Photo Courtesy of Donna Barnett

A hiker photographs bachelor Tule elk just off the Tomales Point Trail in California's Point Reyes National Seashore. 

An hour’s drive north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, 700-pound Tule elk roam in a magical land with a power to transport tranquility-seekers back thousands of years to a time when Coast Miwok people inhabited what is today’s 71,028-acre Point Reyes National Seashore. 

Created in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy in order to save the land and seashore from Marin County developers for future generations to enjoy, the preserve’s granite cliffs and shoreline provide visitors year-round sightings of the once almost extinct California Tule elk. There are also seasonal sightings of gray whale migrations, elephant seals mating and birthing pups, and birds of the Pacific Flyaway.

Before the 1848 gold rush, 500,000 Tule elk grazed central and coastal California, but hungry miners dwindled their numbers to 10. In 1978, Tule elk herds were reintroduced to Point Reyes and are now considered the most visible herds in California. 

I recently drove with a friend from Marin County’s San Rafael to Point Reyes National Seashore. We passed artistic towns and redwood groves along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and pulled into the Bear Valley Visitor Center in about 30 minutes. The modern facility showcased the area’s natural and human history. We learned volunteer docents stationed on Tomales Point Trail had scopes for Tule elk viewing. It was mating season — the rut — which ran from mid-August through October.

The drive along Pierce Point Road to the trail was breathtaking: wind-swept cypress and bishop pine trees and blankets of California brush and wildflowers atop rolling hills. The Pacific Ocean appeared between ribbons of fog. We turned on the car’s headlights, passing Tomales State Park, historic dairy farms, Abbott’s Lagoon and Kehoe Beach. We arrived at the end of the road and the Tomales Point Trailhead parking lot in 35 minutes. 

Majestic Tule elk grazed on a hill. A siren pierced the air. The male Tule elk, or bull, bugle call was attracting females.

Tomales Point Trail was flat and easy to navigate, with areas of slight elevation. We dressed in layers with windbreakers, which proved helpful. Inhaling salty air, we passed purple lupine, orange California poppies, and yellow and white meadow foam wildflowers on the sides of a thin dirt trail that widened. The landscape included dramatic Pacific Ocean views.

It was about one and half miles and a 20-minute walk to volunteer docents John Blair and Katie Ballinger at Windy Gap. Hikers peered through two Nikon scopes pointed at White Gulch, a dry grassy valley with a spring where there were around 30 elk.

“Three harems got together when people went off the trail and spooked them,” said Blair. “Now two bulls are fighting to maintain their harems. Take a look.” 

Two bulls, antlers faced down and toward each other, fought. The high-pitched, eerie sound of the bulls’ bugle permeated the air. Another bull chased a female.

“There’s one male for up to 20 females,” Blair said. “The Tule elk bull thrashes his 40-pound antlers into brush until brush hangs on his antlers for a sexy look. Then he urinates on himself to create an attractive scent. The strongest bulls fight for their women and that’s what you’re seeing.”

It was thrilling. Could it get better than this? 

A group of teenagers approached, saying they’d just seen 25 Tule elk by the trail ahead. “No need for scopes or binoculars!” I’d never seen a large number of wild animals up-close. We excitedly continued up the trail. 

A weathered couple in good shape approached from the north.

“How far until we see elk by the trail?” I asked. 

“About 15 minutes,” the woman responded. 

“How many elk did you see?” 

“Ten,” she said, though her husband blurted, “Twelve!” 

As we walked, the sun burned through the fog. I wrapped my jacket around my waist. We passed fences to our right, which prevented Tule elk from roaming near cattle, a concern for local ranchers. But the fences also prevent elk from finding needed water sources during drought years. As a result, the herd population diminished from 540 in 2012 to 286 in 2014. Meanwhile, in 1998 a Tule elk herd moved to nearby Limantour Beach and left free to roam found water sources and grew a third in size during the same period. That herd became two, and one herd roamed toward Drakes Beach. 

Our walk continued as a solo man with bulging arms signaling strength sprinted by. 

“How far until we see elk by the trail?” I asked.

He spoke with certainty. “Five minutes.”

“How many did you see?” 

“50!” he said, “I could hardly believe it!”

We stopped for a picnic lunch, sitting on a rock with ocean views. At times we saw only one or two people, and raptors soared above.

Onward, we encountered a hefty family walking down a hill.

 “How far until we see the elk by the trail?” I asked.

The mother breathed heavily, “It’s pretty far.” She looked uphill. “About 30 minutes.” Her husband said, “No, 15 minutes,” proving much in life is relative.

“How many elk did you see?” I asked

“Nineteen elk sitting next to the trail and a pond,” the woman said.

We received conflicting reports until we arrived to the hilltop and peered down. Nineteen bulls with elegant antlers lounged under the sun. A large pond was nearby and Tomales Bay was in the distance. It was a scene for Beethoven’s Sixth pastoral symphony. A sight for budding Monets. We’d learn these were the bachelor elk who couldn’t get a girl. I took out my camera lenses. 

I focused on bulls sitting. Getting up. Jostling. Posing with heads high. Looking at me. Walking toward me. What’s the behavior of male bulls? One bull stepped closer and into my comfort zone. I think our eyes locked. 

“Some weigh as much as 800 pounds,” the docent had said. I was Girl Scout savvy enough to stay calm. Slowly, we turned back.

We stopped at Windy Gap — about 2.5 miles from the pond — and I asked docent Ballinger about the bachelor Tule elk. “Were we in danger?” The consensus was that elk are generally not aggressive with humans, but it’s best to avoid close contact. 

My elk experience was spectacular, so much so that when the car didn’t start because we’d left the fog lights on, I was lost in thought about my return trip to Point Reyes. It would be for winter gray whale migration.

“You forgot to remind me to turn off the fog lights,” my friend said. Ah, yes. Fortunately, Point Reyes was far from the madding crowd but an easy AAA call to nearby Inverness tow trucks. While we awaited our rescue, I added elephant seal mating and bird-watching to my next Point Reyes adventure. 

A young couple approached a nearby car. I introduced myself and voila! Their jumper cables started our battery and we were off, but not before the fellow said, “We’ve left our fog lights on before at Point Reyes. I hope you’ll pass the warning on with helpful information for others.” 

We started home when the ribbon of fog lifted, revealing the magical bishop pine forest and a feeling that all was well in the world.

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