Trip Report: First Season Elk “Hunt,” if I dare call it that

The elk trails in this valley are so heavily worn that they are visible on satellite imagery. Elk trails do not mean there are elk there, however.

The elk trails in this valley are so heavily worn that they are visible on satellite imagery. Elk trails do not mean there are elk there, however.

I returned to Boulder on Sunday evening, a mere 48 hours after leaving for my long-awaited and much talked about Colorado elk hunt, and still with 3 days left to go in the season.


I’m fine, just emotionally deflated. More on that later. Here, I’ll just recap the events.


On Friday evening Noel and I hiked in 5 miles from Buffalo Peak Trailhead on snow-free trails and camped at 11,000 feet in a cozy spruce grove atop an ancient terminal moraine in Meadow Creek. It snowed an inch overnight, which is ideal: not enough to inhibit our movement, but enough to find and follow fresh tracks. This would be our most reliable tactic for finding elk, since using calls would have limited effect with the fall rut already past.

From inside my Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid, I barely noticed the weather outside. For less than a pound, no other shelter design is as storm-worthy as a mid tarp. Noel’s A-frame did not withstand as well the heavy snow, and he was forced to re-pitch it in the middle of the night.

Day 1

At first light on Saturday morning, we were glassing a secluded valley with such well worn elk trails that they are visible in satellite imagery. While climbing by headlamp from our camp to our lookout spot, we crossed fresh tracks from one elk that must have moved through within a few hours of us. But we saw nothing in this valley by 9 AM, so we jumped a 12,000-foot pass into the larger South Willow Creek drainage.

The middle of the day is generally not fruitful, as the elk are bedded down after gorging themselves all night, but rather than waste the time we contoured the valley’s sub-alpine forests, looking for fresh tracks in the new snow and glassing each spruce patch before moving to the next. Nothing. When we reached the opposite side, we dropped halfway down the valley and contoured back. Same results, nothing.

Noel glasses the sub-alpine terrain in South Willow Creek.

Noel glasses the sub-alpine terrain in South Willow Creek.

I had been optimistic about South Willow Creek, where there is excellent habitat and where I had seen elk last year, including two dead ones taken by another party. While I could not say with complete certainty that there were no elk in the valley this year, it felt empty: we saw old droppings, old tracks in mud and old snow, and old tree raking, but no fresh sign. Elk move — seasonally, weekly, and daily — and it felt like they had moved out.

For an evening play, we considered setting up at the fringe of a sub-alpine meadow, but decided instead to exit South Willow Creek entirely and put ourselves in better position for tomorrow. Based on the lack of recent sign during our thorough scout of the valley, we put the meadow’s odds at very slim to none.

Evidence of elk having been here was abundant: extensive game trails, old droppings, old tracks, and tree raking. But we saw very little sign that they were still here.

Evidence of elk having been here was abundant: extensive game trails, old droppings, old tracks, and tree raking. But we saw very little sign that they were still here.

Day 2

A storm system arrived from the north overnight, ushered in by gusty winds that made us thankful we hadn’t camped amongst beetle-kill pines. The snow arrived as we were having breakfast and coffee above a marshy creek, our morning play. Our patience with the lack of activity eventually ran out, and we began meandering through the woods hoping to intersect fresh tracks before the elk bedded down for the day and the new snowfall covered their tracks.

As the snow piled up and wind howled, we almost laughed at our odds: no elk would be out in this weather. Instead, by now they would be nestled up in thick timber and would emerge again only only after the storm blew through tonight. During a multi-day storm, they would have to feed during it, but this one would be short enough to wait out.

In conditions like these, the odds of an elk wandering about are pretty low.

In conditions like these, the odds of an elk wandering about are pretty low.

Around this time I received word that a simmering issue back home needed to be addressed. I knew it wasn’t resolved when I left on Friday, but I was hoping it wouldn’t disrupt the hunt. Faced with this, and with the impending departure of Noel, who had to return to work on Monday morning, I decided to call it quits, too. We intersected a half-dozen mule deer while hiking back to our cars, but saw no signs of elk.

At least so far, I’m struggling to move beyond this failure and disappointment. There are a few other seasons left still; hopefully one becomes an option.

Posted in on October 14, 2014


  1. Jared on October 14, 2014 at 10:34 am

    I hear ya. My last few days are coming up this weekend. We’ll see if hiking further than anyone else pays off. So many outfitters pushing elk to private land in this part of MT that it will be tough though.

  2. David McCollester on October 14, 2014 at 10:46 am

    Each failure is grist for the mill that is called “life”.
    I can’t count the number of times I have not filled my tags.
    How many times the movie I created in my mind of the successful hero
    standing on a podium, trophy in hand, as crowds cheer.
    It’s a movie that rarely manifests as it was imagined.

    Failure means you have gone beyond your comfort (success) zone and
    THAT is what life is all about. The Elk is not the prize, the hunt is. Each hunt
    building from the last, until that sweet, sweet gift of success.

    Take a moment to step outside of yourself. From where I stand, you are living life fully
    and there’s nothing more the universe could request of you, because it is the pinnacle of
    existence. You are an inspiration and a gift to the world Andy.

  3. Alan Dixon on October 14, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    There’s a good reason it’s called is hunting.
    If you got game consistently it would be called something else.

    David McCollester nailed it. Success is defined by “living life fully.” And part of living life fully is the courage to go beyond your comfort zone. To try new things that one isn’t (yet) as skilled at–to be patient and willing to learn and improve. I have no doubt with your skills and ability you’ll get there.

    • Rob on October 15, 2014 at 11:25 am

      That’s why it’s called hunting. If you filled every tag, they’d call it going to the grocery store. We have had the same experience with deer here in California for the past couple of years. The drought is having an impact on the deer population.

  4. John Tommervik on October 14, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    Looks like you found yourself a new challenge, Andrew!

  5. Jay on October 14, 2014 at 3:20 pm

    Wow! Well said David McCollester. Touching…..

  6. Dave on October 14, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    Don’t sweat it, Andrew. Most of us went through this before as well. You’re not the only one with such humbling experience.

    Most of backcountry elk-hunters have to hump the timber for about 14 days in a row before finding anything. Success-rate is extremely low if one looks at hunting statistics on a man-houly basis.

  7. Luke Schmidt on October 14, 2014 at 8:16 pm

    Andrew have you considered going after mule deer rather then Elk? When I did outdoor education in Colorado Elk sightings were totally weather dependent. Mule deer didn’t move as much and thus were easier to find. Of course it might be easier in your area.
    Its more money but a muzzleloader might be a worthwhile investment for next year, earlier hunting and more options in general.

    • Andrew Skurka on October 16, 2014 at 8:03 am

      Re deer, I probably should consider it, as it’d be another option for me and it’d be a easier for a first harvest. Not sure why I got stuck on elk — Go big or go home, perhaps.

      Re earlier seasons, they are more difficult for me because I’m often backpacking still through September, and that is a higher priority than hunting. The First Rifle season can even be tough for me since I usually return just a few weeks earlier, and my “honey do” and office to-do lists are pretty long.

  8. Jarrett on October 15, 2014 at 11:05 am

    Looks like a rough trip, but you survived. You now have more character and experience. At least, that’s what the Army always told me I gained after a horrible experience.

  9. Pete frederich on October 16, 2014 at 8:34 am

    Don’t give up!

  10. jj on October 16, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    “The test of success is not what you do when you are on top. Success is how high you bounce when you hit the bottom.” – George S. Patton, Jr.

  11. James DuFronzle on November 17, 2015 at 2:48 am

    Nice report and some great photography to boot! Took me a while to see Noel in the second photo – I was too busy being drawn into the scenery. Shame you didn’t bag anything, but there’s always next time…


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