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Assessment: Morapos Trailhead, Colorado GMU 12 || Elk & deer hunting

I haven’t yet seen a trophy bull in Morapos Creek, but the area is nonetheless productive: more elk are harvested in GMU 12 than any other unit in the state.

Morapos Creek is a popular and productive hunting area for big game, notably elk and deer. It’s located in northwestern Colorado and encompassed by GMU 12. To the south of Morapos Creek is Milk Creek; to its north, Deer Creek; and to its east, the South Fork of the Williams Fork of the Yampa River.

Morapos Creek flows into the main Williams Fork about 15 minutes south-southeast of Craig, Colo., the nearest full-service city. Its upper watershed is 8,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level, and managed by White River National Forest as public land; privately owned ranches surround its lower reaches.

For topographic maps of Morapos, I use Caltopo and GaiaGPS.

Personal experience

For two consecutive Third Seasons, my friends and I have backpack hunted in upper Morapos Creek. We were successful in 2017, but came up short this year. The information provided here is based on these experiences, plus additional insights gleaned from other hunters.

Several outfitters operate in the area, and some private parties have been hunting there for many years. Without question, they know more about Morapos than I do. But let me know if you find one willing to divulge their honey holes. I won’t divulge everything I know either, but I’ll try to at least give you a sense for the place.

Glassing north into upper Morapos Creek and towards Baldy Mountain. Notice the mix of vegetation: meadows, waist-high brush and scrub oak, open aspens, and dark spruce.

Wildlife numbers and behavior

The estimated population of the White River elk herd is 42,000 (making it the largest elk herd in the world, BTW). Morapos Creek is the northern edge of its summer range, which extends south into the Flattops Wilderness. For population numbers and habitat maps, consult the CPW Northwest Hunt Guide and the Colorado Hunting Atlas,

Morapos hosts both local and migratory elk. The local herd is punished during First Season (during which the success rate is 30+ percent), and by later seasons seems to have taken refuge in less accessible zones or downhill on private land. I have not personally witnessed migrating elk in Morapos, which could be explained by the relatively warm and dry conditions in recent years — they won’t start moving until their food is covered in heavy snow.

Mule deer seem scattered throughout upper Morapos Creek, and are in exceptional numbers on the private ranch lands at lower elevations. Does greatly outnumber bucks.

Mule deer concentrate on the private ranch lands in lower Morapos Creek. Each time that I have driven to or from Morapos Trailhead, I have seen hundreds of deer.

Pressure

For at least three consecutive years — 2015 through 2017 — GMU 12 has been the most productive elk unit in the state, with an average gross harvest of about 1,500 animals per year across all seasons.

But it also attracts the most hunters, normally exceeding 5,000 in number. In 2017, we felt like there were few other hunters around, at least more than about a mile from the trailhead. But in 2018, we felt like we were bumping (and being bumped) at every turn.

I’m uncertain how the pressure in Morapos compares with other parts of GMU 12, about half of which is public land.

With a horse or exceptional fitness, it’s possible to find low-pressure or no-pressure zones out of Morapos. They’ll be at least three or four miles from the trailhead (plus/minus depending on the weather and snow cover) in a northeast through southwest clockwise direction.

Hunting zones

Good game habitat is found throughout Morapos. At lower elevations, it’s open ranch land, or sagebrush and scrub oak. At higher elevations, it’s mostly open aspen groves and meadows, with scrub oak on some south-facing aspects and thick spruce on high and shaded slopes.

From the upper and lower trailheads, four general hunting areas can be accessed. In general, it’s best to stay inside the Morapos Creek watershed. If you start hunting in Routt National Forest or in Milk Creek, immediately it becomes a bigger effort to haul anything out.

1. Wilson Mesa is the the least accessible zone — hunting does not start until after hiking at least three miles and climbing 1,500 vertical feet. If I were an elk, I would hide out in the drainages to the east and north of the mesa. It’s a big effort to get up here, but the rewards are likely bigger, too.

2. Uppermost Morapos Creek is fed by small draws that flow from Wilson Mesa and Baldy Mountain, none of which are easily accessible. The dark timber north of Baldy seems to hold small groups. If you’re feeling ambitious, upper Pine Creek is within reach via the Wymore Lake Trail.

3. The basin between Baldy Mountain and Horse Ridge can be effectively glassed from atop Baldy Mountain — it’s a mix of open meadows, open aspens, and thick timber. Steve and I shot our 4-point in this area, but it was the only time I’ve seen elk in it. I bet it’s more fruitful in earlier seasons.

4. Iles Mountain and Konopik Reservoir is the westernmost area that is best accessed from Morapos Trailhead. It’s an easy walk from the trailhead and seems to get an according amount of pressure. In 2018 hunters were reporting very little activity during Third Season in this area.

Glassing from Baldy Mountain, purposely tucked into the trees for some defense against a blustery southwest wind.

Trails, conditions, and weather

By Third Season, the trails are muddy and (especially near the trailheads) badly rutted by horses. The ruts probably get worse with each hunting season. The mud probably starts after cold and wet weather arrives.

Off-trail travel is generally easy, except on slopes covered in scrub oak.

In 2017 and 2018, snow was already covering north-facing aspects and higher elevations at the start of Third Season. Lower and open slopes were snow-free. In both years it snowed on opening weekend at all elevations.

The dirt road leading to Morapos Trailhead can become very slick after heavy snowstorms, specifically the pitch between Pt 7778 and 8113 — it’s aggressively angled and slow to melt out (because it’s north-facing and shaded. 4WD with good tires, or 2WD with chains can become necessary.

Many of the trails are old ranching roads or stock trails. They are wide, but unsigned and unmaintained. In later seasons they become very muddy and rutted.

Questions about or have an experience with Morapos Creek? Leave a comment.

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