8:00am to Sunset
Tule Elk State Natural Reserve
Visiting the Park
The Tule Elk State Natural Reserve protects a small herd of tule elk, once in danger of extinction. Elk from the reserve have been successfully transplanted to other areas in California. Today, approximately 5,700 tule elk are again roaming the grasslands and foothills of California. The tule elk are most active from late summer through early autumn.
The day use area has a viewing platform overlooking nearly 1,000 acres of the Reserve and the wildlife that lives here. Visitors are encouraged to bring binoculars for better viewing. Only the day use area at the entrance to the Reserve is open to visitors. There are two large shade ramadas with nine picnic tables and two barbecues for group outings. There are nine single picnic tables (four with shade ramadas) and barbecues for enjoying the park. There are 34 parking stalls and a bicycle rack available. The day use area has four restroom stalls in the comfort station. Two drinking fountains in the day use area provide water to the thirty traveller. An interpretive exhibit on the Tule elk is located on the east side of the comfort station.
OTHER WILDLIFE SPECIES
Birds of varied species can be seen year-round at this stop along the Pacific Flyway. Raptors such as Northern harriers, prairie falcons and red-tailed hawks hunt for small live prey by day; by night great horned and barn owls take to the sky. The sounds of great blue herons, egrets, ducks, burrowing owls, loggerhead shrikes, horned larks, roadrunners, red-wing and tricolored blackbirds may be heard.
Mammals such as coyotes, badgers, skunks, raccoons, desert cottontail rabbits, black-tailed jackrabbits, California ground squirrels, San Joaquin pocket mice, and Heermann’s kangaroo rats may be found in the park.
Tule Elk State Natural Reserve attracts reptiles, amphibians, and arachnids including the California King snake, gopher snake, side-blotched lizard, the nocturnal Western spadefoot toad, scorpions and tarantualas.
Join us for a guided tour called an "Auto Safari" on the fourth Saturday of the month (except December) at 10:00 a.m. The tour consists of a brief overview of the Tule elk at the viewing platform followed by a tour of the visitor center and Reserve. Regular day use fees apply ($8.00 per vehicle). Dogs are not allowed on the reserve during the Auto Safari tours, even if only staying in the vehicle.
Visit our School Tour webpage to learn more about the opportunities for teachers and students to visit the Tule Elk State Natural Reserve in person or virtually.
Day Use Fees
$8 per vehicle
$50 per small bus (10-24 passengers)
$100 per large bus (25-100 passengers)
Parking, the visitor center, the elk viewing platform, and the picnic area are accessible.
The reserve is located at 8653 Station Road, Buttonwillow, CA 93206. The reserve is 15 miles west of Bakersfield off of Stockdale Highway and Morris Road approximately 3 miles southwest of I-5.
The weather can be changeable with extreme heat during summer months and cold, foggy winter weather. Layered clothing is recommended.
Dogs are allowed in the day use 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.
There are no camping facilities at the Tule Elk State Natural Reserve.
CALENDAR OF EVENTS
Join us for an interpreter led "Auto Safari" tour of the visitor center and reserve.
4th Saturday of the month (except December)
Tour starts at 10:00 a.m.
Regular day use fees apply ($8.00 per car).
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.
ELK POPULATION DECLINE
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.
PRESERVING THE TULE ELK
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 BEHAVIOR
Elk 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.
HENRY MILLER, CATTLE KING
Heinrich Alfred Kreiser learned the butcher’s trade on his father’s farm in Germany. At age 19, Kreiser made his way to New York with a non-transferable steamship ticket he’d bought from one Henry Miller. Aboard ship, Kreiser adopted Miller’s name.
When gold was discovered in California in 1848, Miller headed west via Panama. He arrived in San Francisco with six dollars in his pocket in 1850. Miller immediately found work and opened his own butcher shop the following year.
The young entrepreneur avoided wholesale meat costs by traveling south to buy cattle and herding them to San Francisco to butcher. After Miller optioned all of the available cattle north of the Tehachapi Mountains in 1857, fellow butcher Charles Lux proposed a partnership. Rather than selling meat products, Lux ran the partners’ cattle business while Miller bought up large tracts of rangeland.
This successful formula led to Miller and Lux owning or controlling millions of acres in California, Nevada and Oregon and branding more than a million head of cattle.
Partnering with James Crocker in 1868, Miller and Lux purchased 80,000 acres of swampland on the Kern River, including Kern and Buena Vista Lakes, to drain the tule bogs and create richer farmland. The partners built a 25-mile canal to transport and store water to irrigate forage crops for their livestock.
A legal battle with the Kern County Land Company over the Kern River water rights ensued; by the time it was settled equitably in 1877, Lux had died. Miller then partnered with the Kern County Land Company to finish the canal and reservoir system – then the country’s largest.
Buena Vista Lake was dredged and leveed to create a reservoir for dry periods. During wet weather, overflow runoff traveled through Miller’s Kern Valley Canal into the bed of Tulare Lake, once the largest freshwater lake in the west. Dredging, irrigation and municipal water diversion caused Tulare Lake to fry up by 1899; its lakebed may flood in heavy rains.
Miller’s canal runoff system was used until the California Aqueduct and Lake Isabella replaced it. Artificial Lakes Evans and Webb have now filled in a portion of Buena Vista’s lakebed.
Entrepreneur Henry Miller was responsible for much of the San Joaquin Valley’s growth in agribusiness and livestock – as well as the initial draining of its water stores.
Henry Miller died in 1916, but his family’s cattle business kept operating until 1964.