elk (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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Hiking Grizzly Island

A small herd of tule elk bounded out of the trees and into the marsh.  All males with 10474475254?profile=originalimpressive racks, they splashed through the shallows startling egrets and sending a flock of ducks aloft as they raced to an open field and disappeared.

Grizzly Island, 8,800 acres of marshland is a maze of ponds, sloughs, rivers and fields.  You can take the 8-mile driving tour and see wildlife, but you need to leave the car and hike the levee trails to experience the amazing abundance of raptures, waterfowl, river otters, and the elk.

We hiked in early February, shortly after the park had reopened from its five-month elk and waterfowl hunting season.  Those 600-800 pound male elk will soon drop their massive antlers.  In10474475654?profile=original the spring, a new set will start to grow.  A hungry northern harrier glided gracefully over the marsh and startled a flock of hundreds of snow geese.  They rose as one with a cacophony of squawks, circled and flew to a distant pond to resettle.  A pair of river otters playfully embraced and tumbled in a nearby slough.  Herons and egrets grazed in the shallows. Flocks of ducks paddled and fed in small ponds.  Red-tailed hawks and white-tailed kites circled overhead.

Located near Fairfield off I-80, the island is part of a patchwork of 10 separate parcels in the Grizzly Island 10474475852?profile=originalWildlife Area.  (Directions, fee information, public use schedules or call 707-425-3828)  It is in the heart of the 84,000 acre Suisun Marsh, the largest contiguous estuarine marsh in the U.S.

We saw only two other hikers and a fisherman as we hiked six miles on levee trails that leave from eight designated parking areas.  The sun was nearing the western horizon as we headed back to our car, casting long shadows over Mt. Diablo.  Rounding a bend, we spotted a white-tailed kite with a grey back, white head, and piercing eyes, perched atop a fence post.  She stared at us.  Then bored with our presence, she lifted with a few flaps, circled, and glided off.  It was a beautiful sight, ending a serene day of hiking in the wildlife wonderland of Grizzly Island.10474475683?profile=original


Walkabout California – connecting with the natural world through travel, outdoor adventure, and hiking inn-to-inn.  Savor the journey and the destination. Click here for California inn-to-inn hiking guides.

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