I lived in Idaho for most of my life, and hunting has always been a big part of my life there. I recently moved to St George, Utah, and miss the ample over-the-counter elk hunting opportunities the abound in the Gem State, but I will certainly be back to hunt many times.
This isn’t going to be one of those posts where I say “Oh, the animals are everywhere. Just gotta go find ’em”. No, I’m going to give you the goods-even GPS coordinates. Better than that, I’ll even give you a download of my ONX Maps coordinates for Idaho so you can also see my favorite places to camp and fish in southern Idaho. Backfire has your back 🙂
I’m certainly very sensitive to not ruining our wild areas. If I only shared one spot to hunt, I could cause too much hunting pressure in one area. I am going to entirely avoid that problem by sharing dozens of spots all in one post.
I’m tired of hunters not helping new people get started. We say we want to recruit new hunters, but very few people are willing to actually help new hunters get an idea of where they may see these animals. I’m going to show you where you can hunt elk in Idaho.
Unit 39 (Borders Boise to the Northeast)
Unit 39 is one of the most popular elk hunting units in the state of Idaho. Tags can be purchased over-the-counter for a very low cost if you’re a resident, and its proximity to Boise makes it easy to access for scouting trips during the summer and fall. Unit 39 sits bordering the Treasure Valley (boise area) to its northeast. However, because some areas of Unit 39 are very remote and require long drives on dirt roads, recognize that it can take over 3 hours to access some areas of the Unit from Boise.
This unit is also odd because the archery elk season happens after the any weapon season for elk. The trouble with hunting unit 39 is that the season is very short, and it immediately follows the any weapon deer season, so guns have already been going off for a week before elk season begins. Also, the compressed season means many hunters pack in for a tight window. If you have dreams of hiking in deeper and further than anyone else, you’ll likely receive a rude awakening when you realize that there are many hunters even in the deep backcountry of Unit 39 each year.
In 2020, I hunted Unit 39 during elk season. I had scouted the area out, and my game camera caught a decent bull just 2 days before the rifle deer season. However, the guns started going off during rifle season and that game camera never again caught a bull on camera except for a little spike.
During the 2020 elk season, I spotted 42 cow elk in a single day, and on other days spotted several others. However, I only saw one bull in range, and it was a little spike that I passed on. However, there are absolutely elk in this unit—lots of them. You’ll have to be in the right place at the right time and deal with many hunters in the area, but if you want to see elk and have a decent chance, unit 39 is a great option. You’ll definitely see elk.
Most of Unit 39 is extremely steep. There are flatter areas in the southern region, and right around Idaho City, but the rest of the Unit is mostly vertical. If you want to hunt the backcountry in Unit 39, get yourself some boots and a backpack and train hard all summer. It’s rough country.
Explaining my Unit 39 map: Everything blacked out is outside of unit 39. Next, look at the black pins on the map to see the rural cities near 39. You’ll see a black pin for Idaho City right in the center of the unit. Then you’ll see a brown pin for Hawley Mountain, and directly above that is Garden City, Idaho. Right at the very top edge of the map on the right, is Stanley. The area marked off in red is closed to elk hunting (at least at the time of writing). The elk often winter in that area. The areas I marked in light blue are the real “elky” spots in the unit. There are certainly elk in some of the non-blue areas as well, but they have roads, private property, and other issues.
Spot 1 – A lot of hunters will pass right by this area because it’s still in the sage and mixed trees, before the more dense timber line up higher. However, elk can certainly be found in this area. You’ll have to park along the river and head straight up the steep mountains into the sage brush. Because the elk are generally moving from north down to south in the fall in this unit, this could be a good area for finding some of the bulls that get out of town when the deer season guns start going off.
Spot 2 – This is the region I hunted during the elk season of 2020. As mentioned previously, I saw dozens of elk and even had a chance at a spike that I passed up on. Even though it was a brutal 4 hour vertical hike to get to the area where I hunted, there were still hunters on every ridge around me, which really made hunting tough. However, that’s likely to be the case no matter where you hunt these days. Fortunately, in 2021, Idaho raised its rates substantially for elk tags, so hopefully it will turn away some out-of-state hunters. In 2020, I saw 70% out-of-state license plates at the trailhead.
Don’t be turned off when you open this spot on OnX and see tons of roads and trails going through this area. Almost all of them have seasonal closures starting September 15 and going through the end of elk season. So there are no active roads spidering through this spot during season.
Virtually every mountain top in the blue areas on the map will be great spots to see elk. One example of a mountain top where you can do some good glassing is 43.835639, -115.411492. I saw plenty of elk there.
Spot 3 – This area isn’t as remote as the rest of the unit, but there definitely are elk up this spot. If you get the early season draw-only cow tag, this is a good area to go, along with spot 4.
Spot 4 – The road mostly follows the river and then forks off to the northwest which allows access to this area. Similar to spot 3, there are many hunters in this area and it’s quite steep if you get far away from the road. However, I spotted many elk in this area during the off season. There is thick scrub brush in the northern area of this spot which makes the going tough, but much of the rest of the spot is moderate timber. If I had the early season cow tag, this is where I’d go.
There are also two major elk sanctuary areas that I spotted at the tops of mountains in this area, which at one point I saw many dozens of elk congregating in during the rifle season, but it was two ridges away from where I was looking with binoculars. The GPS coordinates for one of the sanctuaries is 43.8561,-115.3990887
Spot 5 – This is the most remote area of the unit, and receives the least hunting pressure. If there is early snowfall during the hunt, this area would be difficult to access, but if there isn’t any snow yet then the most dedicated elk hunters (and the fittest) will likely find this portion of the unit to be their best bet. However, study the maps closely and you’ll see that almost all of this area is roadless and in some of this region, you’d have a very long and very tough pack-out if you were successful.
Spot 6 – This is the most common area that I see guides setting up horse camps. Spot 6 has a deep roadless area. It’d be a long pack in with no animals (similar to spot 5 which is also very roadless). They usually park along the river right as the road crosses the river. On opening day you’ll see that parking spot filled to the brim with horse trailers. I don’ think I spotted even one truck without a horse trailer.
Unit 19 (Selway Zone – Northeast of Riggins)
Tags: Over-the-counter but capped. A “capped” zone means that there are only a set number of tags available, but the tags can be purchased over-the-counter until the limit is met. This can happen quick, so you have to act fast.
First, we gotta understand my horrible map. The small town of Riggins is at the lower-left corner of the unit. There are major roads bordering the unit. On the south, you’ll find the Salmon river. Those are the boundaries. So what about roads in the center of the unit? There basically aren’t any. Access is tough unless you hike in from the sides or float in from the bottom. But if you can get in, you’re going to be hunting alone.
If you’re familiar with the tiny town of Burgdorf, Idaho, you’ve spent plenty of time in the Idaho wilderness. Burgdorf is about 45 minutes north of McCall, or 3 hours north of Boise. Burgdorf itself sits on the southwest corner of Unit 19A, but in my experience, that area has a lot of hunters and not a lot of great hunting. Riggins is closer than Burgdorf and sits at the southwest corner of the unit.
Unit 19 is very remote. In 2017, there was a fire that took out most of the trees in the southwest tip of the unit, and the northeast tip of the unit had a fire in 2012. I think a lot of hunters stay out of this area because thy assume it all got burned recently in the 2019 fire season, but most of Unit 19 is still fine.
The hunter success rate in this unit has been over 20% for several years in a row.
The #1 problem with hunting Unit 19 is how remote it is. It’s almost all public lands, but it’s hard to access because of a lack of roads. Worse than that, even the roads that do exist in large part don’t allow vehicles. This unit would be a haven for people with horses, llamas, goats, or a very sturdy spouse whose hobby is carrying heavy bags long distances.
The best part about hunting in Unit 19 is how many early season opportunities exist for hunting with either a bow or a rifle. To me, the lack of hunting pressure in this unit combined with the early season rifle hunt makes it a BIG winner.I would begin my scouting on Unit 19 in the Elk Butte area-looking for mountaintops where you can look into fingers with moderate tree cover so the elk feel secluded but still giving you a chance to spot them.
North Butte looking down into Porcupine creek can also be a productive area, and access from Highway 95 near Lucille at least makes the trip possible, though still very steep and remote.
There really are elk in nearly every drainage of this unit as long as you can avoid the wolves and as long as you can access the spot.
Much like this entire region of Idaho that used to be incredible for elk hunting, it has changed because of wolf predation. However, keep in mind that hunters in this unit have consistently had a 20+% success rate for the last five years. That’s nothing to sniff at.