Saturday, November 1, 2008

Day Hike: Tomales Point Tule Elk Reserve, Point Reyes — September 21, 2008

My friend Sarah mentioned that she had gone on this hike the previous weekend and enjoyed seeing the tule elk. Still awed by all the megafauna I had seen on my 3000+ mile western states vacation the two weeks before, I also thought it would be nice to see these big wild ungulates so close to home. And, it would be a nice way to celebrate the fall equinox and usher in a new season.

I convinced a few friends to join me at the trailhead early-ish in the morning to hopefully beat the crowds and to enable a leisurely photo-friendly pace.

Hike at a Glance:

  • Length: 10 miles RT (out and back)
  • Elevation change: +/- 1300 feet
  • Trailhead: Pierce Point Ranch, Point Reyes National Seashore
  • TH Lat/Long: 38.18884°, -122.95398° (NAD83/WGS84)
  • Trails: Tomales Point Trail
  • Terrain: Mostly rolling, old ranch dirt road; sandy single track before Tomales Bluff
  • Facilities: Payphone at Trailhead but NO water or toilets (toilets nearby at McClure Beach parking lot).
  • Why go?: Tule elk, sea birds, wide ocean views (when not foggy)
  • Note about directions: Consult the official Park Service directions, not google maps—google tells you to go on Marshall Beach Road which is not open to through traffic, stay on Pierce Point Road.
  • View all of the photos at flickr (click here).

Pre-hike Treats

Point Reyes National Seashore still has many working dairy farms, so driving through the north end feels more like a drive on a country road rather than a drive in a national park located very close to the San Francisco Bay Area metropolis. The rural feel is also augmented by the fact that it is surrounded by water on the northeast, northwest, and southwest sides: Tomales Bay, the Pacific Ocean, and Drakes Bay respectively. Add to this the quiet of the morning hours, my passenger Brian and I were lucky to not only see the usual birds foraging for breakfast along the road, but a barn kitty, a coyote, a fleeting glimpse of a mature bobcat or young mountain lion (the tail seemed short but dark not striped), and a small herd of bull elk before we even started the hike.

Bull elk chillin’ by the roadside
Trailhead at Pierce Point Ranch

When Brian and I arrived at the Tomales Point trailhead at the Pierce Point Ranch parking lot we were the second car there. After Emillie, Shawne, and Heather arrived there were about a dozen (and two different sierra club groups—one local, one national). Alas, my idea to beat the crowds was only partially successful.

Pierce Point Ranch was a former dairy ranch that closed in 1973 and is now a historical exhibit allowing you to explore the old wooden buildings. Unfortunately I didn't take any pictures there...I could've as we were a wee bit early, which Brian was not happy about...

It was still a little overcast and foggy, but I was optimistic that most of it would burn off so we would at least have a view of the elk, if not the coastline. As it turned out, it would burn off completely to be a nice warm sunny day but with a strong breeze to cool us off during the very few steep ascents.

fog burning off—looking south down the coast
Elk Segregation

We didn't have to travel too far to see elk from the trail. There was a large group of cow elk (the ladies) at Windy Gap which is about a mile in from the trailhead. Apparently the bull and the cow herds hang out separate from each other until it is mating season (June through September) when the most dominant bull elk will protect his harem of cows from other bull elks, having earned the "right" to first mating by winning fights and other dominance contests with the rest of the bulls. When he's worn out and tired and can't hoard his harem any longer the other bull elk get their chance to score with the ladies.

Cow elk herd at Windy Gap
Two bull elk giving us a photo op by standing on top of a ridge

Watering Hole

About three and a quarter miles in along the trail there was a pond being monopolized by a herd of bull elk and the accompanying wildlife watchers. Since our goal was to reach Tomales Bluff, we still had a mile and a half to go, so we decided to keep marching on. Just past here is a grove of eucalyptus trees, probably the remnants of what my USGS topo map lists as Upper Pierce Point Ranch (not listed on my "Tom Harrison" trail map).

(Eucalyptus trees, even though ubiquitous in California, are not native. Groves of these Australian trees began to be planted in California during the second half of the 1800s.)

Bull elk drinking in a pond near the trail
Lunching Spot

About four miles in we decided to follow a spur trail that headed towards the ocean with a view of Bird Rock (which we renamed Bird Poo Rock as that is what lends it that bright white color). At the end of the spur was a nice warm sandy bluff overlooking the ocean as well as the rock. We decided to break here and eat lunch and even take a little nap. After our naps and some discussion, Heather decided to continue to nap in the sand, while we headed off toward the end at Tomales Bluff.

The very smelly Bird Rock— downwind on the trail we would occasionally get nasty whiffs
The Last Mile

The last mile of trail from our picnic area to Tomales Bluff got very sandy in spots, but manageable. It also looks a bit deceiving as there are two hills you have to hike over, with the first one tricking you like it's the going to be the last, but no, there is one more. Many spurs appear here and there but the trail goes all the way to the end which sits just above some tidal rocks. Sea birds seemed to enjoy this area between Bird Rock and the rocks around Tomales Bluff, with pelicans, cormorants and gulls flying and hanging about.

Pelican soaring past us on the trail
Tomales Bluff
Cormorants and a few gulls sitting on the rocks below Tomales Bluff

Well Not Really

The last mile really wasn't the last mile. There were five more miles to go to get back to the trailhead. After picking up Heather at the sandy spur, we marched back the way we came—a little bit quicker as we didn't take so many pictures on the return trip.

Near the end of our day looking north back up the coastline from whence we came.
Tomales Point Topo Map
(click on topo map for a larger version.)

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  1. These pictures are great! But where are all the HOT pictures of me?! ;)