Looking for Tule : California’s Elks

Tule Elks are native to California and are found nowhere else in the world. The native Indian tribes in California used the Elks for sustenance. At the time of Spanish arrival in California, Tule Elks were the largest group of mammals in California. Though the Spanish introduced cattle to California, Tule Elks were widely hunted in the Spanish era and subsequent California Gold rush era. By late 1880s, their numbers were reduced to a single gang of about 72 head count. In 1971 California passed legislation requiring that the elk may not hunted until their numbers surpass 2,000 heads statewide. In the spring of 1978, ten tule elk (2 bulls, 8 cows) were brought to Point Reyes. Today there numbers have increased beyond 400. Point Reyes and Tomales Bay Elk Reserve now has the largest population of Tule Elks in California. Once driven to the brink of extinction, protection has helped these animals fight their way back.

Tule elks are the smallest species of Elks, one third the size of Roosevelt Elks found in Oregon and Washington state. The ‘rut’ season between July-September is when male elks try to round up their harem of female elks. Only that male can mate with the harem of elks he rounds up. To get to be THE guy, the male elks fight each other with their antlers. Half the the male population will remain bachelors and most breeding is taken care of by 10% of the male population. Towards the end of the breeding season, other ‘“secondary’” bulls may get the opportunity to breed as the ‘primary’ bull tires.

The Tule Elk reserve to the west of Tomales Bay is your best bet to see the elks. The Elk Reserve is a part of 2000 acres of Tomales Bay State Park in the northern edge of the Point Reyes peninsula, which is about 2 hours drive north of San Francisco. The Point Reyes area was the habitat of the Coast Miwok Indians for several thousand years before the arrival of Europeans. British explorer Sir Francis Drake landed in the area in 1579. About 25 years later, Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno landed in the area and named it “La Punta de Los Tres Reyes” (“Point of the Three Kings”). Hence the name Point Reyes.

The elk reserve can be reached either via CA-1 Highway or along US-101 and west on Francis Drake Boulevard. CA-1 is slightly shorter but has very winding roads. Driving is possible only to the end of Pierce Point Road. There you will find the historic Pierce Point Ranch (diary ranch built in 1860s; abandoned now), which is also the trail-head to the Tomales Point trail which takes you through the Elk Reserve. The trail is approx 10 miles round-trip moderate hike. We did not walk the entire trail. We turned back after we spotted our first gang of elks about 2 miles into the trail. The Pierce Point Ranch trail-head has no restrooms. But there are some at the McClures beach trail-head, a short distance down the road. Even before you reach the trail-head, you might be able to see a gang of elks before the turn-off to Drake’s Bay and the Point Reyes lighthouse.

Tule Elk viewing is good anytime of the year. During the rut season, park rangers are stationed along the trail. Besides Elk viewing, Point Reyes is also a great place for watching Elephant seals that haul themselves out near Drake’s Bay beach at the end of every year, the Gray Whale migration between Alaska and Mexico, watching deer and bird-watching.

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