First, start with this checklist:
- We offer a variety licenses. See the big game license options and the drawing process page to familiarize yourself with the process before proceeding with the next steps.
- First, decide which big game species you intend to hunt: Elk, deer, bear, pronghorn and/or moose. This will help you focus on which area to pick and when to hunt because season dates differ for each.
- Then decide when to hunt using the Colorado Big Game Hunting Planner and the method of take to use: archery, muzzleloader or rifle.
- Select your hunt location. We refer to hunt locations as game management units (GMU's). GMU's divide up the entire state. Some GMU’s have special regulations that are explained in the Big Game brochure. Public lands are abundant in Colorado and include, the United States Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Colorado State Trust Lands and State Wildlife Areas (SWA). Terrain and access vary, so you’ll need to check with the local CPW or public lands office for details. Also see the Colorado Hunting Atlas for Colorado public lands locations. The Big Game Access Program in southeast Colorado allows hunters access to private land, mainly for pronghorn hunting. To access private land you need to have permission from the landowner to access the land.
- Research the preference points needed to apply for limited licenses before the early April application deadline each year. Preference points are explained a few sections below.
- Consider buying an Over-the-Counter, Over-the-Counter with Caps or Leftover Limited licenses which do not require an application. Colorado is the only state that offers an unlimited quantity of over-the-counter (OTC) elk licenses for two rifle seasons. These licenses cover about 50 percent of the Colorado GMU's and don't limit your hunt to one unit. They are a great "general" license option and don't require preference points. They can also be purchased until the night before the season starts. The list of OTC licenses available are on the maps printed in the Big Game brochure and go on sale with the Limited licenses in early August each year.
We want your Colorado hunting experience to be as successful and enjoyable as possible. If you have any questions concerning applications, regulations or finding a place to hunt, please call one of our Hunt Planners at 303-297-1192.
More in-depth steps to finding the right GMU
- Examine past success rates for elk and other big game species on our harvest statistics page.
- View historic big game migration movements on the Colorado Hunting Atlas.
Season Advantages and Methods of Take Explained
- The archery season typically runs from the last weekend in August each year to the last weekend in September.
- Weather tends to be milder.
- Elk rut during this month-long season.
- Either-sex deer and elk draw licenses are available.
- Over-the-counter for both either-sex elk and pronghorn licenses are available.
Muzzleloader (check brochure for firearm-type restrictions)
- Typically one week each year in the middle of September.
- All licenses are limited by draw.
- Great time to be in Colorado’s back country!
- Typically overlaps with the rut.
Rifle (Four Seasons)
- First season is restricted to elk only and all licenses are limited licenses.
- Typically takes place early to mid-October.
- Generally fewer hunters in the field.
- Elk hunters are not sharing the backcountry with deer hunters.
- Second season, typically in mid- to late-October, has elk and deer draw, and over-the-counter elk licenses available.
- Third season, typically scheduled for early November, has elk and deer draw, and over-the-counter elk licenses available.
- The cold weather and snow begins to move animals to lower elevations.
- Fourth season is limited to elk and deer draw licenses and takes place in mid-November.
- Typically colder weather and snow forces animals to start moving, making them more accessible.
Game Management Units (GMU's) Explained
GMU's are very important for hunting in Colorado. They are the areas you choose to hunt. The GMU map (11MB)
can be found in the back of the big game brochure. But, what exactly is a game management unit?
- Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) biologists have divided Colorado into Data Analysis Units, or DAU's, for the purpose of managing wildlife populations. Each DAU represents an area that a herd will utilize throughout the year. DAU's consist of one or more Game Management Units.
- GMU's are used to manage hunter distribution by setting the number of licenses, and type, that will be made available for sale. Each GMU has a set number of licenses available per season. These are called limited licenses. When applying for a limited license, a GMU or unit must be selected, along with the species, sex, method of take to be used, and season choice.
- Most western Colorado GMU's also have unlimited over-the-counter (OTC) bull elk licenses available for the 2nd and 3rd rifle seasons. A specific GMU selection is not required when an OTC license is purchased.
- Approximately two-thirds of the GMUs offer either-sex and cow elk OTC archery licenses, and either-sex pronghorn OTC archery licenses. OTC licenses go on sale in early August each year.
- The downloadable GMU map does not include topographic information. Be sure to obtain a good topo map of the area where you'll be hunting to determine specific boundaries.
Preference Points for Limited Licenses Explained
Preference points are important because they play a major role in winning limited licenses in the spring draw, allowing you to hunt in areas that have trophy-size game and less hunters per unit.
Ninety-five to ninety-eight percent of GMU's require no preference points—or just a single preference point—in order to draw a limited license in those units. Take a look at the number of points required to hunt in the area you selected.
Preference points are earned when you apply for a limited license but are unsuccessful in drawing a license for your first choice.
You can also apply just for the purpose of earning a preference point or purchase a point through the application process. However, all the hunter education and Habitat Stamp requirements must be successfully completed before applying. The goal here would be to save up preference points to have a better advantage next year or whenever you choose. Preference points earned in the current year cannot be applied until the following year.
You can apply for a preference point and still buy an OTC license the same year.
How to Scout Your Area Before Buying a License
Read Scouting Tips—The "Secrets to Success"
and Pre-scouting—Using Maps and GPS
, both from Elk Hunting University.
The Big Game Brochure contains the GMU map (11MB) and tips about some areas. The interactive brochure contains some great introductory and how-to videos. You can also download the PDF version, order the printed version online or pick up a copy at a CPW wildlife office or a license agent.
State Wildlife Area Maps: Many Colorado Parks and Wildlife Areas provide opportunities to hunt and fish.
Big game hunting guides: These guides provide hunting information for Colorado, split into four areas. Included are statistics, directories—and some great hunting tips for each area.
Road and trail closures can unexpectedly ruin your hunting trip. Check for road/land closures in the area you plan to hunt.
Be informed about the pine bark beetle epidemic. It's a huge problem in some parts of Colorado and can cause road and trail closures, affect herd movements, among other problems. Get the latest information from the US Forest Service about pine bark beetle mitigation work that may take place near your planned hunting area.
Other Helpful Sources of Information
Subscribe to the CPW Insider
to receive updates on the hunting season and deadline reminders.
The Colorado Outdoors Magazine contains great content about hunting and fishing, among other Colorado outdoor topics. The Jan/Feb issue publishes the annual population data for Colorado deer, elk and pronghorn herds and is a great planning tool for hunters applying for limited licenses. A one-year, bi-monthly subscription is $13. The subscription includes your choice of either the annual Hunting Guide or Fishing Guide ($5 each if purchased separately). Some back issues also available for $2.95 each.
Improve your skills in the field—for before and after the hunt: Buy Down to the Bone and Elk Hunting, Colorado, DVDs, for just $17.95 each.
Considering the services of an outfitter or guide? A list of state-licensed outfitters and guides is available at http://www.coloradooutfitters.org/. Also, look over Finding an Elk Hunt Outfitter from Elk Hunting University.
Consider camping at a Colorado State Park. Park passes and off-highway vehicle (OHV) permits can be purchased online.