coyote (2)

Hiking Point Reyes Tule Elk Reserve

We round a curve and halt.  A herd of 50 female tule elk crosses our trail.  There 10474486276?profile=originalare 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 estimated10474486065?profile=original 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 10474485892?profile=originalmoved 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 to10474486301?profile=original 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 10474486676?profile=originalbrush, 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 10474486090?profile=originallounging 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 10474486467?profile=originalmagnificent 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.

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Yellowstone in the Winter

The summer Yellowstone crowds disappear, and serenity settles on the land for both people and animals.  Bison gather in the geyser basins where food is more 10474460694?profile=originalabundant.  Elk graze along river banks.  Wolves and coyotes come to pick off the vulnerable.

     Yellowstone is unique in the world – 2 million acres with 10,000 hydrothermal features – hot springs, mud pots, and geysers.  All of the park’s roads close from early Nov. to mid-April, except one road from the NE 10474461280?profile=originalentrance into Mammoth Hot Springs.  Once there is enough snow, you can enter this ethereal paradise only by snowcoach or snowmobile.

     We came in from West Yellowstone on a 4-hour snowcoach ride along the Madison River, then south along the Firehole to Old Faithful, stopping to observe and photograph wildlife – bison, elk, coyotes.  We spotted the carcass of a bull elk, his skull and antlers lay in the snow.  A pack of wolves had brought him down.  Coyotes feasted after the wolves had eaten their fill.  Raccoons, mice, and other smaller creatures followed.  Ravens were taking their turn when we arrived.  Insects will finish the job.  Raw nature and the vivid cycle of life.10474462055?profile=original

     Old Faithful Snow Lodge is the only lodging in the park.  Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is closed in the winter for renovations.  It should reopen in winter 2018-19.  We stayed in a cozy cabin.  There is a grill, a good restaurant, and a comfortable lounge.  Even though they have a monopoly, prices are reasonable.

     Old Faithful is the central attraction.  More than 1,000 people will gather to watch it erupt in the summer - in the winter, maybe 20-30.  We hiked for hours through the Upper Geyser Basin, meeting only a few other hikers.  What a contrast to the summer throngs.

 10474462092?profile=original    Deep hot springs, with brilliant blue and yellow pools, steam in the cool air.  Geysers, each with its own personality, bubble and spout or fire jets of boiling water and steam high into the sky.  The beautiful Firehole River meanders through the basin, geysers steaming along its banks.  At times we needed to take a detour around a gang of bison or a single bull. 

     Bring your cross country skis and snowshoes, or rent them once you arrive.  You can ski or snowshoe on trails from Old Faithful or take a shuttle and ski back.  We hiked the geyser basin trails with tracs, traction devices attached to our boots.  They are sold in the Old Faithful store.

     Lodging at Old Faithful Snow Lodge starts at $149/night.  For reservations, call 307-344-7311 or go to 10474462489?  Enter the park by snowcoach or snowmobile tour from the west, north, or south entrance.  Start your research at

     Leaving the park, our driver, Les, spotted a lone wolf, ½ mile away.  With binoculars, we saw a nearby pack of five.  The lone wolf slowly approached the pack.  This was the first time Heidi or I had seen a wolf in the wilds.  Les, a retired park ranger, was as excited as we were to watch this drama.  He speculated that the lone male was searching for a pack to join. 

     “They are pack animals,” he said, “and a 10474463260?profile=originallone wolf will not thrive.”

     The lone male approached slowly, tentatively.  Things did not go well.  The pack spotted him.  We could not hear the exchange, but it was clear he was not welcome.  The pack moved forward, menacing, and the lone wolf streaked away over the hill and into the woods.

Add winter in Yellowstone to your bucket list.


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