We round a curve and halt. A herd of 50 female tule elk crosses our trail. There are three males. Two are smaller, but one is massive, standing tall above his harem, with a huge candelabra rack, seven points on each antler. He looks like he is having a very good year.
It is late October, the tail-end of rutting/breeding season, as we hike the northern tip of Point Reyes National Seashore on Tomales Point Trail. A narrow peninsula, it is bordered by steep cliffs and the wild Pacific to the west, and to the east, the calm waters of Tomales Bay and the rolling hills of Marin.
Tule elk once rambled California’s coastal hills and Central Valley. It is estimated that there were 500,000 when Europeans arrived. They were hunted relentlessly, and by the 1860s they were thought to be extinct. But in 1874, a group of less than 30 was discovered in the marshes of southern San Joaquin Valley. Rancher, Henry Miller, protected them, and they started to make a comeback.
In the fall of 1978, 17 tule elk were released into the 2,600 acre enclosed reserve at Pt. Reyes. The population grew, and today it is estimated at 450. In 1998, 28 elk were moved to the Limantour Beach area. The herd grew, and a group swam across Drakes Estero and established a sub-head near Drakes Beach. Around 4,300 tule elk now live in 15-20 California sites.
Rutting and breeding season extends from August into October, and this is an exciting time to hike the reserve. Female hormones are pumping. Bulls attract females by bugling and then chase off other males to form harems of up to 30-50. After the rut, males form bachelor groups, and in the winter, they lose their antlers.
Females remain in groups throughout the year, except between mid-May and mid-June when a pregnant cow separates to give birth. She returns to the group after about 3 weeks with her calf.
A mile later, we see a coyote, light brown, healthy and proud. He prances along the grassy hillside, then stops and starts to stalk. He freezes, then pounces. A ground squirrel locked firmly in his jaws; he strolls over the crest and disappears.
We continue to the end of the peninsula, hiking trails through grassland, coyote brush, lupine, Douglas iris, and wild radish. Red-tailed hawks, kestrels, and vultures circle overhead. It is a nine mile round trip.
On our hike back, we spot 20 bachelors, 7 feet long and 4-5 feet tall at the shoulders, sporting coats of beige, dark brown manes, tan rumps, and impressive racks. They gather round a small tarn, grazing and lounging while mallards swim in the shallows and an egret hunts along the shore.
We approach cautiously, but they are unconcerned. Roosevelt elk and Rocky Mountain elk inhabit other national parks, but Pt. Reyes National Seashore, is the only one where tule elk roam, and they know they have nothing to fear from humans. Our trail passes within a stones-throw of the pond. We sit for a while before heading back to civilization, taking in this wildlife experience, feeling grateful that these magnificent creatures have endured.
Point Reyes is about 1.5 hours north of San Francisco. To reach the Tule Elk Reserve, take Sir Francis Drake Blvd. into the park. Continue on Sir Francis Drake along the western edge of Tomales Bay and through Inverness. Turn right on Pierce Point Road and drive to the end at Historic Pierce Point Ranch. Tomales Point Trail starts from the parking area.
Docent led tours are available during rutting season. For more information, go to the park’s website, or call 415-464-5100.