Go west, young man

September 22, 2020

Flash back a little under two years ago, a friend and I were talking about the fact that before we know it, we'll both be turning 50, and we should do something really special.  Vegas? Nah, been there, done that. How about a hunting trip? Sure.... but where, and for the what type of game? Deer hunt? Nah, we do that all the time.  Mule Deer hunt? Maybe. Hey, what about an elk hunt out west somewhere? Perfect idea, lets do it. 

The planning phase

Making the decision to 'go out west somewhere on an elk hunt' is a short statement followed by lots of planning. Elk can be found from New Mexico to Washington and beyond. Each state offering an overwhelming amount of choices for how to hunt to them.  Do we choose a hunt that requires traversing deep into the mountains on horseback and staying at a remote spike camp for a week, or, do we stay at a lodge and take day trips to our hunting locations returning to a lodge every night? No surprise, I wanted nothing to do with any horses. And, we both wanted nothing to do with sleeping on a cot, in a tent, with no shower for a week.  After some online searches of our own, and discussions with a few others that have done similar hunts, we had a better idea of what we were looking for, and ultimately ended up booking at hunt through Worldwide Trophy Adventures, or WTA TAGS. They take a lot of the legwork and guess work out of booking a trip, applying for licenses and tags. Most importantly, they work directly with hundreds of previously-vetted outfitters. Once we finished sifting through their various recommendations, we choose to hunt with Colorado Trophies, in southwestern Colorado. 

The preparation phase

With the planning completed and the trip booked, it was now time get ourselves ready. We both do our best to eat well, and stay in relatively good shape, but an elk hunt would require us to really ramp that up.  Every single website we researched, outfitter we spoke to, or magazine article we read all stated one thing as the most important factor in having a successful and enjoyable elk hunt - be in the best shape of your life.  We had one year to do so. We joked about being 'elk-ready' and in 'elk-shape' for while. However, as the date got closer, the joking ended and our commitment level increased. By the time we flew out to Colorado, we hadn't missed a single day in the gym or working out in some way for over 6 months, and we'd collectively lost 32lbs. We agreed that we were about as ready as we can be. The one thing we couldn't directly train for would be the altitude, but we had a plan for that, too.

The day finally arrives

What once seemed like a date in the far off distance, was all of sudden upon us. After a few anxious days wondering whether our pre-shipped gear would arrive on time, we received the confirmation that our boxes were safely delivered and waiting for us at the lodge.  The only thing left to do was to wake up early on Sept 9th, and get on the plane. We would be flying direct to Denver, and then driving straight to Vail. This had everything to do with getting acclimated to altitude and nothing at all to do with Vail Oktoberfest 2018. This is the only picture from Oktoberfest that needs to be shared.  Me... and a bratwurst sandwich.

Now, back to getting altitude acclimated. The following morning, we headed to the ski mountain to get in a quick 3 mile hike to see how this whole altitude thing really felt while hiking. I noticed it almost immediately upon ascending up the trail, and several times throughout the hike.  I was VERY tired, quickly. Obviously this had everything to do with altitude and nothing at all to do with a mis-remembered amount of German beers from the night before.  The scenery on this hike would only begin to prepare us for what we were in store for this week, but it was absolutely beautiful.  If the drive on Route 70 from the airport to Vail didn't convince us, this short hike surely did, we definitely were no longer in Massachusetts.

That image above represents the first ever mule deer (doe, and fawn just to the right) that either of us had ever seen before. A great way to end our time in Vail, and head off to hunting camp.  We returned to the car, and started the most amazing and scenic 4-1/2 hour drive I've ever taken. Our views through the Glenwood Canyon portion of Route 70 would be the highlight of the drive.  We arrived at camp late in the afternoon on Monday. Colorado Trophies hosts hunters at Wing Shadow Ranch, in Norwood, CO.

These photos below represents the view you get from the backside of this awesome log cabin lodge. Mountains in every direction.  And each and every morning, and dusk, those grasslands are full of mule deer. 

We spent the first few hours getting to know the other hunters, guides, chefs and hosts in camp, and getting our gear and belongings settled into our room. A short time later, we went through an informative orientation session on not only the lodge itself, but most importantly - elk hunting. Just about every hunter in camp (seven of us) had never hunted elk before.  Once orientation was over, it was time for dinner. This would be our first, and certainly not last, taste of what chef Jeff was going to provide us this week.  Our first night's dinner would be perfectly prepared filet, with creme brulee for dessert.  It sure seemed like a huge meal so late at night, and so different from basically eating like a bird for months in preparation for the trip.  Little did we know how much we'd need every single one of those calories. Our guide Jim instructed us that we would be going on an all day hunt the next day to a place known as Little Cone.  About an hour drive from the lodge.  We would be up early for breakfast and need to be out the door around 4:45am.

Day one: 'Little Cone'

There would be four of us on this day. Myself, my buddy, our guide Jim, and apprentice guide Michael. We arrived at 'Little Cone' (a mountain peak in this general area) in the dark, got our gear on, and our guide said "You guys ready? Let's go." For the next two miles, we walked with headlamps on down an old dirt road at a pace that was just shy of jogging.  Oh, and we were already at about 9000ft above sea level to begin. At the end of the 2-mile jaunt, we entered the woods, and started UP. With early sunlight now replacing the light from our headlamps, our guide let out the first bugle of the morning.  And then we heard it, about 30 seconds later, a bull elk answered back.  Very far away, but it was an answer, and the first elk bugle either of us had ever heard.  I wish I got a picture of our wide eyes and the excited looks on our faces at the sound of that bugle.  With the sun now just above the horizon, and our hunting party trying to close the distance with that bull, we entered a huge hillside meadow.  About half way up the meadow, we stopped so Jim could once again bugle to the elk off in the distance. I was lucky enough to time this moment just right by getting into position for a picture with the great view in the background. It was one of the first pictures I took on the hunt, and remains one of my favorites.

As if that view wasn't stunning enough, it looked like this when I turned around and looked behind me.

We would hear that elk, and a few others, on this day with only a quick sighting of some cows (female elk). Here's an image that will give you a sense of the terrain and how steep it really can be. Notice how everyone is walking on their toes.

What we learned about elk hunting is that you typically do not hunt them much in the middle of the day.  The winds are too unpredictable, and the elk are generally less responsive. The risk of scaring them out of the area due to swirling scent far exceeds the chance of getting one to answer and come to your calling.  So, what do you do when you're about 7 miles from the truck around 11am....

Yep!  Hammock time!  After we all sat together and ate some amazing sandwiches prepared for us that morning at the lodge, we each set up a hammock in the woods and caught up on some much needed sleep and some much needed rest for weary legs and feet!

My buddy quickly got the hang of it...

This day would end, in the dark, back on that 2-mile long slog on the dirt road back to the truck.  In total, we would hike/hunt 14-3/4 miles and arrive back at the lodge close to 10pm.  Just enough time to eat dinner, shower, get to bed and do it all over again the next morning. Here's a few more views from our first day hunting in Colorado.

Day two: Morning hunt, 'Craven Creek'

On our second morning, we ventured to a new location referred to as 'Craven Creek'. On this day we would once again be hunting with our assigned guide, Jim, and we would have another apprentice guide with us today - Josh. This location was a fantastic mix of dark woods, many grassy meadows and lots and lots of what Colorado elk country is know for, beautiful aspen trees. 

Whether it was aspen trees, pines, dark timber or meadows, this location really did have it all. 

Here's a great picture Josh captured as we made our way through another meadow early on that morning.

We saw a cow and calf elk early on this day, that responded to some of Jim's cow calls, but no bulls.  We went back to the truck and made our way to the cabin for another fantastic prepared lunch, and then headed out to our next hunting location.

Day two: Afternoon hunt, 'Hamilton Mesa'

I learned a lot on this trip.  For starters, I learned what a mesa is. And Hamilton Mesa was exactly as it was described to me.  A steep rise in the land with a generally flat top to it.  Here's a few from our vantage point on the mesa.  We spent a few hours glassing with our binoculars into the oak brush and aspen groves in the valley below.

Yes, those little black things in the bottom of the first photo are all cows.  Correction, cattle. All cows are cattle, but not all cattle are cows.  Like I said, I learned a lot on this trip.  We didn't see any elk at this location, but right at dusk, we did spot this big guy headed our way...

As we did each day we hunted, we hunted hard from dark to dark.  That means staying out hunting until it's dark, then starting our hike back to the truck.  This makes for many long hikes back in the dark, but it also makes for witnessing some of the most amazing sunsets I've ever watched.  On this evening, we could see the LaSal mountain range, in Utah, from our perch high on the mesa.

Day three: Morning hunt 'Groundhog Mountain'

On our third day, we would head to another new location, known as 'Groundhog Mountain'. These were big woods! Similar to our first location, but without any large expanses of aspens and open meadows, and far more dark, old timber mixed with smaller, protected grassy meadow areas.  We really took a liking to this spot. These woods also hold our record altitude for the week at 11,263 feet above sea level. We did hear a few bulls bugle back to us on this morning, again really far away, but as before, really exciting to hear!  We liked these woods, we liked the seclusion of this area, and we liked the potential to see a good elk here. About half way through our hunt, we did run into a few cows, a calf and a spike bull elk (too small to be legally taken).  This only added to how much we really did enjoy this particular spot.  As with every spot we went to on this trip, the scenery did not disappoint. 

As always, we arrived here in dark.  Our guide told us that the views on the drive in were some of the best in the area, and he was right.  Here's a few pictures I took on the drive back to the lodge for lunch that day.

Day three: Afternoon hunt, 'Cow Pasture'

As you can imagine, we were pretty tired and worn out by now. We had hiked and hunted over 32 miles by this point in the trip.  Many of those miles at about 10,000 feet. The elevation was definitely a factor for us. You would feel pressure in your chest, shortness of breath and it just seemed impossible to catch your breath a lot of times. Not too mention, 32 miles on our feet, with gear and packs, and mostly over difficult, rugged terrain.  The Cow Pasture location was about to add to this exhaustion.  During our morning hunt at Groundhog Mountain, the temps were in the 30's, and we had frost on some of the grasses.  When we began our ascent to the specific section of aspens we'd be hunting this afternoon, it was in the upper 80's.  We started the initial hike in t-shirts and sunglasses across slightly under four miles of, you guessed it, a cow pasture.

That tiny patch of woods at the very top middle of the picture above would be where we would begin the hunt.  The views behind us, really do look fake in pictures and even in person.

In order to get to that tiny patch of trees in the first image, we would first need to navigate up those hills and through many herds of free-range cattle. It's one thing to run into these things in the daylight, quite another to be dodging them when we would hike out in the dark at the end of a hunt.  

Once we made it to that distant patch of trees, it was nothing but aspens as far as you could see.

We did see a few mule deer in this location, but no elk. Now, about those sore feet and legs. This would 'only' be about a 6 mile hunt on this afternoon. However, the final 3 miles were severely downhill, and in the dark and through some extremely uneven terrain. Needless to say, this hike would take it's toll on us the next morning. Prior to realizing the true pain though, we were once again treated to another amazing sunset on the walk back to the truck. That super tiny white spec in the middle of the picture below, is the truck.

Day four: Back to Groundhog Mountain

It had been a slow week in camp for everyone, and especially for us.  We hadn't seen many elk, yet we'd certainly put the miles in.  We decided to go back to a spot that we not only enjoyed being in, but we did see four elk at and had a few bugle to us the day prior. This time, it would be another all day hunt, and yes, you guessed it, that means pack the sandwiches and hammocks!  We didn't run into any more elk on this day. To be honest, as much as I claimed to really not care if I got an elk on this trip or not, after the first day, it really became a secondary priority of mine.  I still hunted hard, hiked far and really high, but the scenery, the physical challenge of the hunt, the physical challenge of the terrain, getting to know our guide and the other guys in camp that week quickly all took over as most important. Here's a few more pictures from this beautiful location.

This log, is not a log... this is a picnic bench in the woods. This would be our lunch spot, very close to wear the hammocks would be set up on this day.

Day five: Final day of the hunt, 'Goat Creek', here we come

Much like our strategy at Hamilton Mesa, our initial strategy at this location would be to wait for the sun to come up and glass into the valleys from an elevated position.  The best parts about this spot, it was really close to the lodge which meant we could 'sleep in', and the walk from the truck to our perch, was only about a 5 minute walk!  Once the sun came up, the views were amazing!

We didn't see any elk from here, so we headed down into the valleys and up a few of the hills in search of them. A great view from this morning...
That mountain in the background is Lone Cone, and that side of the mountain that appears to have slid off is known as The Devils Chair. Here's a close up.
Also in this location, we came across an old sheep herders cabin and possible his old Ford.
I didn't get an elk on this trip, I only had one semi-close encounter on the final day, and I could honestly care less.  This was the hardest thing I've ever done. Our final total for the 5 days of hunting would be just over 60 miles. About 50 of which were either straight up or straight down. The teamwork and camaraderie developed in camp over the course of the week, the amazing meals, the scenery, watching our guide work his butt off for us, while simultaneously making it extremely enjoyable all combined to truly make this the trip of a lifetime. Colorado, I will be back.


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