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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Carrizo Plain National Monument: Raw California



As a fourth generation California native, I've been known to get cranky about the ever increasing population I'm forced to share my state with. Currently there are 38.8 million people here, crowding the roads, booking campsites in Yosemite and lining up ahead of me at my favorite taqueria. Don't get me wrong; for the most part, I'm proud of my state and can see why everyone wants to live here. But every time an empty field gets plowed up to build yet another set of ugly apartment buildings it really puts my teeth on edge.

If you've read any of my previous blog entries it should come as no surprise I love big empty spaces. If I'm to be expected to work indoors full time I need to be allowed to stand outside at least four weeks a year staring at open land, breathing real air uninterrupted by phones, computers, traffic and crowds. Over the years it seems we have to go farther afield in order to do this. It's frustrating because the longer it takes to get there equates to less time staring and breathing.



When I read about Carrizo Plain National Monument I immediately wanted to go see it. Here was a huge chunk of California that had been lightly used and never developed, right smack in the middle of the state. In 2001 it was designated a National Monument, saving it from what undoubtedly would have been it's future: housing tracts, mini-malls and more farmland that is unsupportable by the paltry water supply we've got in that part of the state.

We set off a few weeks ago to see it for ourselves, in the midst of an El Niño year. (For those few who actually don't live in California, El Niño is bigger news than earthquakes around here. El Niño means we can flush our toilets more often and perhaps, maybe, on Thursdays, water our lawns in the summer.) It was raining when we left, and it rained off and on all the way down Highway 101 to Santa Margarita where Highway 58 takes you up and over the coastal range to Carrizo Plain.

Here's an image of the Topaz Solar Farm from space, courtesy of NASA. You can read about it here.
It was a nice drive through the mountains, the twisting highway taking us through ranches that seemed to get more sprawling as we climbed. The country here is usually pretty dry; I can imagine it would take a lot of land to feed cattle with the sparse vegetation (although it was as green as Ireland when we drove through). The highway eventually drops down into a large flat valley. Something shiny and gray lay out before us, and as we got closer we realized it was a huge solar farm, the panels dripping in the dull rain. Excellent use of a flat (usually) dry and (usually) sunny space.


The grand road leading into Carrizo Plain National Monument.

The entrance to Carrizo Plain is pretty mellow. A sign at the border of the park announces you've arrived, but the road makes you wonder if it's true. A skinny asphalt strip, crumbling at the edges and overgrown with weeds, leads you straight into the valley. We cruised in and stopped at the Soda Lake Overlook first, a quick drive up a small hill. The view from the top of a short trail looks down on Soda Lake, a giant alkali lake that dries every year into a white dusty haze. In the past it's been farmed for salt for cattle and sodium sulfate for industrial use, but now it's left to shimmer in the sun.

The view back at the parking lot from the top of the trail.
Soda Lake on a dreary day. There was actually a little water in it that day.
The view down valley; a whole lotta empty.
We stopped in at the Goodwin Education Center to get a better idea of what to expect. FYI the center has limited hours. It's open December through May Thursday through Sundays from 9:00am to 4:00pm. No worries though, they have maps and brochures available year round outside the center in case you drop in during the off hours.

We always like to check in with staff when we get to a new area. If you're lucky, they will share their favorite parts of the park, and if you're really lucky they'll let you in on some aspect that's not part of the brochures. We once had a ranger tell us about ancient camel tracks in a dry wash, an incredible sight as well as an honor to be trusted with that information.

We approached the desk anticipating a little enthusiasm, hoping for some insider information. What followed was less than...well, here's a snippet of the conversation:

Mark: "Hi! How are you?"
"Alright."
"We've never been here before. What's there to see?"
"Not much. Flowers?"
"Wow, it would be great to see a condor!" gesturing to the taxidermied condor hanging from the ceiling.
"Yeah, it would. We haven't seen one of those for 30 years."
"How's the camping here? We read there are two campgrounds, but we'd like to find our own spot." (the park is BLM land, so dispersed camping is allowed)
"Yeah, well all the roads are closed."

Wow, way to sell the park.

Finally another park employee walked out of the office and told us the drought had really taken a toll on the wildlife in the last four years, and with the recent rains the roads were pretty muddy. To be clear, they weren't officially closed, they just asked that people not drive on them if they were too wet. (Only the entry road past the lake up to the first campground is paved, the rest of the roads in the park are graded dirt and gravel.)

We left the center feeling a little less excited about this trip, but hey, we didn't have to go to work the next day, so let's do this! If nothing else, we just might get to practice our mud recovery techniques.

The view of the valley from the top of Caliente Mountain Ridge, Selby Campground in the center below us.

We checked out Selby Campground first. It's five miles up a winding road that leads up a canyon to the camp. The sites are pretty bare, just a table and fire ring on gravel, but the park has built little shelters over all the picnic tables, presumably to keep the sun off your mac & cheese. The wind was blowing pretty hard that day, and people were packing up as we drove through. We thought we'd check the other campground out before making a decision.

Old ranch left standing, complete with windmill and farm truck, near Selby Camp
Driving back out toward the main road we noticed a few attractions; an old ranch had been left standing complete with barn, windmill and some farm equipment. There were also a couple hiking trails that led to Painted Rock, the major attraction of Carrizo Plain. Of course, we had already been warned by Ranger Negative Nancy it was closed due to bird nesting season. (It's closed March 1st through July 15 if you'd like to plan your trip around it.)

The view improved when the sun broke through.
The long road to Selby Campground, lined with flowers.


As we made our way down the foothills toward the main road the sun peeked out between the clouds, highlighting what we missed on the way up; a carpet of yellow flowers made a brilliant pattern across the valley, intermixed with patches of blue smudges. Daisy-like coreopsis carpeted most of the valley, with large patches of lupine popping up to give it blue highlights. The distant hillsides reflected a more orange color. Later we realized it was huge swathes of California poppies.

This place was getting more interesting.

The sign at the turnoff to KCL Campground.

We drove further south to the KCL Campground, named for the Kern Cattle and Land company, the entity that used to own a ranch here. The entrance is marked by an old tanker with the logo cut out of a metal sheet hanging over it–you can't miss it. This campground had a bit more character. Set among huge eucalyptus trees, the sites were well spaced and surrounded by iron fencing. A horse pen was built into one side for those who needed it, and an old barn/workshop stood at the end, the last remnants of the ranch. We found a nice spot away from the others and set up camp under an enormous tree.


There's a saying that's repeated in all the brochures and maps of the Carrizo Plain: "The closer you look, the more you see." It would be easy to drive in for the day, take a look around and say "Geez, why'd they bother to set this place aside?" It's true; it's a big empty valley that gets really hot and dry in the summer, and really muddy in the winter. There aren't many trees, and of those they aren't rare or exotic. There are no fancy lodges or swimming pools or ice cream stands. The closest good size town is Taft, an oil town with the motto "Energized for the Future." (If the future looks like one of the Mad Max movies, they're already there.)

Once out of the car though, things change. The first thing you notice is the ringing in your ears. Other than birds and an occasional airplane, there's no noise. Not many people venture into the park, and the closest highway is at least 30 miles away over a set of mountains. Once you get accustomed to the quiet, you can actually hear the grass rustle in the breeze. It's glorious.

Once your eyes adjust, you notice there are unusual plants mixed in with the grass, and a lot of them have tiny flowers. Stand back a bit or climb up a hill, and those individual plants take on the look of colored mats, yellows and blues merging into each other. While you're up on that hill look to the east and see a rippled ridge running the length of the valley. That's the San Andreas Fault, making it's slow progression to the north, moving at the rate your fingernails grow.

It's raw California.


We took a drive on our second day there, stopping in to check out the Traver Ranch. Two houses and assorted outbuildings are all that's left of a long time "dry" ranching operation. There's a bunch of old farming equipment you can poke around, with a few signs indicating how and when they were used. We didn't see anyone there the hour of so we spent taking photos and exploring. The wind moving through the empty buildings made it a little eery; you could almost imagine living out here back in the day.
Broken second story windows on the "new" house at Traver Ranch.

Interior of the "old" house at Traver Ranch.

Hay trailer

The view through the Silky Rake, Traver Ranch
Why do people feel the need to shoot at windows?
Old tractor at Traver Ranch


Cletrac Tractor, Traver Ranch

Mark tries his hand at farming
The view of the Temblor Range from Traver Ranch. The San Andreas Fault runs right along the rippled tan ridge. I wonder how they came up with that name?

We made a full loop that day, despite the dreary Ranger's warning. It hadn't rained all night or day, so we took Elkhorn Road back up the valley, a dirt road that traverses the Temblor Range on the eastern side of the park. It's a relatively nice dirt road, although we had a few dicey mud patches to cross. I wouldn't recommend it in a passenger car, especially if it's recently rained. We had to put it in 4 wheel low a few times to safely cross a few low spots. Along the way there were multiple views of wildflowers, and one sighting of a pronghorn antelope, too quick for a picture. Those guys can move. It was a beautiful animal and we were excited to spot one for the first time.

The beautiful Elkhorn Road.
Toward the end of the road (or the beginning, if you start at the north end of Elkhorn Road) there is a small parking area for Wallace Creek. Here there is a signed trail that follows the San Andreas Fault. The creek dramatically visualizes the power and movement of a strike/slip fault; the creek has been slowly moving, lengthening towards the north at 3 centimeters per year. It's capable of moving a lot faster; it's estimated that during a huge earthquake in 1857 it actually moved as much as 29 feet. There was an empty box at the beginning of the trailhead that we assumed had handouts explaining the numbered stops on the trail. Alas, we were left to guess what they stood for.
The "s" turn in Wallace Creek, right on top of the San Andreas Fault.
This is what happens when you drive the roads after it rains. Cutting across the valley on Semmler Road, we hit a muddy section that tested Mark's driving skills. Weeks later we are still scrubbing mud out of the truck's nooks and crannies. My hope is some of the wildflower seeds made their way home with us and perhaps our driveway will have a spectacular bloom next spring.

The next day we explored the western side of the park, and drove back up the road to Selby campground and surrounding area. There was an interesting rock formation there we wanted to check out, along with that ranch and a curious road we saw the day before.

Painted Rock was closed of course, but there was another set of rocks nearby, and they didn't seem to have any regulations keeping us from poking around them. We parked nearby and walked out across the grass and flowers with the dogs.

The rock ridge near Selby Campground

The rocks seemed to rise up out of the ground like a rounded spine. There were strange round depressions that had filled with water from the rains, and colorful lichen covered the north side of the ridge. There were natural holes in the sides of the rocks, and birds had made nests in the crevices. We were careful not to get too close and disturb any of the occupants. We also found a large bee's nest in one of the crevices; thankfully we could hear them before we got too close.

Succulents growing on the rocks.

Strange "pot holes" in the rocks had filled with rain water.
Alice Algae and Freddy Fungus took a Lichen to each other.
Clever birds had built nests into the natural hollows in the rocks.
Huge boulders lay in the field like giant marbles.

We checked out the old abandoned ranch across the way, then headed up the Caliente Ridge Trail Road. It's a nail-biting one lane dirt road that winds up the side of the mountains, popping up on top of the ridge with spectacular 360 degree views. It was a sunny day, and you could almost hear the wildflowers blooming all around us.

The view to the west from Caliente Ridge Trail Road. Notice the yellow highlights on the sides of all the hills.

Carrizo Plain is almost entirely BLM land, so it would be permissible to make a camp along this road as long as it's an established area. We saw a few prime spots with great views of the valley, but since we had a nice camp spot with almost no neighbors, it seemed silly to move it. Besides, there was still rain in the forecast and the road had still been a little dicey in spots after drying out for a couple days.

A lizard suns itself on an old outbuilding, KCL Campground
A Great Horned Owl stares us down from the top of a giant eucalyptus tree, KCL Camp.
She serenaded us every night at dusk.
Back at camp, we took a walk up in the hills behind the grounds. It's the strangest feeling to walk up a hill just to find endless hills rolling out beyond, without a building in sight. The park allows visitors to walk anywhere; there are a few established trails, but if you see something you want to check out, get out of your car and head toward it. We found some old farm equipment half buried in the grass and an old water tank teetering on a wooden base. The dogs indicated that something was living underneath it; we decided to let whatever it was alone. We've had our fair share of wildlife encounters and they rarely end well when the dogs are involved.

The view from the hill, back down towards KCL camp.

One of the many types of wildflowers growing on the plain.
The first thing he did when he jumped out of the truck was catch a lizard and eat it.
It must have tasted good, he was on the lookout for lizards for the rest of the trip.
Notice the dire warning about destroying the sign. Then notice the bullet holes.

It's good to read up on this place before you go; since it's such a young park, I think they are still getting the hang of how to best serve the public. Be sure to pack your curiosity and adventurous spirit. As the park saying goes, "the more you look, the more you'll see" But be prepared; you just might have to guess what it is you're looking at.


If you go, a few things to note: Cell phone service was spotty to nonexistent in the park, so don't rely on it for emergencies. The nearest gas station is in Maricopa, to the south of the park on Hwy 166. There is no water or garbage service, so pack it in and pack it out, however, camping is free. There are pit toilets at the campgrounds, Soda Lake Overlook, and Traver Ranch; everywhere else you'll have to pull up a bush. The visitor's center has limited hours, and the wildflowers are only available in spring after a wet winter. You can check in with the park ahead of time for an update on the road and other conditions by calling the Goodwin Education Center at 805-475-2131.

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