• Michael O'Keeffe

Elk Tales: Exploring Colorado's Elk Mountains

Colorado is packed with incredible mountain ranges all of which provide unique experiences when compared against each other. However, few of Colorado's ranges compare to the mighty Elk Mountains located deep in the heart of the state's high country. Accessed by two iconic ski towns, Aspen to the north and Crested Butte to the south, this unique range has some of the wildest geology in Colorado. The three major rock types (igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic) can be found in these mountains with the crown jewel being the skyscraping Maroon Bells, two fourteeners named after the bright red rock that they are made of.

In addition to the geology, this range is incredibly lush. The range's unique position in the middle of the state allows it to catch moisture from storms approaching from the north, south, and west. Not to mention the copious amounts of rainfall the range receives in the summer during the annual monsoon. These factors allow the flora to flourish within the range, so much so in fact that the Elks are known as "The Wildflower Capitol of Colorado". It is for these reasons the Elks are among my favorite spots in Colorado or anywhere for that matter. So it was no surprise that over the summer we took not one but two trips down to the range to backpack, hike and camp among this alpine paradise.


Trip 1: Backpack to Yule Pass

Our first trip took us to lesser known region of the Elks within the Raggeds Wilderness. A short, but scenic trail took us into an idyllic high alpine basin filled with wildflowers and big views!


Elk Mountains Crested Butte Colorado
Our first view from Yule Pass looking down the Yule Creek Valley.

Crested Butte Colorado
Colorful wildflowers on Yule Pass.

Crested Butte Colorado
Lush wildflower filled slopes lead down to the meandering Yule Creek.

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A pano of the Yule Creek Valley in the Raggeds Wilderness.

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Unusual geology peaking out among the verdant alpine tundra.

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Interesting light over the Yule Creek Valley.

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The aptly named Ruby Range in evening light.

Crested Butte Colorado
A small cluster of flowers among the rocks.

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Close-up of the rugged terrain.

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Sunset over the Raggeds.

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The steep red colored cone of Purple Mountain.

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Our camp under Purple Mountain.

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A smoky sunrise over the headwaters of the Slate River. Mount Crested Butte in the distance.

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Cluster of pink Indian paintbrush at sunrise.

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Looking down the Slate River Valley toward the Anthracite Range.

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The trail was very narrow on this slope. Can you spot Chyna?

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The incomparable Elk Mountains.

Trip 2: Moose, Deer, but No Elk in the Elks

Our second trip took us back to the Elks for a late summer camping trip to enjoy the last bit of warmth before fall set in. We spent a few days at Lake Irwin enjoying the warm days and cool nights. We saw plenty of wildlife as well, but surprisingly no elk.


Crested Butte Colorado
The Ruby Range reflects in a pond next to our campsite.

Crested Butte Colorado
A close-up of the Ruby Range.

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A pleasant scene near camp.

Crested Butte Colorado
A smoky evening in the Elks.

Crested Butte Colorado moose
A large bull moose munching on willows.

Crested Butte Colorado moose
This guy was absolutely massive.

Crested Butte Colorado wildlife
A mule deer buck and another moose (laying down in the background).

Crested Butte Colorado moose
ANOTHER bull moose chomping on willows in these meadow.

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A deer in the forest.

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A stormy morning at our campsite.

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The pond was absolutely glass like this morning.

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The sun bleeds through the clouds.

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Storm clouds rolling in.

Crested Butte Colorado
One evening I did a hike up to Scarp Ridge. It was unfortunately cloudy and smoky.

Crested Butte Colorado
Ruby Peak and Green Lake

Crested Butte Colorado
Ruby Range

Crested Butte Colorado
Blue Lake from the ridge.

Crested Butte Colorado
A pano looking north into the heart of the Elks. The Maroon Bells are right of center.

Crested Butte Colorado
Looking into the Peeler Lakes Basin to the east.

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A wide shot reveals Mount Crested Butte.

Crested Butte Colorado
Incredible geology at Scarp Ridge.

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Just wow!

Crested Butte Colorado
Stormy skies encroaching as I made my way back to camp.

It is safe to say we will be returning to the Elk Mountains again and again. A place we find close to our hearts with so much to see and explore. Until next time!


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