Point Reyes National Seashore is one of 22 sites in California that manage Tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) populations and the only National Park unit where this species of elk can be found. Tule elk are endemic to California, meaning they are found only in this state. This species of elk is considered to be the smallest of any found in North America and typically lived amongst the tules in native grasslands and marshes. This species once roamed a large portion of the state, but due to hunting pressures and large scale cattle farming they were nearly brought to extinction in the late 1800s. In 1874, fewer than 30 animals remained in a single herd near Bakersfield, which were discovered by a rancher named Henry Miller. All of the estimated 3,900 tule elk present in California today derived from this small remnant herd, thanks to initial conservation efforts. By 1978, 10 animals (8 females and 2 males) were transplanted from a herd in the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge near Los Baños to their new home at Tomales Point. Further conservation efforts resulted in an additional free-ranging herd being established in 1998, where 28 animals were moved from the preserve at Tomales Point to the wilderness area south of Limantour Beach.
The majestic animals you see as you travel through the park embody the restoration of the dominant native herbivore to the California coastal ecosystem. They shape the landscape around them as they did for centuries before they were extirpated by humans. They symbolize the conservation of native species and ecosystem processes, one of the primary missions of the National Park Service. Download the National Park Service's Tule Elk Newspaper to learn more about this species.
Best Time to View
Year Around; Rut Season (July - September)*
*On weekends from July through September, park volunteers are stationed at the Tomales Point trailhead and at Windy Gap (one mile down the trail) with binoculars, scopes and other interpretive tools to help visitors learn more about this native species. During the breeding season, known as rut, visitors may have a chance to hear the males bugling in an attempt to round up harems (female groups), or you may encounter male elk sparring for the right to the harems, which allows them to pass on their genetics to the next generation.
Place to View
The largest population of this species can be seen easily from the parking lot at the Tomales Point trailhead or within a short, 1-mile walk down the trail. The smaller free-ranging herds of 40-65 animals can be found on the slopes between Limantour and Drakes Beach. Bring binoculars or spotting scopes for the best viewing opportunity.
To help you enjoy your experience, please follow these elk watching tips:
- For your own safety, always observe elk from a distance. Use binoculars and spotting scopes. If an elk becomes alert or nervous and begins to move away, you are too close.
- If viewing from your car, pull off the road or park in designated areas.
- If you are on foot, stay on the trail; do not come between a cow and calf, between a bull and a group of cows, or between two bulls challenging each other.
- Watch quietly; whisper; move slowly.
- Do not feed the elk. Feeding elk or any other wildlife is unhealthy for the animals, potentially dangerous for visitors, and strictly prohibited.
- Pets are prohibited in most areas where elk may be seen, including the Tomales Point Tule Elk Reserve.
- Do not collect or remove elk antlers. They are an important source of calcium for many wildlife species such as rodents and deer.
- If you happen upon a young animal, please leave it. Most likely the mother is out forgaing and will return. This is very common. If you have concerns tell them to a ranger in the field or at any visitor center.
Interested in learning more about this species and sharing it with other park visitors? Become a Tule elk docent and help the public learn more about this threatened species. Learn more
Tule Elk Resources
- California Fish & Game: Elk Biology: All About the Tule Elk
- Tule Elk: The Return of a Species Resource Newsletter
- San Francisco Bay Science and Nature website
- School Curriculum Guide
- Current Trend of Population Growth of Tule Elk at Point Reyes National Seashore
- KQED's Quest Program: Elk Return to the Bay Area
- Watch the 10-minute documentary Tule Elk: California's Legacy of Wildness
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