Elk need quality habitat, with plenty of food and water, and a place to hide from you and me. They find all of the above far from sea-level.
Whoa,” I thought to myself as the world spun eerily around me. I stopped, planted my boots, took a deep breath and didn’t let on to my hunting partner that I almost tipped over from the last push of our ascent that put us beyond 12,000 feet. Nobody wants to be the weakest link, but worse yet, nobody wants to pass out on a hunt. Elevation was definitely a factor in this case, as it compromised my physical and mental functions, but elevation is more than a source of dizziness or a daylong headache. It’s a factor in most elk hunts since elk seek out elevation for a variety of reasons. During your scouting, you’ll want to give it consideration when deciding where to hunt. Elk will have a handle on the high spots, so it makes sense you’ll want to follow them where eagles soar.
Why Elk Go High
Elk weren’t always high-elevation-only residents. Lewis and Clark, along with scores of other early explorers, noted the large herds of elk found across the country including the wide-open Great Plains. During their progression up the Missouri River, the expedition fed well on elk with regularity, particularly while traveling through the current states of South and North Dakota. They made this journal entry in September 1804. And no, they weren’t winning any spelling bees:
These extensive planes had been lately birnt and the grass had sprung up and was about three inches high. vast herds of Buffaloe deer Elk and Antilopes were seen feeding in every direction as far as the eye of the observer could reach.
These grand sights didn’t last long for species like bison, elk and pronghorn. Like most game animals across the country, settlement quickly ravaged the habitat and populations of prairie-loving elk. What elk remained found refuge in high, rugged places.
By withdrawing to lofty, steep and oftentimes inaccessible locations, elk found sanctuary. Of course these high elevations vary in elk country. The highest peak in an island mountain range in Oregon might barely qualify as foothills in parts of Colorado.
Nutrition and Creature Comforts
In addition to the safety of vertical slopes, elk enjoy the summer explosion of lush, alpine grasses and forbs. If you could retreat to a safe haven with a never-ending buffet, wouldn’t you oblige? These grasses mature as snow recedes and sunlight bolsters growth. This means elk may not race to high elevation, but instead take a leisurely trip as greenup climbs with each passing day.
High-elevation springs, melting snow and alpine lakes provide elk with plenty of water. Herds of both cows and calves, and bachelor batches of bulls spend time at or above tree line. They realize that the window to bulk up for rutting and winter months ahead is short. Some of the best grazing takes place in the nosebleed section wherever that may be in elk country.
Higher elevation also means cooler temperatures. Temperatures on average drop 3 to 4 degrees for every 1,000 feet of elevation. The principles of decreasing atmospheric pressure at higher elevations results in cooler air. You retreat into air conditioning while elk try to move to more hospitable, cooler digs with atmospheric pressure help. Elevation offers that escape, and many September bowhunters realize that elk will likely be found high, lounging in cool comfort.
At higher elevations you may find snow year-round. This keeps surroundings chilled and air-cooled. Elk may even bed in snow during the summer months as opposed to the hotter, surrounding soil.
And don’t forget the bugs. Elk hate them as much as your kids do. It’s not surefire, but open slopes equal cool, summer breezes that help keep insects from settling on herds, plus the cooler periods at dusk and dawn also hinder insect mobility. Combine the two and there’s no need for DEET.
All of these aspects can lead elk higher and higher, but they still trend toward the top for one simple reason: sanctuary. It’s not carved in stone, but many high-elevation settings have limited access. Steep terrain, cliffs, unnavigable rubble, and just the simple fact it’s off the beaten path provide elk with uninhabited country. Leafy, blossoming landscapes combined with temperate conditions are a bonus, but just the sheer void of human traffic keeps many at the top for as long as possible. In latitudes with little snow, it may be year-round.
Because safety is the elk’s top concern, you’re ahead to bypass high country that offers ATV or Jeep-trail access. Scout for roadless country with limited access instead, and you’ll find elk in the hospitable zones above.
Scout in the Clouds
Unlike scouting in forested areas of elk country, high-altitude scouting oftentimes gives you a Great Plains’ perspective. Sitting on a high ridge will allow you to scout multiple drainages and miles of elk country. It makes more sense than stumbling through deadfall hoping you’ll bump a bull.
You can set up across from an alpine basin and watch elk appear from a distant aspen grove as they commence with nightly feeding. But it doesn’t end there. Tote a spotting scope into the backcountry and you can field-judge bulls as well, again without revealing your presence.
You can do the same with a trail camera in dense timber, but firsthand eyeball confirmation is the reason many of us enjoy scouting in the first place. I’m always eager to check my SD card on my cameras, but I get a bit of buck fever while eyeballing a giant bull as it tears mouthfuls of greens from a 10,000-foot basin that’s only reachable via personal horsepower.
As you scout, look for sheltered pockets that will still offer food, water and security cover once rifle season starts and snow begins to pile up. Summer herds congregate high, but may drop prior to hunting season, especially in northern zones. September bowhunters may chase bulls above 10,000 feet, but their rifle-season counterparts may set up camp at 8,000 feet for those same elk if snow pushes them. Nevertheless, if the elk feel pressure they still have a tendency to hang as high as possible.
The high country is no place for beginners. If you don’t have high-country experience consider a mentor or a mentor program with a seasoned hunter. Trekking high beyond trailheads puts you in an extreme environment and beyond an easy rescue if things go wrong. High-altitude environments come with boulder fields, avalanche chutes, talus slopes, crevasses and a host of other terrain hazards.
Common sense goes a long way in the high country, and having trusted orienteering aids helps. Maps and a GPS are prerequisites. You can also download your smartphone with maps and use its GPS capabilities if available. Nevertheless, don’t rely on it for communication to get you out of a mess. Mountains may offer height to send a signal abroad, but it is just as apt to shut down your connection. Consider handheld radios or even satellite signaling devices to send for help.
The Spot 2 is a satellite-activated unit that sends an SOS signal, plus it helps guide rescuers to you. Options allow you to send messages out to family to let them know everything is okay. It’s waterproof, rugged and economical. You simply purchase a yearly activation plan.
Weather changes in the high country faster than the tax laws from the IRS. At the very least go afield with a long-range forecast. Since the primary provider of weather information originates from the National Weather Service, why not get it straight from the horse’s mouth.
A weather radio or smartphone links are ideal if reception allows. My Garmin Rhino GPS includes reception of these reports, and the best thing is that reports are current, specific to your area of reception and include severe weather warnings for your region. They even have mountain forecasts, which differ significantly from what’s happening at valley level. Regardless of your weather report of choice, keep posted. I even tote an old AM transistor radio with me to pick up local weather reports. You don’t want to get stranded from an unseasonal snow dump.
What About You?
If high elevation scouting and hunting is your goal, then you can’t ignore how altitude could affect you. My hunting partners say I’m dizzy all the time, but as referenced in the opening sentences, I’ve had more than one bout with altitude sickness. The affliction generally surfaces above 8,000 feet. It’s particularly true if you gain more than 1,000 feet of elevation per day. If you fly into Denver from Detroit, you’ll likely feel a bit out of air when you land at hunting camp at 10,700 feet. Your lungs may go into shock trying to suck oxygen from the surroundings.
Studies show that half of sea-level residents get altitude sickness. The entire condition revolves around a lack of oxygen as your body adjusts. Symptoms commonly include mild headaches, but above 14,000 feet, there’s even a risk to life.
For most hunters there’s a simple solution. Arrive a day or two early and relax at altitude before scrambling across the slopes. Of course with careers careening at the speed of sound, compounded with instantaneous travel options, that’s easier said than done. Regardless, plan and prepare for the possibility of altitude sickness. You don’t want it to eat away at your annual elk hunt.
As for my bout with high-top circus symptoms, I popped a couple of pain relievers, grabbed a nap over lunch and continued the hunt that afternoon. I never dropped below 9,000 feet on that hunt and shot a nice bull right at timberline. Not surprisingly, the headache soon went away.