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Tule Elk State Reserve

Q: Where do you go to see Tule elk?
A: At the Elks' Club!

One of Kern County's hidden gems is a parcel of land tucked away between Buttonwillow and Tupman. The Tule Elk State Reserve is one of the few protected habitats for a remarkable animal once thought all but extinct. The reserve has plenty to see and do, but first, a little history lesson.

The San Joaquin Valley once was filled with elk. Because smaller animals were easier to catch, the Native Americans who called this area home pretty much left the elk alone. San Francisco author and printer Edward Bosqui penned of a visit to the valley: "At times we saw bands of elk, deer and antelope in such numbers that they actually darkened the plains for miles, and looked in the distance like great herds of cattle." Cool stuff.

It wasn't until white settlers hit the region that hunting took its toll. Commercial exploitation came in the early 1800s, and by 1863, it was pretty much accepted that the elk were gone. I guess they weren't picking up their voice mail.
As far as habitat was concerned, only a few marshes here in the south valley remained, and those were disappearing as the ground was drained and cleared for agricultural use. If any elk were left, they were fast running out of space to hide – kind of like Bigfoot.


Government stepped up with some limitations intended to help out, banning elk hunting in California in 1873. A couple of years later, a single pair of tule elk was spotted near the original Buena Vista Lake. Yes, Virginia, there was a real lake out there once upon a Christmas. Despite this discovery, it was still a hard-luck tale. By 1895, after 20 years of protection, there were only 28 tule elk left in the world.

Thanks to the generosity of cattleman Henry Miller, the elk began making a comeback. Since he owned most of the grazing land, he ordered workers to protect the animals and offered rewards for information about those who harmed them. Proving the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished, the herd grew to about 400 by 1914 and started to do serious damage to Miller's property. With government help, the elk were relocated around the state.

About 3,700 exist today. Angelina and Brad's brood grows at about the same rate.
Proposals for a fenced reserve near Buena Vista Lake started popping up around 1912, but it wasn't until 1932 that the state acquired 600 acres near Tupman. I'd have fought for something more exotic, like Malibu; but elk don't surf, so Tupman it was. About 140 elk comprised the original herd. Happy ending, fade to black, roll credits.

No such luck. The property wasn't big enough to support those numbers, a situation made worse when the Isabella Dam eliminated the seasonal flooding that fed the marshes. In 1954, the herd was down to about 40, and State Parks stepped in to develop, manage, and maintain the reserve.

Tule elk are slightly smaller than the Olympic or Roosevelt elk that show up in insurance commercials – usually fighting that gecko for screen time. Tule elk have a lighter color and shorter coats (which they buy off the rack. Coat, rack, antlers, get it?). They also have bigger teeth – kind of like David Letterman.

The reserve includes a visitors center, viewing platform and picnic grounds. Guided vehicle tours are available if you make a request in advance. What you can expect to see changes with the seasons. The elk molt each spring, so that's when they're pretty. Calves are usually born in April and May if you want to take the little ones to see the little ones. Mating season is in the fall. Write your own joke here.

Tule Elk State Reserve is three miles west of I-5 at 8653 Station Road. Take Stockdale Highway to Morris Road for the easiest access. For more information, contact the park by calling (661) 764-688 or visit and type "Tule Elk" in the search bar.

To discover even more things to see and do in Kern County, check out the Kern County Board of Trade's tourism web site:
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