Unexpected Wildlife Photography at Point Reyes

I arrived at the Tomales Point trailhead just after sunrise. Thick fog absorbed any notions of capturing expansive Pacific views, but the high-pitched bugling of Tule Elk suggested different possibilities. I swapped my 20-40mm lens for something more appropriate: a weather-resistant 55-300mm.

The out-and-back hike to Tomales Point is about 9.5 miles. It takes hikers through a Tule Elk preserve that was established in the late 1970’s. Elk once roamed all the grasslands in the region until they were hunted near to extinction by humans. Local family ranchers, whose cattle must compete for resources, have a fraught relationship with the reintroduced elk.

While I think human history is fascinating and should be preserved, it should also be learned from. Point Reyes is one of a handful of places in the country where the elk flourish in their natural environment. We should keep in mind that it was humans who changed that reality forever. To me, a city dweller, it’s a special privilege to be able to visit Point Reyes and have any chance of seeing Tule Elk at all.

I took my time moving down the trail. For now, the elk remained out of sight in the fog. But as I patiently looked and listened, I started to notice other denizens of Point Reyes.

First and perhaps most obvious were the birds. Their songs permeated the fog. Whenever I saw one perched, I froze and tried to get a picture. Among the birds I observed on my hike were song sparrows, scrub jays, and California quails.

Scrub Jay
California Quail

At one point, I saw a large animal cross the path ahead, barely visible in the mist. I paused and looked for elk. I spotted a small pair of antlers up on the hillside and excitedly snapped a photo. It was a black-tailed deer – how cool! It quietly observed me as I moved on, perhaps waiting so it could follow its companions across the trail.

deer on a misty ridge
Black-tailed Deer

Not too long after, I saw my first group of elk. They were close, but just beyond the ridge, so a little difficult to photograph as they moved away. As I started down a steep grade just after the high point of the trail, I saw a bull with large antlers, but he turned and disappeared. I worried I might not get another chance to see one given that the fog wasn’t clearing.

I decided to focus on enjoying the hike. I made it all the way out to Tomales Point, where I could hear and see the waves crashing far below. I rested here, feeling very far from the city indeed.

The fog began to lift ever so slightly on the return leg. By the time I reached Lower Pierce Point Ranch, it was clear enough to see a large herd at the old stock pond, though the ridge was still misty. This is where I had my best opportunities to capture images of the antlered bulls. I could hardly contain my excitement, but made sure to stay quite far away!

a grazing tule elk with large antlers

I could’ve ended the hike totally happy after that. But about a half mile from the trailhead, I noticed a pair of hikers who had stopped and were looking at something. It turned out to be a coyote patiently waiting for people to pass on the trail so it could cross.

a coyote waiting for a clear path

At the end of the hike, I took some time to wander around the old buildings at historic Pierce Point Ranch. It was cool to learn about how people lived and worked here in the mid-to-late 1800s. It’s known as a prime example of a west Marin dairy ranch, and was essentially a micro-community complete with a schoolhouse and blacksmith.

While I knew going in that the chance of seeing elk on the Tomales Point trail was high, I’m a landscape photographer first. I had no real expectations for the wildlife, and even less faith in my ability to capture pictures of it. I was pleasantly surprised to see so much diversity. The hike allowed me to feel the excitement that I’m sure wildlife photographers feel – though their photos are much more hard-won (I’m referring here to long hours invested waiting for and studying the behavior and routines of their subjects).

Despite conflicting opinions in the community over how to manage the elk herds, I, for one, am really glad they have a home in Point Reyes. I’m looking forward to seeing them again.