Tule Elk State Natural Reserve

Phone Number

(661) 764-6881

Park Hours

8:00am to Sunset

Dogs Allowed?

Dogs are allowed in the visitor center area on a 6-foot or shorter leash. Dogs are not allowed on the reserve during the Auto Safari tours, even if only staying in the vehicle.

Driving Directions to Tule Elk SNR

The reserve is north of Gorman, south of Buttonwillow. From north- or southbound I-5, take the Stockdale Highway exit and go west to Morris Av. Turn left; continue and road becomes Station Rd after a right-only turn. Park entrance is on the left.

Online reservations are not available for this park.

Picnic Areas
Env. Learning/Visitor Center
Exhibits and Programs
Guided Tours
Interpretive Exhibits
Nature & Wildlife Viewing
Drinking Water Available

History of the Tule Elk State Natural Reserve

At the south end of the San Joaquin Valley, Tule Elk State Natural Reserve protects a small herd of Tule elk, an endemic California Subspecies once hunted nearly to extinction.

After the moose, elk are the second largest members of the deer family (Cervidae) in North America.

Three subspecies of elk (Cervus elephus also known as Cervus canadensis) still survive in the United States - Roosevelt elk, Rocky Mountain elk, and Tule elk. Roosevelt elk, the largest can weigh uo to 1,000 pounds, Rocky Mountain elk are about 85% of that size; they have grown to become the largest grazing population in the country.

California's Tule elk are about half the size of the Roosevelt elk and lighter in color, with shorter coats and larger teeth. Average mature males stand five feet tall at the shoulder and weigh 500 pounds. Females are slightly smaller weighing about 350 pounds.

Tule elk once dominated the deer and pronghorn population that also grazed in the San Joaquin Valley. Estimated at more the half a million animals before 1849, Tule elk originally ranged from Shasta County in the north to the base of the Tehachapi Mountains in the south, and from west of the Sierra Nevada to the central Pacific coast. Tule elk normally form "gangs" of 40 to 60 animals, but some northern Central Valley herds were thought to number in the thousands.

Depending on the availability and quality of vegetation, each Tule elk needs several acres of forage to thrive. California's once lush Central Valley oringinally provided ideal grazing range for the tule elk.

This elk subspecies began its decline in the 1700s with the arrival of European settlers. They imported grasses and grazing animals that competed with both native vegetation and native animals.

Hunters and traders further decimated the state's elk population when they began killing them for hide and tallow. During and after the Gold Rush, new residents' demand for elk meat increased. By the time elk hunting was banned by the State Legislature in 1873, the Tule elk was believed to be extinct.

Cattle rancher Henry Miller led a movement to protect any remaining tule elk by providing 600-acres of open range (near today's reserve) and rewarding his workers who informed on anyone disturbing the elk. In 1874, Miller's tip led game warden A.C. Tibbets found the few remaining tule elk hiding in the tule plants near Buena Vista Lake. An 1895 count showed 28 surviving tule elk. Those elk propagated until the herd on Miller's land grew so large that they began to damage his crops and fences. In 1914, Miller asked California's Fish and Game Commisiion to relocate the elk from his 600-acre preserve.

The need to preserve the tule elk resulted in a legislated elk sanctuary. In 1932, the State Parks Commission purchased 953-acres for a preserve near the town of Tupman in Kern County. The new Tupman Zoological Reserve was completely fenced. The state agency then known as the Division of Fish and Game operated the sactuary, rounding up free-roaming elk. About 140 elk were finally enclosed.

The Tupman sanctuary provided the grassland and marsh habitat needed by Tule elk; Buena Vista Slough along the southern edge provided water. However, when a dam was constructed up the Kern River in 1952, the once lush riparian habitat along the slough began to disappear - along with the elk population.

In 1954, management of the sanctuary for just 41 surviving elk was turned over to California State Parks. The Department devised a feeding program to keep the elk in good health; they also built artificial ponds, so the animals could drink and cool off during summer heat by wallowing in mud and water.

Whenever the herd exceeds its ideal number of 30-35 for this 953-acre preserve, several elk are relocated to other open spaces. These include nearby Carrizo Plain National Monument, San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, and Wind Wolves Preserve - as well as the Cache Creek area of Lake County. The displaced elk in turn propagate and begin new herds.

TULE ELK BEHAVIORElk behavior is nost dynamic during the summer mating season, when temperatures may exceed 110 degrees. More pleasant spring and autumn weather conditions also offer good elk-spotting opportunities.

The herd shares a flexible but definite social order. Hierarchies are established by the elks' direct stares or by rearing and boxing with their forelegs. Since cooperative herd behavior protects against predators and ensures survival, Tule elk rely on one another for safety. Complex herd communication involves elk senses: they use smells, sounds, and visual signs to share information. While grazing, the animals signal each other about possible threats to the herd.

Visiting the Park

The Tule Elk State Natural Reserve protects a small herd of tule elk, once in danger of extinction. In the 1800s, the vast herds of tule elk were greatly reduced in number by hunting and loss of habitat.

In 1874, cattleman Henry Miller began efforts to save them. At that time few tule elk remained. In 1932, the herd was given permanent protection on the land now known as the Tule Elk State Natural Reserve.

Elk from the reserve have been successfully transplanted to other areas in California. Today approximately 5,700 tule elk are again roaming the foothills and grasslands of California.

The tule elk are most active from late summer through early autumn. Visitors are encouraged to bring binoculars for better viewing.

The park has a picnic area that offers an excellent opportunity to observe birds of the San Joaquin Valley. Interpretive exhibits may be viewed on the east side of the comfort station.
Tule Elk YouTube Video

a male tule elk.

Tule Elk swiming


The reserve is 15 miles west of Bakersfield off of Stockdale Highway and Morris Road approximately 3 miles southwest of I-5.

Seasons/Climate/Recommended clothing
The weather can be changeable with extreme heat during summer months and cold foggy winter weather. Layered clothing is recommended.