By Lois Henry
For a fun, interesting (and yes, educational ... shhh!) outing, pack a lunch, grab the kids and spend part of a Sunday at the Tule Elk State Natural Reserve. The reserve, which is also a state park, is only a short drive out Stockdale Highway, just past Interstate 5. But with a little imagination, you can get a feel for how the valley looked about 150 years ago when the reserve's namesake elk roamed freely up and down the state.
Make sure to pick the second or fourth Sunday of the month for your trip when the park ranger, Bill Moffat, gives auto safari tours -- taking people out to the reserve for a closer look at the elk.
Moffat is extremely informative about all of the animals and plant species on the reserve, and regularly conducts tours for school kids. Seriously, be prepared to learn a lot.
Before heading out onto the reserve's prairie, though, you have to stop in the visitor center.
Moffat can show you some of the artifacts, mostly elk bones, they've collected throughout the years. But the coolest (in a "ugh" kind of way) display is the two elk carcasses that rangers found locked together after an unfortunate alpha battle.
Seems one male got his horn stuck in the other male's forehead, killing that guy instantly. But then he couldn't shake the dead elk off and, apparently, dragged him around for some time before dying himself, possibly of thirst. Rangers found them locked together that way and had the heads redone by a taxidermist and displayed as they were discovered.
Gruesome, I know, but it's a pretty amazing site and really increases the "wild kingdom" feel of the trip for any kids who might think elk gazing is too boring.
Tule elk, as I mentioned, used to roam all over the state and are only found in California. They're smaller than elk found elsewhere in the United State, but they still cut a big enough presence if you get close to them on the reserve.
When I went, it was rutting season, so the bachelor males (they're all bachelors unless it's the alpha) were off in the northwestern corner of the park. We got close enough to see their massive antlers, but not too close. Moffat doesn't want them getting too used to humans.
As impressive as the bachelor males were, when we came upon the females and the alpha, you could easily see why he was the "big cheese." Physically, he was noticeably larger, true. But his antlers were unbelievable. I seriously didn't know how he was lugging that kind of tonnage around.
We circled the herd and got as close as we could until one little squeak from the brakes sent them running.
They were magnificent to watch! I'm telling you it's worth the trip.
When you get back from the safari, there is a viewing stand, picnic tables and lots of shade for a comfortable lunch.
The elk were edged out of their habitat by cattle and nearly hunted to extinction in the mid-1800s. Their numbers reportedly dwindled to only about 30 when rancher and Kern River water baron Henry Miller decided in 1874, to give them some protection. He dedicated a portion of his ranch to them, and that's where the reserve grew.
At 1,000 acres, the reserve isn't large enough to support a very big herd. So, the elk have been raised and transplanted to other reserves in the state, including Point Reyes National Seashore and about 20 other sites.
An estimated 4,000 Tule elk traipse around California now, thanks to Miller's and the reserve's efforts. It's very cool to think that they were brought back from the brink of oblivion right here in Kern County.
When you go, don't forget to bring your binoculars so you can get a really good look at these living pieces of California history.