It was a challenge putting together the itinerary for my visits to all of the southern California Parks on the closure list. Many of them have limited hours, and a few of them are geographically isolated. Tule Elk State Natural Reserve in Button-willow (near Bakersfield) was open daily when I first planned my road trip. But, when the time came, they too had restricted their hours to weekends only, and I had to scramble to fit in this park.
I would have been dis-appointed if I had made a special trip at a later date. Although I milked my visit, I still found myself pulling out of the parking lot after forty-five minutes. January is not a good month to view Elk. They are not active in winter and were not in sight.
Thus, the photos of these Elk were taken last summer at another State Reserve just south of Crescent City - in August - at the height of the rutting season when Elk are most active. In all probability, the Elk in my photos were once part of the Buttonwillow herd, as I will explain below.
In its original pristine distribution, it is estimated that half a million animals roamed the regions up and down the state. The grandness of the scene has been likened to what is seen in the Serengeti. Click here to view maps showing the dramatic, rapid decline of California's Elk population.
Serious commercial exploitation of Tule Elk began during the early 1800s, when they became part of the hide and tallow trade. Never-theless, they were still plentiful until the gold rush brought thousands of new immigrants to California. The demand for meat increased greatly. By1850 the entire Sacramento Valley Tule Elk population had been wiped out. In the San Joaquin Valley, where hunting was less common, the Elk survived somewhat longer. However, in 1863 market hunters claimed to have killed the last Elk cow and calf left in the tules of the San Joaquin Delta.
A small parking lot, a couple of picnic tables, a viewing stand and some educa-tional Elk information on the bathroom walls is pretty much the essence of this state park.
A Visitor Center door was not only closed, it was bolted shut. A couple of State vehicles sat outside a small residence. Hoping to get the attention of the park workers so that I could talk with them and pay the day use fee, I let Roxy off her leash and let her run around the picnic tables. But on this day, neither Elk nor Human was to greet us at this state park.
A fifty year effort to save the nearly extinct Tule Elk begain in 1874 by Cattleman Henry Miller. In 1932, the herd was given permanent protection on the park property. Elk from this reserve have been successfully transplanted to other areas in California where free-roaming herds of Tule Elk can be found today - including the ones in my photos taken 500 miles north! So, even if the reserve closes to the public as scheduled on July 1, it still remains a state park, and a protected habitat for these gorgeous animals.
After reading ever word of information available, Roxy and I hopped back into the car and drove to nearby Interstate 5 for a fast ride home. Earlier in the day, in the spirit of exploring California, I opted for a 70 mile scenic drive via Highway 33 from Ojai to Ventucopa through the Los Padres National Forest.
It is a windy road, with dramatic changes around every bend. Even as a driver I am occasionally prone to car sickness. I found that frequent photo stops was the perfect solution to that problem, and was stunned by the beauty of the drive. On this blue-sky Saturday, I shared the road primarily with shirt-sleeved bikers and jeepers with their tops down.
I don't know if I will make it back to Tule Elk SRA for the mating season. Even if it is fortunate enough to remain open, Bakersfield in August is not a prime destination. I'm glad it will be there for the Elk though.
I hope to see you at the State Parks.