Californiaís version of the Serengeti
Carrizo Plain National Monument
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
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 http://www.blm.gov/ca/bak
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