Elk are probably the most coveted game animal in the U.S. People travel thousands of miles and spend hundreds of dollars just to get a chance at a tag to hunt one of these 700-pound beasts. If you are willing to put up the cash and time, you want to be reasonably sure of a kill.
There are several species of elk in the U.S., mostly in the western states near the Rocky Mountains. There are a few eastern states with blooming elk populations. In all, there are about 20 states where elk can be hunted but not all of them will offer you the same opportunity.
In order to gauge each state, these are the criteria we used:
- Availability of tags
- Elk Population
- Access to hunting areas
- Trophy elk taken
Using those metrics, here is what we found:
Top 8 States for Elk Hunting
1. Colorado – Best State Overall
Colorado makes the number one spot for taking high marks in almost all of our metrics. If you want to ensure you have the opportunity and availability to get an elk, head to Colorado. You won’t get a better chance anywhere else.
With a population of elk over half a million, Colorado has the largest concentration of elk in the world. That population leads to more OTC permits issued and more units to hunt. Where most states will issue several hundred elk permits, Colorado issues thousands.
All of the zones where you can draw a tag are easy to access and hunt with plenty of open spaces for a good shot. You can hunt rifle or bow in most areas but there are a couple of dozen archery only units in the state.
The total cost for a permit is currently $604.00 for a non-resident which sits in the middle of the pack for cost. You can expect to pay more getting there but the hunt is well worth it with a strong chance of success.
Colorado may not take top marks when it comes to trophy elk but they have a number of bulls that average over 300 inches. These big bulls may not land you with record kill but they should be plenty to satisfy most hunters. Those 350-inch bulls are rarer in Colorado but a number of hunters bag them every year.
2. Wyoming – Best Chance at a Tag
While Wyoming may not have the largest population of elk, it has a lot of opportunities that elevates it to the number one spot. The hunting in the low passes of the Rocky Mountains is some of the most amazing in the world. Any hunt here will be the hunt of a lifetime.
With a population of only around 90,000 elk, Wyoming comes in at the mid-range in sheer number of elk. Most of these stretch into the Rockies but a few units have plentiful elk in the low country if hunting in the higher elevations isn’t your thing.
Wyoming no longer has OTC tags for non-residents but most units have a 100% draw so your chances of landing a tag are pretty good. Tag cost is $577.00 which is at the low end of the list. You can also add on an Archery tag for $30.00 and if you don’t get one with the bow, carry right over into rifle season.
Wyoming is becoming well known for elk that exceed 350 inches with a number of them taken every year. Most of them in the lower reaches of the mountains. Even if you can’t bag one of those, Wyoming is one of the best states to get a good shot at an elk with huge herds.
Getting to most of the elk is fairly easy but if you want those up in the mountains, you are going to have to work for it. The tags for units in the backcountry go at a slower rate so you could get stuck if you dally around. The best units will fill up first.
3. Montana – Best Success Rate
Montana combines two factors that make it a great elk state. Well, that’s if you disregard the outstanding scenery. For many hunters, this may be the absolute best shot at an elk and a good shot at a trophy elk.
The fist of those factors is that Montana has been mostly disregarded by elk hunters. Any of the more southern states get a higher mount. This means that most units will have a 100% draw even if they don’t do OTC tags for non-residents.
The second factor is the price of a tag. At $858.00 for a non-resident, this is the most expensive state to hunt. This keeps a lot of hunters away but as the neighboring states sell out their tag limits in the best units, Montana will still have plenty of room.
As far as population goes, Montana has the second largest with over 160,000 elk at last count. These are spread over a wide range but there are high concentrations around the Rockies on the Wyoming border. Landing one of these units gives you a good shot at a kill.
Most units average really high success rates in the range of 20 to 40% with archery equipment alone. Those numbers only go up with a rifle. The concentration of trophies is on par with Colorado and Wyoming but the larger land area they have to roam does make them a rarer take.
The units in Montana range from easy access to full-on backcountry. The experience in those more isolated units is amazing but can be a more difficult hunt. It’s all a matter of what you prefer but for a first hunt, the lower elevations in the southwestern corner are your best bet.
4. Idaho – Best Value
The one state that is the fastest growing in popularity for elk hunting, Idaho offers a good experience with ample opportunity. In the past, wildfires and wolves had decimated the population of elk but they have made a strong comeback. At the halfway point of this list, Idaho is still a solid bet.
Populations of elk are somewhere in the range of 105,000 – 150,000. They lie in the upper middle of populations across the nation and boast some large roaming herds. You are welcome to use bow, muzzleloader, or rifle.
Cost is among the lowest at $571.50 for a tag and $20.00 extra for bow. This is almost a steal with some of the prices you see going on tags. Non-residents are able to buy their tags OTC for the time being but that is likely to change soon with it becoming a more popular destination.
Trophy-wise, Idaho consistently pops up 350” bulls every year. The chances are lower than in some states but the chances of bagging any elk tends to be lower in Idaho than its northern neighbors.
With everything for Idaho so far, the only reason it ranks this low is the difficulty of hunting. The zones that are maintained for elk hunting are more remote and harder to access. The few that are easy sell out fast. You will have to work to get an elk in Idaho.
5. Arizona – Best State for Trophies
The farthest southern state for elk hunting has been a long time favorite for most hunters but it is far from ideal. For all the good hunting this state offers, it has a few bad metrics that kill its ranking on this list.
Namely is the difficulty of getting a tag. The few units that offer OTC tags are places they want to rid of elk due to interference with local farmers. These are not ideal locations for hunters by a long shot. If you want one of the better areas, especially if you want to rifle hunt, you are going to have to wait it out.
Even if you get a draw for a tag the cost for out of state is $850.00 making them the most expensive state to hunt. This seems like it’s hardly worth it but units in Arizona fill incredibly fast. It may be the most popular destination in the country.
There is one reason for this: Trophy bulls! Arizona puts them out more often than any other state and your success rate on opportunity hunts is far better than most states. Much of this has to do with the population density.
They may only have a total population of around 35,000 elk but they are packed into smaller areas. Most of those areas are fairly easy to access. Even a bad unit in Arizona is often a better bet than a good unit in most other states. You just have to manage to get a tag.
6. Oregon – Best for Roosevelt Elk
With two different elk species, Oregon stands in a league all its own. No other state on this list offers the opportunity to hunt Roosevelt elk. They still have the larger Rocky Mountain variety as well and you can take either with a single tag.
Populations are somewhere between 100,000 and 140,000 equally split between the two species. Oregon has a lot of elk with potentially one of the largest herds in the U.S. The bull to calf ration is even higher than most states.
Not all is good with Oregon though. The cost of a non-resident tag is $735.00 which is among the highest. That alone won’t drive die-hard hunters away though. Paying for a good opportunity is well worth it.
The main thing that kills people’s enthusiasm is the difficulty of hunting in Oregon. All of the good units sell out very fast and even though they are OTC, your chances of getting one is slim. It can be easier to get a harder unit tag but you have to decide to try to wait out a good unit or hunt a hard unit. All the while, other easier to hunt states are available.
This said the hunting in Oregon is stunning. With dense forest and high peaks, you get a lot of variety and scenery. There is no other place like it to hunt. They also manage to put out a larger number of trophy bulls per hunter than most states.
7. New Mexico – Best for Large Bulls
This is hardly the state that most people think about when considering an elk hunt. The populations are all in the high country and tend to be rather sparse. It may not be ideal for the discerning hunter but New Mexico has some strong points.
With only 68,000 elk, the populations are lower in New Mexico than most. Arizona is similar but unlike Arizona, New Mexico elk tend to be more spread out. This can make hunting very frustrating, especially if you paid a huge price for the chance.
On top of that frustration, getting access to a good unit is almost impossible. You can get a sub-par unit for $548.00 as a non-resident but a good unit will cost you $773.00 if you even get the opportunity. Of course, you can shell out the thousands needed to get your hands on a landowner tag if you want a guaranteed chance.
But that is just a chance. Many hunters have failed to fill their tags in New Mexico. But that brings us to why it’s in the top 8 states. If you do manage to get a bull, its likely to be a big one! With the milder climate and year-round forage, these bulls get massive.
With all this trouble, New Mexico tends to be a fairly accessible area to hunt. Even the less desirable zones are not hard to access and do provide great scenery. One can only hope that a part of that scenery will be a large bull elk. But that’s a chance you take.
8. Pennsylvania – Best Eastern State
While there are still good western states, it’s past time we give a nod to the eastern states and their growing elk populations. One may not think the hunting in the east is up to par with the west but there are plenty of good elk on that side of the Mississippi if you get lucky.
Why do you have to get lucky? Because Pennsylvania only has a few thousand elk and they are closely regulated. This means very few tags for out of state hunters but if you do draw a tag, the hunting is amazing.
The cost of a tag should you get drawn in Pennsylvania is only $250.00 for a non-resident which is staggeringly low. It’s almost worth a shot applying just to see if you do get a lucky break. You can only be selected once in a 5 year period though.
For an eastern state, Pennsylvania does seem to be good at producing large bulls. Not may exceed 350 inches yet but a number are sitting right on that line. If you get an antlered tag, your chances at a big bull are better than most states.
Hunting the eastern woodlands is a little harder than hunting out west. For Pennsylvania, some of that money you saved on the tag would be well spent on a knowledgeable guide. The dense forests are hard to hunt. If you get a good unit with fields, that may be a different matter.
So, there are our top 8 states. Of course, you there are several others states worth noting. Utah has a decent elk population and Kentucky is growing yearly. The best tactic is to apply for great spots in several states until you get one. You can always opt for OTC units and states until you do.
Hunting elk for most people is the hunt of a lifetime and many only get one shot at it. Hopefully, this list provides all the information needed to make the best of that shot.
Colorado will always be a strong bet. As will Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Just don’t neglect the other states on this list if they provide you the hunt you want. Be that opportunity hunts or a trophy hunt, there are states that will give you that opportunity.