Numerous large basins exist that can be glassed from above timberline if that’s your style. One of the other unique aspects of the Weminuche Wilderness area is that it has a wilderness only moose hunt that is slightly easier to draw than most other moose licenses. Some very large moose have come out of here in the past, most of whom are over 40” wide. Unit 74 also the highest success rate of any of the early high country mule deer hunts. Lastly, there are mountain goat and bighorn sheep hunts in parts of the Weminuche.
The Flat Tops Wilderness Area is the place nearly every elk hunter has heard of. It is truly a spectacular place, but unfornately, it is also one of the most heavily hunted places in the state. Thankfully, it can withstand that pressure as it boasts the largest elk and mule deer herds in the nation. Here on Biggamehunt.net, we frequently see forum members stating that they are willing to hike further than anyone else in the Flat Tops in order to get themselves into game. It’s sad to say, but you will struggle to truly separate yourself from the crowds. There are just too many outfitters, drop camps, and well equipped hunters for you to find a couple square miles of your own. You can certainly find a little solace in the timber, but every major drainage will have at least a few camps hunting it. That’s just something you’re going to have to put with in order to enjoy the hunting. Lastly, this is not an area where you can expect to kill a mature bull. A handful of older bulls are taken every year, but that is the exception, not the rule.
The Flat Tops Wilderness Area is 235,000 acres, and is just like its name suggests, as there are no real peaks in the classic sense. It is a place where 1,000 foot high cliffs top out in an enormous alpine plateau and over 40,000 elk spend their summers. The White River spills out of these mountains creating a deep canyon along the South Fork, but just a gradual climb along the North Fork and the road to Trappers Lake. While parts of The Flat Tops are as rugged as any place on earth, as a generality, I’d put it on the more gentle side in comparison to most other wilderness areas. There are some difficult canyons that run north and south off of the plateau, but you can avoid them if you’re not up for it. There is very good road access outside of the wilderness area, and one can effectively hunt it on foot.
Unit 24 makes up most of the Flat Tops, but its boundaries extend into parts of units 12, 25, 26, and 231 while just barely missing units 33 and 34, which make up the southern end of the plateau and have enough roadless areas to feel like wilderness. These units are all over the counter for 2nd and 3rd rifle seasons. The OTC archery units are units 25 and 26, 231 and 34. Units 12, 24 and 33 are by limited draw only during archery season. To further confuse things, unit 24 is split north and south of the North Fork of the White River and is combined with the unit 12 tag to the north or the unit 33 tag to the south.
These units had to be limited during archery season, and a mid 1990s study by a former CSU grad student, now current DOW biologist tells why: The DOW was struggling to achieve their desired harvest levels, and rifle hunters were complaining that the archers were running the elk off, while the archers were claiming their hunting methods were less intrusive than rifle hunters and couldn’t possibly be running 40-50,000 elk off the plateau. Through the extensive use of radio collars, it turns out that the ATV usage and tremendous hunting pressure by archers contributed to 40% of the elk on the north side of the plateau quickly running to large, high elevation ranches to escape the pressure. On average, just one encounter with an ATV would cause an elk to run more than times further than a pedestrian encounter. In contrast to the northern portion of the Flat Tops, the more extensive and more rugged public land networks to the south allowed more elk to stay on the public lands, but escape the pressure by dropping off the finger mesas and into the dark timber in the canyons. Less than 20% of the elk would move to private lands in the south.
Anyway, that’s the history of why these particular units are OTC for rifle season, but not for archery season. It also explains why the unit 12 and northern 24 tag is harder to draw than the unit 33 and southern 24 tag, as most hunters just aren’t willing to deal with hunting in the deep, dark canyons, despite the fact that they know that’s where the elk are.
Two other tidbits before we move on…The Flat Tops Wilderness early high country mule deer hunt is not worth your preference points. 3 out of the past 5 years hunters have failed to kill a deer with that license. The bighorn sheep herds in the South Fork Canyon and Glennwood Canyon are struggling. While some older rams exist and some stellar rams were taken last year, the difficulty in drawing the only ram tag in S67 and S74 combined with poor lamb recruitment means you’re probably better off looking elsewhere for the sheep draw.
The Sangre De Cristo Wilderness Area is one of the more difficult wilderness areas to hunt on foot. The vertical changes are intense and there are very few locations where you can use a vehicle to gain the much needed elevation before entering the wilderness. The 226,000 acre wilderness area straddles the OTC elk units of 82 and 86, and is no more than 8 miles wide at the widest point. But in less than four miles, those mountains rise from barely 8,000 feet to over 14,000 feet in some places. Many of the drainages end in steep, nearly vertical rock walls and cirque lakes, but others are more suitable high elevation elk habitat along the spine of the Sangres.
Access is much easier on the 86 side (east side) of the Sangre De Cristos, as it has a better road network. The large refuges (private ranches, farms, and the Great Sand Dunes National Park) that butt up to the wilderness area on the unit 82 side can frustrate those who aren’t willing to hunt the backcountry, but for those who are fit enough to penetrate the Sangres, this is certainly a unit where one can expect to find older bulls.
In addition to the elk hunting, there are two other special opportunities in the Sangre De Cristos that are worth mentioning. There is an excellent early high country mule deer hunt that is just as hard to draw as unit 74’s, but the success rates are usually a little bit lower in the Sangres. Unit S9 for bighorn sheep boasts one of the largest sheep herds in Colorado. It also gives out the most tags and isn’t quite as hard to draw as some of the units along I70. Some excellent rams come out of this area.
There are several other wilderness areas in Colorado that are nearly as large as the ones I’ve just mentioned, and I’ll get into them in future articles. They are not all created equal, and if you’re interested in wilderness hunting, hopefully you’ll be able to find one that suits you and your style.