Californiaís version of the Serengeti

Carrizo Plain National Monument

Neil Wiley

A weekend drive to eastern San Luis Obispo County will take you to a different world.

The Carrizo Plain is an area of startling contrasts and contradictions. Temperatures often exceed 100o F in the summer, yet on the morning of our December visit, the temperature was a brisk 20o. Although the area is called a plain, the monument includes 5,106-foot-high Caliente Mountain, the highest peak in San Luis Obispo County. In the lower part of the valley is Soda Lake, the largest remaining natural alkali wetland in Southern California, and the only closed basin within the coastal mountains. The plainís 250,000 acres of arid treeless grassland lie in a fifty-mile-long basin formed by the Temblor Range and the San Andreas Fault on the east and the Caliente Range on the west. It is big, open, and desolate.

How could anything live here? Yet this new national monument, established in 2001, is a refuge for many endangered, threatened, and rare animals, birds, and plants, including the San Joaquin kit fox, the California condor, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, the giant kangaroo rat, and the San Joaquin antelope squirrel. Native tule elk and pronghorn have been reintroduced to the plain by the California Department of Fish and Game. Sandhill cranes, mountain plovers, and many raptor species call it home. And youíll find unique plants, such as the California jewel flower, Lost Hills salt mallow, and San Joaquin wooly threads. In a wet year, the spring wildflowers can be spectacular.

People have lived here, too. Archaeologists theorize that humans have occupied the plain since 11,000 B.C. At Painted Rock, a sacred, ceremonial site of the Chumash tribe, you can see evidence of the plainís prehistoric and historic past. European expeditions began in the 1700s. The ghostly remnants of ranching, farming, and mining are still visible.

The geology creates interesting terrain. The plain owes its existence to the San Andreas Fault, where two great tectonic plates slide past one another. Shifting along the fault created the plain by rumpling the rocks to the northeast into the Temblor Range and isolating the plain from the rest of the San Joaquin Valley. It has left spectacular exposures of fault-generated landforms. Stream valleys emerge from the mountains, and then take dramatic right angle turns at the fault. Continuing earth movement has formed ponds, sags, and benches. Rapid fault movement and slower erosion have created dramatic landscape features. Because of the dry climateís low erosion you can see the effects of fault slip, folding, and warping. The area also has significant fossil assemblages.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Carrizo Plain is simply the feeling of space. When you climb to the top of an overlook you can see the length of the valley. When you hike out to Painted Rock from the Education Center you see this giant rock setting alone in a wide open plain. And at night, when you look at the sky, you see a giant bowl of stars.

How to enjoy your trip

Driving to Carrizo Plain, exploring for a few hours, and driving back in one day is possible but not fun. Camping facilities on the plain are primitive. I recommend a leisurely trip of about three hours to Atascadero, Paso Robles, or San Luis Obispo. We stayed in Atascadero at the moderately priced Best Western motel and had dinner at the elegant Carlton Hotel. All three towns have interesting tourist sites, local wineries, fine restaurants, and good accommodations offering a range in quality and price.

Wherever you stay, be sure to fill your gas tank before heading east on Highway 58 to the plain. Itís easy to drive hundreds of miles while exploring, but there are no gas stations on the ninety-minute, fifty-two mile drive to the plain, and none on the plain. (If you are driving through to the east, you can get gas on the other side of the plain in Taft or Maricopa.) Also, be sure to bring food and water. Park facilities include portable toilets but no potable water. If you need a pay telephone, there is one at the CDF fire station in California Valley. Note that while California Valley looks like a town on the map, it isnít.

Speaking of maps, be sure to get one on the Internet before you go out on the plain.

One source is ersfield/carrizoplain/carrizomonumentmap.html.

A map will help you find sites throughout the plain, including the Goodwin Education Center, Painted Rock, the Soda Lake overlook, the trailhead to Caliente Mountain, San Andreas Fault, and other points of interest.

Only some of the main roads in the park are paved. Dirt roads are often impassable or closed in wet weather. This is not as bad as it seems. In a typical year, the plain gets less than nine inches of rain. Although the dirt roads are rough and dusty, you usually donít need four-wheel drive. Some road shoulders are soft. Off-road use is prohibited.

Painted Rock is open to the general public from July 16 through the end of February, and can also be accessed via a guided tour from March through May.

For more information, call the Goodwin Education Center, 805-475-2131.


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