a large mule deer buck standing in the grass on the horizon.

The Colorado Mule Deer Hunting Starter Guide

Introduction to Colorado Mule Deer Hunting

One of my most cherished hunting memories is the first time I shot at a Colorado mule deer, or “muley” as they’re often referred to. I was around 15 years old, and I missed the shot three feet over his back. I attributed my woeful shot to the elusive illness called buck fever, and figured that time and age would diminish the mystic, awe-inspiring feeling that overcame me that day. Much to my surprise, I have found the same excitement that caused my critical miss all those years ago still grips me whenever I spot a majestic muley.

To discover more about the exhilarating adventure of a Colorado mule deer hunt, you’ll need to consider partaking in one yourself! Fortunately, this starter guide will contain much of the information you’ll need to do just this. We’ll be summarizing the opportunities for hunting this majestic creature in the state, the regulations surrounding the hunt, and several tips to make your Colorado mule deer hunt successful.

An Overview of Colorado Muleys

The Centennial State has long been a premier location for deer hunters. Current mule deer populations sit at around 400,000 statewide. Though this number represents a vast decline from the 600,000-deer population of the mid-2000s, it’s still nothing to gawk at. Most regions harbor a healthy and steady population of muleys, meaning opportunities will abound.

Colorado also offers superb muley habitat within its local Rocky Mountain sub-ranges. Both alpine territories and lower sage-dense foothills are prime regions for huge deer. Very few states contain the same habitat range as Colorado, meaning there’s something for everyone to enjoy!

Archery and muzzleloading seasons in September afford excellent opportunity for summer range hunting up high, while October and November offer rifle hunters the chance to chase mature bucks in their winter range. All seasons provide the hunter with a serene and captivating landscape in which to pursue their quarry.

This landscape ranges widely. From low watershed plains to snow-capped 14,000-foot peaks, there’s no shortage of options. Hunters, like deer, traverse these biomes. Most units span several thousand feet in elevation. Some units will vary as much as 10,000-feet in elevation difference, low to high, which provides an excellent workout and variance level.

These factors make Colorado mule deer hunting one of the most unique hunting experiences in North America.

Should I go mule deer hunting in Colorado?

Colorado Mule Deer Population

As mentioned, Colorado boasts a healthy population of mule deer. The most recent survey lists the statewide population around the 400,000 mark. Though this represents a slight decline from the over-half-million mark recorded in 2006, it also represents a wonderful recovery from the market hunting decline of the early and mid-1900s.

In comparison, Idaho and Montana boast respective populations of only 253,000 and 256,000. With its superior population, Colorado provides hunters with better odds during their mule deer hunt. The Colorado population has shown continuous growth, too. Aside from winter kill and environment encroachment in the past few decades, everything seems to be on the up-and-up for Colorado muleys. This is part of the reason success rates in the state are so high. Annual Colorado mule deer hunting success rates often sit within the 40-45% range. Some units, on private land, boast rates nearing the 90% mark. These statistics show that willing hunters who put in effort will find many opportunities.

Hunting Opportunity

The high country holds many such opportunities. Even in their winter ranges, Colorado mule deer often inhabit elevations above 7,000-feet. This type of high-county mule deer hunt is an adventure in itself. Thin air, heavy packs, and massive lodgepole forests are just a few of the factors the high-country muley hunter can look forward to in Colorado’s backcountry. These elevated habitats are great for finding mature bucks that reign over their own small domains.

Trophy bucks with some of the finest racks call Colorado’s high-altitude aspen groves their homes. Those with the knack and willingness to traverse the rough and ancient terrain of the high Rockies are likely to see success in these zones. The low sagebrush valleys of Western Colorado are also excellent choices for the more hiking-averse hunter. Given this vast range, great opportunities really are available throughout most regions of the state.

Will I see giant mule bucks in Colorado?

Colorado is not only one of the best locations in North America to encounter beautiful scenery, it’s also one of the best to encounter massive mule deer. In fact, Colorado recorded the harvest of the all-time largest typical mule deer in 1972. The beast scored 226 4/8 inches.

Today, Colorado’s monsters of the 20th century have slightly diminished in popularity. While they haven’t disappeared entirely, hunting management plans and CWD have caused a rise in the premature harvesting of many would-be record bucks. Still, Colorado remains the best chance many North Americans have to harvest a record muley thanks to the state’s animal population and suitable habitat.

Most Colorado mule deers’ main beams will measure around the 24-25 inch mark. While this may be well short of the 30-inch goliath from 1972, it’s still a respectable size for a deer. I’ve noticed a trend in recent years where many big mule deer antler racks don’t match their body size. These deer are truly enormous and make great jerky in place of wall hangers.

The biggest issue with huge muley bucks is their diet. In Colorado, sagebrush often comprises a large percentage of mule deer diets. This can give the meat an odd flavor. Some hunters avoid this issue by hunting units with less sagebrush. Personally, I’ve found sausage and jerky making to be surefire ways to avoid the unpleasant taste while still enjoying the reward of harvesting a big, mature buck.

What is the best time of year to hunt mule deer in Colorado?

Colorado hosts two options for hunters: the September season, and the Rifle seasons. The September season is for archers, with one week of muzzleloading built in. The rifle seasons currently run from October through November.

September is a beautiful and volatile time of year to hunt Colorado. Weather can change in an instant, and most mule deer opportunities are up high in the summer ranges. Many bucks are still velvety early in this season, which can make for a unique harvest. This time of year usually sees elevated animal activity, creating an opportune time to hunt.

Second Rifle season in late October is the first opportunity rifle-only hunters have for tagging a deer, because First Rifle season is elk-only. This is the easiest season to draw, yet it precedes the rut. Unfortunately, this means most mature bucks won’t be moving around aside from going cover-to-cover during the twilight hours. By Third Rifle season, bucks become more active. This hunt takes place in early November and usually provides hunters with excellent weather. It is an excellent intermediary choice for rifle hunters who want semi-pleasant weather with average opportunity levels.

By mid-to-late November, Fourth Rifle season rolls around. Situated in the heart of the rut, this is arguably the best season. Animals are incredibly active, the weather is cooler, and there are fewer hunters. The big problem with this season is the requirements. Not all units even offer this prime season, and the units that do offer it have suffered from point creep in recent years. Hunters looking to leverage this season’s spectacular advantages may need to amass upwards of 10 points for honey hole units.

3 Strategies for Colorado Mule Deer Hunting

Get up high. Colorado muleys love the higher elevation zones. They afford the deer safety from human infrastructure and natural predators, like lions. One of the most jarring experiences for new Colorado hunters is the effects of altitude. Because of this, many hunters will avoid the alpine environments that are often rich with deer activity. These zones allow a reprieve from overcrowding, better opportunity, and million-dollar views.

Don’t get discouraged. Even with sign abounding, it’s rare to harvest a deer day one or even two of a hunt. Be patient, study your surroundings, and keep the mood bright. Mindset is often more important than skillset when on a difficult or rugged hunt. Chasing Colorado muleys can feel overwhelming, so it’s perfectly fine to have some alone time in camp to collect your thoughts.

Scout early and often. Boots on the ground is always the best method of discerning information about a unit. For hunters who can’t physically scout a unit, consider e-scouting. Any scouting is better than none, after all! Look for aspen groves, water sources, and small alpine meadows. While on-site, look for rubbings on trees, game trails, and any type of fresh sign that might indicate a muley nearby.

How can I find a place to hunt mule deer in Colorado?

Private land-only hunters should seek reputable outfitters or specific ranches. Most Colorado hunting guides have excellent insight into what private land is available. Be prepared to pay thousands in trespassing fees. Hunters can directly contact many private ranches that offer services on their land if they so please. Many of these private locations contain behemoth bucks and a litany of small game opportunities.

Public land hunters need not restrict themselves nearly as much. Colorado is one of, if not the, public land-friendliest states in North America. The state boasts over 23 million acres of public land. Most units west of I-25 hold decent mule deer populations, where units east of the interstate are whitetail havens. The best part is the astounding accessibility of most public land areas.

When surveying and e-scouting hunting locations, keep in mind that many public lands are inter-cut by private holdings. Be sure to know where public land starts and ends. Maps, GPS and general intuition should assist hunters in knowing where these boundaries are. Colorado game wardens and land owners take trespassing seriously, be extremely careful.

How do I get a mule deer hunting license in Colorado?


Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) currently offers deer hunts in 187 Game Management Units (GMUs); for public land mule deer hunting, the focus should be on GMUs west of I-25. Colorado is a preference point state, meaning that preferred GMUs may be more difficult to draw than others. Individuals who qualify for, but do not secure, their primary license for deer in the initial draw, or opt for a preference-point-only as their primary choice, receive one point per year. These points accumulate, increasing draw odds, until an applicant draws their first-choice license. Unlike elk and bear, Colorado mule deer hunts are draw only. There are no over-the-counter tags readily available, and hunters who want to harvest a muley need to apply for the CPW big game lottery, which opens in early March each year.

Sound confusing? That’s because it is. Fortunately, CPW issues an annual Big Game Brochure. This brochure contains a wealth of information pertinent to mule deer hunting and information about the draw alongside hunting regulations. You can find this brochure on the CPW website, and you can find draw-specific information by going to this page.

Licensing Options

Residents enjoy much lower pricing than their non-resident counterparts. A mule deer tag for residents in 2024 is about $50. It is important to note that all hunters applying for any big game license in Colorado must first purchase a qualifying license. My favorite is the small game-fishing combo license. This runs an extra $60, plus a $12 Habitat Stamp. After considering applicable fees, residents can expect to pay anywhere from about $95 to $120 for their tags. Most residents with 2 or 3 points have a decent chance of drawing some of the more sought-after units in the state, and should consider the 3rd or 4th Rifle season for best success.

Non-residents face much steeper prices overall. For the muley tag alone, a non-resident will pay close to $500. Because of the price tag, most non-resident DIY hunters prefer to save points to draw one of Colorado’s premier trophy units. Most of these hunts occur during the 3rd and 4th seasons on the Western Slope, running the length of the Colorado Rockies’ westernmost footprint north to south. GMUs in this region are good producers and, for a non-resident public land hunter, they offer ample opportunities in beautiful territory.

The Guided Experience

Non-residents and residents alike may wish to experience the thrill of a guided hunt. An excellent and accessible location to search for an outfitter is the Colorado Outfitters Association. Most reputable outfitters with good success rates and opportunity for trophy bucks will run anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 USD, with some cheaper opportunities existing. Some guided hunts in Colorado operate on private land under special landowner licenses. Another option includes the plains deer hunt. This hunt falls under a special draw and provides hunters opportunities within Eastern Plains units, which are primarily on private farmland.

Most outfitters also operate on public land. If this is a route hunters would like to explore, it is crucial that they choose a reputable outfitter with credentials and the proper permits. Each national forest ranger district permits a select number of guided operations within their command area. Err on the side of safety and check with the ranger district you intend to hunt prior to booking with a company.

Staying Safe in the Colorado Backcountry

Safety is king in the Colorado backcountry. Remember to always pack the 10 Essentials, and leave a detailed travel plan with someone you trust. This doesn’t need to cover every footstep you plan on taking, but it should include the general area you intend to cover, your day-to-day aim, overall schedule, and the color of your clothes. These details help S&R teams locate missing persons quicker, meaning your chance of rescue goes up dramatically.

The two biggest safety concerns in Colorado’s backcountry come from weather and fitness. The volatile nature of the high country weather systems means it can go from sunny and warm to blizzard and freezing in a matter of minutes. Above treeline, especially in the summer and early September, severe lightning storms pose a deadly threat. Pack for any type of weather, regardless of season, and always be back to treeline before the afternoon storms roll in.

Fitness itself can quickly turn from an inconvenience to a threat in Colorado. Hiking up to 12,000 feet over 3 miles is no joke when also hauling a rifle and heavy hunting gear. Always consider the mountaineering adage that the summit is only halfway; once you tag your buck, or reach your spotting location for the day, there’s still a walk back to camp remaining. Do not underestimate the Colorado Rockies. Outdoorsmen, young and old, die every year because of exposure, falls, drowning, or other factors. Excellent fitness prior to your Colorado mule deer hunt will mitigate some of these risks and allow for a much more relaxing hunt.


Colorado mule deer hunting is an exciting experience that all hunters should include on their bucket list. The thrill of chasing trophy muleys in a serene landscape will ignite the childhood imaginations of even the most grizzly of hunters. If a Colorado mule deer hunt seems like the perfect adventure for you, check out some of our other blog articles on Spike Camp and join our free community to meet other hunters who have experience hunting Colorado mule deer.