It may seem like the majority of our wildlife viewing opportunities in southern California (birdwatching notwithstanding) consist of a mountain lion roaming through the backyard, a black bear taking a dip in the pool, or a raccoon sitting on its haunches inside a storm drain, but there are actually a few places you can leave wild urbanity behind and embark on a safari.
And as many zoos and animal sanctuaries as southern California has to offer, they don’t come close to seeing those fantastic beasts out in the wild, in their native environments.
Whether it’s among our grasslands, on our islands, or in our deserts, here are the five most fascinating fauna-viewing opportunities in southern California. And all you need are a pair of binoculars, a sense of adventure, and enough time to patiently wait for the animals to appear.
1. Tule Elk, Kern County
The only species of elk endemic to California is the tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes), distinct from other species of elk (like Rocky Mountain or Roosevelt elk) not only by its DNA but also by its smaller size. Because the primary diet of the tule elk is, well, a plant called tule (which isn't the most nutrient-dense feed in the world), these elk are smaller than their cousins in Canada and Alaska – though, at 500 pounds, they're by no means small. (And they're still quite a bit bigger than their relatives, the mule deer, though still smaller than a moose.) You can recognize the adult males (the bulls) by their antlers, which they shed every late winter and immediately begin to regrow – the nubs eventually evolving into full racks with as many as seven points and weighing as much as 10 or 12 pounds each. When the new rack grows in, its covered in a "velvet" that bleed if struck by a rival male's rack (particularly during "rutting," when the bulls compete to become the dominant and breed with the harem of females). But eventually, when that layer dies off and starts to irritate them, the bulls spend a lot of time trying to slough it off by rubbing up against tree trunks and telephone poles.
Without any grizzly bears around (our state bear went extinct long ago), the tule elk's only real predator is a poacher with a shotgun. And, as with many species of animals, the biggest threat to their survival is human activity – development that encroaches on their territory (not only buildings but also roads) and the introduction of non-native grasses and other invasive plant species that crowd out the plants they rely on for sustenance (like tule reeds). As well, grazing livestock often leave little to no food supply (whether tule or alfalfa or anything else edible). This is particularly evident at the Tule Elk State Natural Reserve in Buttonwillow, just a few miles west of Bakersfield in Kern County. What was once a marshy, fertile land has been sapped of its water supply through drought and diversion – and whatever water you can find in the canals that run through the tule elk reserve has been pumped in. But despite all this, the herd is thriving there and elsewhere, as well. You can find other nearby herds in and around Kern County at Carrizo Plain National Monument and the Wind Wolves Preserve, as well as farther afield in the Owens Valley (where they’re not native but probably wandered over from Kern).
2. Bison, Catalina Island
Catalina is the Channel Island that probably most people have heard of or have actually been to. It's pretty easy to take one of several daily ferries, or fly or sail there yourself. You can arrive at one of two small communities, but most people go to the City of Avalon. When you disembark at the Avalon ferry terminal, you first encounter tiled fountains, quaint restaurants, and a parade of colorfully painted bison statues. But you're not likely to see any real bison in Avalon, no matter how far you drive your rented golf cart. But Avalon is just a tiny speck on the island of Santa Catalina. And to embark on a search for the real living bison that roam the island's wild interior, you have to either hike (along, say, the Trans-Catalina Trail) or hitch a ride with a tour company.
It’s a hot, sweaty, sunny, dusty, bumpy ride pretty much the whole way – but it’s worth it. If you're lucky, you can see the bison (taxonomically, the same thing as American buffalo) who descended from the working wildlife that Hollywood crews brought to Catalina Island and then left here to roam and reproduce. After all, despite attempts at mining silver there, the really profitable natural resource of Catalina was the scenery itself – with those hills, the black sage, prickly pears, and Saint Catherine's Lace, and bald eagles and owls. But after a few decades of thriving with no natural predators in sight, the bison started choking the scenery right out of Catalina. As a result, their population is now kept to a manageable size by giving the females birth control (reportedly, one that wasn't effective enough in its human clinical trials, but that's "good enough" for bison). Look for them to show up at their local watering holes or where the Catalina Island Conservancy leaves out some straw for them to nibble on.
3. Island foxes, Channels Islands
The recovery of the Channel Islands fox is a great comeback story. Thanks to a captive breeding program, the population of these endemic species – which had been declining almost to the point of extinction because of predation by non-native golden eagles that arrived in the 1990s to feed on feral pigs and mule deer fawns. Once the National Park Service was able to remove the raptors’ non-native food supply and repopulate the islands with native bald eagles, the natural order of things began to be restored. Several islands still capture and tag foxes to keep an eye on them and even operate “foxpitals” to take care of any illnesses or injuries. And while the population has recovered, the foxes can be a bit elusive and cunning, so it takes some patience and an “eagle eye” to spot one in person (though you can always follow Friends of the Island Fox to keep track of their comings and goings).
Six of the eight Channel Islands have their own species of fox – perhaps brought to the islands ages ago by raft (either intentionally or as castaways). On Santa Cruz, look for them near the Prisoner’s Harbor boat landing and the Pelican Bay trailhead on your way up to Harvey's Lookout, where 19th and early 20th century island watchmen would look for ships in the channel through a telescope. On both Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Island, these clever critters have encountered enough humans to figure out how to unzip and untie your pack and carry away all your stuff, so beware of leaving anything unattended – including food and even shoes. The San Nicolas island fox, on the other hand, is yet another species and has yet another personality. This island fox may simply emerge from the bramble and pose for a photo. The problem, of course, is getting to San Nicolas Island, the fifth largest of the archipelago and the one that’s famous as the island in "Island of the Blue Dolphins," which tells the supposedly true story of "The Lone Woman of San Nicolas" -– a Native American who'd been left behind in a tribal exodus and survived on the island alone for 18 years. The Navy currently occupies it and does not allow visits that aren’t official business, but there is one way to see it for yourself: volunteering for Channel Islands Restoration, which gains special permission to periodically work on the habitat and in a nursery on the island.
4. Desert Bighorn Sheep, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
In your search for bighorn sheep (a.k.a. borrego) in the arid lands of the southern California desert, you might as well start someplace that’s been named after the horned herbivores: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, situated in East San Diego County in the Colorado Desert. It’s the largest in California’s park system, and it draws thousands of visitors every year for its wildflowers and wildlife – not the least of which is the megafauna that draws so many hikers to the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail in the northwestern end of the park, just outside the town of Borrego Springs. But since bighorn sheep don’t care much for crowds and can run away pretty quickly when spooked, stick to the park’s dry and rocky terrain elsewhere at lower elevations (no more than 3,500 feet) – and if you do see one, leave it and the rest of its herd alone. They’ve been listed as endangered since 1998 and are federally protected.
In the parched depths of summertime, the bighorn sheep can be found visiting watering holes (like those along Coyote Creek) – though, for that reason, the park closes the routes leading to them to vehicular traffic so the sheep can drink and cool off in peace. However, that doesn’t mean they go sight unseen. Because their appearance is so reliable, volunteers have been assembling annually for the last half-century or so to literally count the sheep in the park. And over the last few years, they’ve been pretty consistently finding between 200 and 300 of them (though citizen science can be inexact). Volunteers are needed every year, and preference is given to those who can backpack in to their viewing spot. For those less hardy enthusiasts who are interested in viewing the desert bighorns, they can be found throughout the Mojave Desert (including in the Mojave National Preserve) as well.
5. Wild Burros
Wild burros may be native to Africa and found in abundance in Mexico, but they’re also intricately woven into the fabric of southern California’s desert lands. Often lumped in with populations of wild horses, these gentle pack animals were once a key figure in gold prospecting and other mining operations – but as the need for beasts of burden waned, the donkeys were released or abandoned and have proliferated over time. Thanks to the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, the population of wild burros on public lands is protected – but it’s also managed. That means that the BLM regularly captures some and offers them for adoption online and via its Wild Horse & Burro Facility just outside of Ridgecrest, where the public can visit and even feed the animals.
Plenty of burros, however, roam lands that are not public – and without natural predators, they’ve flourished in some otherwise inhabited areas like the Inland Empire. Some of these animals end up so doomed – either from sickness or, say, getting struck by a car – that they need to be relocated to a “forever home” like the Wild Burro Rescue facility in Olancha. Others may be orphaned or simply need a little TLC and rehabilitation at a facility like Donkeyland in Riverside before being released back to the wild (ideally reunited with their own families or introduced to a new one) to keep them wild. But for the avoidance of overpopulation, Donkeyland does castrate the rescued males before their releasing. In the Inland Empire, you should always keep your eyes open for burros – especially when you’re behind the wheel. Look from afar but don’t offer them snacks so as not to train them to approach cars for feeding time. A safer bet is to seek them a little farther off the grid – like at Havasu Palms alongside the Colorado River at the Arizona border north of Parker – or on some of the public lands where they can roam safely within the constraints of various road signs warning of their presence, including as far as the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area outside of Las Vegas.