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Tule Elk Bachelors and Hiker on Tomales Point Trail
An hour drive north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, 700-pound Tule elk roam 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. And 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.
On September 17, 2016, I 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.
Bishop pine forest of Point Reyes National Seashore along northern part of Inverness Ridge. Dense pine patches alternate with the rare Marin manzanita. Bishop pines are gorgeous and grow sparingly on the California coast.
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 to 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 wind breakers, 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.
Volunteer docent, Katie Ballinger, offers information and powerful viewing scopes to watch Tule elk herds during their rutting (mating) season at Windy Gap located on Tomales Point Trail.
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. Around 30 elk engaged in activity.
“Three harems got together when people went off the trail and spooked them,” said Blair. “Now two bulls are fighting to maintaining 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.
Volunteer docent, John Blair, offers information and powerful viewing scopes to watch Tule elk herds during their rutting (mating) season at Windy Gap located on Tomales Point Trail.
“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 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 prevented 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.
That's me, posing along Tomales Point Trail with Bachelor Tule elk in background
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
“19 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. 19 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 6th 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.
Watching Tule elk along Tomales Point Trail.
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 maddening 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.
When You Go
Point Reyes National Seashore California (415) 464-5100 https://www.nps.gov/pore/
To experience Tule elk with docents: Weather permitting, volunteer docents are stationed at Tomales Point Trailhead 10:30 a.m. to 4 pm. on weekends and holidays from August through October, and stationed at Windy Gap, along the Tomales Point Trail from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Docents will have binoculars and spotting scopes to allow visitors to observe elk rut behaviors and answer questions.
Until next time, breathe easy and make life an adventure! Let's go! Out of Los Angeles and into the world, chasing clean air, beauty, and a sustainable life! FACEBOOK LIKE Chasing Clean Air
Sun rays bathe path leading to the Redwoods of Big Hendy Grove. Hendy Woods State Park, California.
Always on the lookout for clean air destinations, Coastal Mendocino tops my California list. I loved how the clean air, vivid natural colors, and tall Redwood trees -- protected in special preserves -- made me feel.
I love Canada for its wilderness, open space ratio to few people, and civilized ways, and now the Canadian dollar hit a 13-year low.
This summer, I'm headed to Canada's Quebec City and the St. Lawrence river to explore marine wildlife and birds. In the past, some of my life's most memorable experiences happened in the wilderness of British Columbia and Alberta, Canada.
Maligne Lake, Jasper
So I thought I'd share that as of this week, the most favorable Canadian exchange means international travelers, perhaps like you, will pay about 30% less exploring Canada this year. Exchange rates vary but indicators point to continued value travel to Canada in 2016.
I loved my journey on the luxurious Rocky Mountaineer Train throughout gorgeous B.C. and Alberta, Canada. Highly recommend with stops to explore along the way.
I stopped in Quesnel and made my way to Wells, where I had one of those best days of my life, canoeing with tour guide Dave Jorgenson on remote Bowron Lakes. I experienced quiet, majesty, and observed moose and eagles up close.
Just outside of Quesnel, I had my first fly-fishing experience, you can read about here: http://www.chasingcleanair.com/chasing_clean_air/2008/07/the-10-oclock-2.html
I have not yet traveled with these tour operators but I am considering doing so. Tour companies to consider:
The BEST Black Friday deal: National Parks in nine states will be free to the public, only Arizona requires a physical free pass, which you can pick up at an REI location in the state.
REI is closing its 143 stores and paying all employees to get outside and enjoy national parks. I am a card-carrying REI member, and encourage you to be inspired by this wonderful company, too. Read more about REI's opt-out of shopping on Black Friday here.
Inspired by REI, California's 49 state parks will offer free admission but require that you get limited passes online beforehand. Oops, just checked that limited passes link, and many parks are "sold out" overcapacity but you can see through above link what parks are still available for free entrance.
Join nearly one million people, opting out of shopping to enjoy state and national parks instead. #optoutside See you on the trails...
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Until next time, breathe easy and make life an adventure.
Photo taken hiking Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, California where 80% of land is preserved as park land.
Considering a winter vacation? I have an idea, especially if you enjoy bird watching.
The annual Winter Wings Festival takes place during Presidents Day Weekend.
Earlier this year, I journeyed on the train to Klamath Falls to glimpse tens of thousands of migrating birds that winter in the area. Actually, seasonally, billions of birds migrate up and down the Pacific Flyaway. A large portion winter in Klamath Falls, Oregon with it's substantial water (despite drought 4-years in a row) and food sources.
A Pair Of Wintering Bald Eagles in Old Willow Tree
It's also the location of the largest number of wintering Bald eagles in the lower 48 states.
In addition to writing Chasing Clean Air, I contribute travel articles to Creators Syndicate, emphasizing sustainable travel, wildlife and habitat conservation. I wrote about my train adventure to Oregon's Winter Wings Festival (Feb. 2015) for Creators, which you can read here.
To stay connected with my search for clean air, LIKE Chasing Clean Air on Facebook or subscribe to blog feed.
Until next time, breathe easy and make life an adventure.