A Visit to the Carrizo Plain National Monument in Central California

Update, January 2013:  Huell Howser, a true California treasure who was known for his aw-shucks manner, his genuine interest in the people he met, and wide-ranging explorations of this huge state, died in early January. In his last years, he donated all of his programs to Chapman University in Orange County, where they will be available for on-line viewing (my understanding is that this is a work in progress, given the volume of episodes that Howser and his team produced).  I think that Howser visited the Carrizo Plain more than once, but I can only find one episode in the archive right now.  In this episode, starting at 11:43, Howser visits the Carrizo Plain to see the soda lake, talk about the California prairie, view Native American pictographs, and learn about the endangered kangaroo rat.

In conversations around the office coffee maker, the topic of vacations often comes up.

“So, got any vacations planned?” someone asks.

“I might go to the Carrizo Plain for a few days,” I respond.

“The Carrizo Plain? I’ve never heard of that place.”

“It’s a grassland in the hills between Bakersfield and Paso Robles, one of the few remaining examples of native grassland in central California.”

“The location explains why I have never heard of it. When I drive between SF and LA I set the cruise control the moment I get on the freeway and only stop for gas.”

The Carrizo Plain Story

I first read about the Carrizo Plain National Monument (Google map) a few years ago, probably in the Nature Conservancy magazine (the Nature Conservancy is one of the partners in the land protection). That short article made a strong impression and I resolved to someday visit the plain. Later on, I saw part of an episode of California’s Golden Parks (hosted by the effusive and enthusiastic Huell Howser, a personality so distinctive that YouTube has numerous spoofs of him). But even though I have lived in California for a long time, I never managed to make it to the plain.

This year I finally found the time and motivation to make the trip.

After a few hours driving south on I-5 from the Bay Area through a completely flat landscape bordered by alternating lush agriculture, sun-baked scrub, and an occasional view of the massive California Aquaduct bringing water from north to south, I exited at Buttonwillow to follow Highway 58 to the west. This is California’s oil country (California is a top-ten oil producing state), so the land immediately west of I-5 is pockmarked by extraction rigs, tanks, and other equipment. The first few miles of Highway 58 are not very inspiring.

Landscape between I-5 and McKittrick

After about 15 miles of the dry scrub, the vegetation starts becoming much greener. The road winds through steep grass-covered hills that are dotted with yellow, purple and greenish-white wildflowers. It is a spectacular drive, made even better by the oil-field and desert scrub prelude (it is most likely far less appealing in later summer after most green things have been withered by the intense heat and aridity).

Wildflowers on hillside along Highway 58

After about 30 minutes of the winding road, a steep descent brought me to the northern tip of a long flat valley. The ground has sparse vegetation, punctuated by patches of orange flowers that hug the earth.

The northern part of the plain

Hardly a Plain Plain

A few miles down Seven Mile Road, a left on Soda Lake Road, and I finally reached my destination. The plain is vast — 15 miles by 5 miles in size — and ringed by mountains.

One of the highlights of the plain is an enormous soda lake. The photo below shows the lake in the dry season — it’s a massive field of salt (sodium chloride and sodium sulfate). In the rainy season the lake is filled with water and visited by birds that feed on the shrimp and other creatures that somehow survive the dry season.

The soda lake

On the second day I took a hike along the main trail in the park, the Caliente Ridge trail. The trail goes along the mountains on the western side of the park, passing through fields of purple wildflowers and providing views of the mountains to the west and plain to the east. Although the drive to the trailhead is somewhat nerve-wracking — it’s an unpaved single-lane road with many steep sections and blind turns that climbs two thousand feet — the trail itself is wide and relatively flat.

Wildflowers and view from Caliente Ridge Trail

Examining California’s Most Famous Fault: The San Andreas Fault

One of the notable features of the Carrizo Plain is that the San Andreas Fault passes along the eastern edge of the plain. There aren’t dramatic gashes in the land from the fault — it makes itself known in subtle ways like the path of the Wallace Creek. An educational trail starts from Elkhorn Road at the northern end of the park and provides a dramatic view of the fault’s power.

The photo below shows the current path of the creek as a dotted blue line.

The zig-zag in the creek’s path is a result of movement along the San Andreas Fault. The land on the left side of the fault is on the Pacific Plate, the land on the right side is on the North American Plate. Because the Pacific Plate is slowing moving north (a few inches per year), part of the creek is carried north.

If the fault was not there, the creek would follow a path similar to the green line in the photo below.

The annotated photo below shows everything at one time: the current path of the creek (blue lines), the path of the creek if the fault was not there (green line), and the approximate position of the fault. You can read more about the fault at the Bureau of Land Management or Wikipedia.


Summing Up and More Photos

All in all, I found the Carrizo Plain to be a wonderful place. It is so far from anywhere that you can experience the sounds of nature without disturbance — the song of a meadowlark, the fingers of wind rustling through the tall grass. Visually, it is one of the few places I have been that offers such long views across a flat landscape. And being so close to the San Andreas fault is a somewhat novel feeling. I hope I can visit the Plain again someday.

You can see more photos of the area in my Carrizo Plain photoset on Flickr.

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