Just north of beautiful San Francisco lies a stretch of land designated as Point Reyes National Seashore with stunning views of the great Pacific Ocean. At the northernmost tip of this peninsula lies Tomales Point, which houses the endemic Tule Elk population and is the setting of an amazing animal conservation and revival program—the endemic Tule Elk of California.
The Tule Elk is one of two native elk species to California and were once at danger of extinction due to hunting and cattle displacement, with fewer than 30 remaining in a single herd. In 1874, cattle rancher Henry Miller discovered this last herd and had the foresight to do everything to preserve these last animals which were otherwise considered extinct. Today, an estimated 3,900 tule elk across 22 herds roam California as direct descendants of the original thirty.
In 1978, two Tule Elk bulls and eight Tule Elk cows were brought to Tomales Point within a temporary three acre enclosure. Eventually, the cows bore calves and more and more elk were released across more land on Tomales Point. This initial effort now accounts for the more than 440 Tule Elk found on Tomales Point today.
The hike up to Tomales Point does a great job at providing an enchanting atmosphere and captivating backdrop.
Accessing the Tomales Point Trail head is relatively easy. Although you will have to traverse some unpaved roads, they are clearly marked and can be accessed by almost any vehicle, as long as you don’t mind if things get bumpy. Along the way, your eyes will have a feast as you pass various farms and long stretches of farmland, cattle and horses. You’ll know you’ve arrived at the Trail head when you hit Pierce Point Ranch. There, you’ll need to park in the area off to the left of the barn house. It’ll feel as if you’re trespassing private land, but you’re not. A single port-a-potty stands at the parking area—make sure to use it before beginning your hike as this will be the only available bathroom for the entire hike.
If you’re ambitious and lucky enough, you should get there early. The enchanting atmosphere that is provided by the all-encompassing fog is an experience that can hardly be described in words. In addition to the isolation you’ll already have driven into, it’ll feel even more mystical to take on a one-way 5-mile trail through a fog so thick that you can’t see what’s ten feet in front of you.
The weather will likely be a little chilly and breezy and because of all the humidity in the air, you may experience some issues with keeping your glasses or camera lenses dry. A minor inconvenience for the trade-off.
As you make your way up the trail, keep an eye for wildlife—from snails wrapped around greenery to billowing dandelions, but mostly, for the Tule Elk themselves. You would think that an animal larger than a horse would be easy to spot, especially because they tend to roam in herds, but surprisingly enough, through the cover of sloping hills and dense fog, the Tule Elk are quite elusive.
At first you may only see set of ears above the horizon, which quickly trot away when spotted. Try to keep up until you find them again. You may be lucky enough to catch a couple of cows guarding the bull and these could eventually lead you to the heard. There may be several of these false alarms, but it will all be worth when you first experience the grandeur of these animals. An Elk Tule cow is an imposing creature, but the bull elk even more so. The only way to describe the first time you see the entire head of an elk bull breach the horizon is as a spine-chilling moment.
Don’t give up if you only catch a few at first, like we did. Keep going. The herds await. Continuing the trail, you’ll eventually run into the entire herd—dozens of cows, a handful of calves and the powerful bull elk. For the hiking photographers, this provides a fantastic photo op. If the fog has dispersed enough, you’ll have a chance to capture the herd atop a mountain with the infinite Pacific in the background.
If the spell of seeing the Tule Elk herd eventually wears off, perhaps after you’ve heard the bull bugling or the entire herd moving quickly across the land, you’ll have a chance to enjoy the majestic shoreline of the Pacific Ocean.
From the ridges of Tomales Point, the Pacific Ocean melts into the blue sky painted with wispy white clouds, making it almost impossible to differentiate where one ends and the other begins. The various shades of blue blend into each other seamlessly, broken up only by the few ships that start to drift into the frame. Occasionally a hawk may distract you as it sweeps deep into the shoreline.
Once you’ve trained your eye to spot the elk, you’ll begin seeing them everywhere, and in a 10-mile round trip trail, you’ll see just how successful this Tule Elk Preserve is.
If you’re in the area, or planning a road-less-traveled trip to California, we encourage you to check it out!