Flat Tops Wilderness Area ain’t so flat…

island lakes

With 3,389,935 acres or roughly 5 percent of the state in designated Wilderness Areas, Colorado has a lot to choose from as far as prime elk habitat.  We are limited by the fact that none of us hold a single preference point for Colorado Elk so, an over-the-counter unit is our only choice.  After calls to National Forest offices, literally hundreds of internet searches and pouring over map after map looking for our September destination, we zeroed in on a section of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area.  With the densest numbers in a state with the largest elk population, it seemed like a logical choice but, with those facts come hoards of eager DIY hunters and outfitters looking for the same thing as the three of us.  Our egos, no doubt, played a deciding part in this choice though. What I mean is that we assume that the three of us – my brother Travis, buddy Matt & myself – are more hardcore and more willing to do the work necessary to get deep into the Wilderness Area and away from other hunters, the single factor we decided would equate to elk meat in the freezer.  We also decided that the first week of the archery season would mean fewer hunters and, although we would have preferred to hunt the peak of the rut (last week in September) that conflicts with a few non-elk-hunter weddings.  With our location decided and tags burning holes in our pockets, there was still plenty left to do before September.

headed up middle derby

The three of us living in 3 different cities in 2 states, had to formulate and execute our own plans for preparation.  There was our gear and planning the logistics of the hunt: what we would eat, sleep in, wear, shoot & how we would get it in there.  Also, optimistically, how we would get the elk and massive antlers out.  We also had to get into shape.  At 28, I had gained a few pounds of understandable sympathy weight during the 9 months of my wife’s first pregnancy.  I mean, I wanted her to eat as much as she needed without feeling self-conscious and, since she was used to me eating considerably more than her, I had to step it up.  With a good 20 pounds above my fighting weight, I had some serious work to do but, still have a considerable advantage over the other two.  Travis is young and skinny & Matt has a good deal more self-control and discipline than me but, I live at over 5,000 feet in altitude compared to barely above sea-level for my hunting partners.  I might be fat but, these low-landers will be sucking wind despite their hours on the Stairmaster.  At any rate, we all had some work to get in the physical condition necessary as well as, the need to get fully operational with our bows and tweak our form.  Any trophy hunter knows that muscle memory is the only thing that can keep Bull fever from taking complete control and rendering you useless and, I hadn’t shot my bow hardly at all since I moved to Colorado last November.

first view of sheep mnt

By the end of July, we all had our bow shooting in order and, were at least in better shape than we started out but, none of us had even stepped foot anywhere near the area we were going to hunt.  Since I lived 1200 miles closer than the other two, it was up to me so, I reserved the last weekend in July to scout out the area and set out the trusty Moultrie Trail Cams.

grazing

Friday afternoon, July 26th, I headed west after work along with about 100,000 other Denverites desperate to escape the concrete jungle.  Just before dark I turned into the trail head in White River National Forest.  The plan was to drive the twelve or so miles to an Alpine Lake and the hoof it in another few miles to another group of Lakes that was to be our Elk Camp.  That’s when reality trashed my plans.   The “road” was a hardcore Jeep trail that required some serious ground clearance.  I took the family SUV a couple of miles deep but, stopped short of a creek crossing and made camp for the night.  The next morning, I strapped on my overloaded 50+ pound backpack and headed further into the mountains.  I finally reached the Alpine Lake around noon after 10 miles of rigorous but, much needed cardio.  Exhausted and at my breaking point, I decided that the last few miles and couple thousand feet of ascent would have to wait for another day.  I was too worried about the trip back down the mountain to strike out toward elk country.  With the next morning’s hike looming over my afternoon, I strung up my fly rod and snatched up a few hungry brookies for dinner.  After scarfing down some trout and a few hours of staring thoughtlessly into the camp fire, my lab, Buddy, and I sacked out to the sound of rain lightly falling on the rain tarp.  I woke after sunrise, talked a guy with a jeep into hauling my pack down the mountain and headed home.  With only one elk track to report, another scouting trip was definitely in order.

Scout Trip Deer Lake 097

I did, however, collect some valuable information:

  1. We wouldn’t be driving any further than the county road.
  2. As long as Jeeps and ATVs were around no elk would be.
  3. There are plentiful hungry trout to be caught on the fly.
  4. It rains a lot in the mountains in the summer.
  5. It can get pretty dog gone chilly at night even in August.
  6. I am out of shape but, not as bad as I thought.
  7. There is about 20 pounds of crap in my backpack that I don’t need.
  8. There is no wonder why so many elk call Flat Tops Wilderness home. It is magnificent and seemed more like a rainforest than the arid mountains that I was expecting.
My wife, Cat, thinks my horse looks like a unicorn here in the stereotypical unicorn habitat.  I didn't even realize there was typical unicorn habitat.

My wife, Cat, thinks my horse looks like a unicorn here in the stereotypical unicorn habitat. I didn’t even realize there was typical unicorn habitat.

On, August 16th, I took the afternoon off of work and headed back out to the Elk woods.  This time I was meeting an outfit at the trailhead to collect a horse for the trek.  After my last scouting adventure, I needed some horse power in order to cover enough ground.  At around 5 PM they dropped off, Beano, an older albino gelding that the outfitter promised was obedient and surefooted.  After loading him up with all my gear for the weekend I hopped in the saddle and took off into the mountains.  We rode for 3 hours until it got too dark to see very well and made camp for the night.  That’s when I realized that I had forgotten the rope that I had planned to use to tie the horse up for the night.  I had rigged a lead rope with a carabiner that would be clipped onto a long rope strung between two trees allowing the horses to feed up and down the line.  Without that setup my only choice was to tie him up with the 8 foot lead rope and just wake up every few hours to move him to another spot so he could graze.  When I woke Saturday morning, Beano was nowhere in sight.  I panicked a little before picking up his trail.  I followed his tracks about a quarter of a mile downhill until I found him grazing peacefully in a meadow.

Here is my bed for the night up on top of the mountain. I tied my hammock to the two tallest trees up there and, still slept with my butt on the ground.

Here is my bed for the night up on top of the mountain. I tied my hammock to the two tallest trees up there and, still slept with my butt on the ground.

Happy to have my transportation back under me, we headed deeper into the mountains.  We rode for a full day due west until we reached the high mountains and Elk country.  Finally in Elk territory at about 11,500 feet in elevation I began to see some tracks.

This is Beano being led down a pretty steep switchback.

This is Beano being led down a pretty steep switchback.

Beano and I navigated some hardcore Smeagol trails that were no more than an 8 inch wide trail on the side of a sheer cliff until we reached the “Flat Tops.”  This is an area at around 12000+ feet elevation and above tree line where the top of the mountain is literally flat.  This area is covered in thick grasses and scattered with shallow ponds and home to about a thousand domestic sheep.

Flat Tops

Flat Tops

Sheep herder camp.

Sheep herder camp.

There was even a sheep herder living up there keeping watch over his flocks. Saturday evening after making camp I spent the last few hours of daylight glassing a large bowl set just below our camp to the South.  About 6 pm the first elk began to emerge out of the dark timber and into the bowl to feed.  In another hour there were more than thirty elk in view.  I watched a bull run cows around bugling himself silly. I had finally found some elk and accomplished the #1 goal of the trip.  I brewed myself some pine needle tea and sacked out for the night.

View from my camp of the bowl where the elk were staying.

View from my camp of the bowl where the elk were staying.

I decided that there was plenty of grass and water and nowhere for my horse to go so, I just let him free graze all night.  The next morning at day break I woke to discover that Beano was nowhere to be found.  I was 15 miles from my car and stranded at 12,000 and, really starting to panic.  I snatched up my binoculars and got on the rim of the bowl to glass for elk and Beano.  I found both.  Beano was grazing about 1200 feet below me and the elk were right where I had left them the evening before.  After packing up camp and climbing down to my horse, I headed out toward the Southwest in hopes of finding some elk for the backup plan.  We looped around the backside of the mountain we had camped on top of and made our way back around to the trail we came in on and, headed on back down the mountain for the trailhead.  It thundered and rained the whole way back and, the wind made it downright cold.  Beano seemed to know we were headed back and made impeccable time. At 5 pm we were back at the trailhead and very tired. I drove on back down to civilization and scarfed down a juicy cheeseburger at the first establishment I came to.

The valley Beano and I rode up to get to the scouting spot.  There is an outfitter camp in the far meadow.  I ran into two different outfitter camps with horses and wall tents.

The valley Beano and I rode up to get to the scouting spot. There is an outfitter camp in the far meadow. I ran into two different outfitter camps with horses and wall tents.

Stay tuned for pictures and stories from our elk hunt.  August 28th – September 8th.

Rosehip, a decent little wild mountain snack that is high in vitamin C.

Rosehip, a decent little wild mountain snack that is high in vitamin C. As Dr. Ron Sande would say,”You can eat a freakin’ stick but, this tastes much better.”

Scout Trip Deer Lake 105

Sheep herder’s horse.

cattle drive

Some slow elk that couldn’t seem to figure out that I wasn’t trying to drive them down the trail. These cows made us drive them for a couple of miles up the mountain with more cows joining the herd as we passed them.

elk tracks

Ek Tracks

from the saddle elkrub deer lake