A California gem, off the beaten track

Wildflowers on Carrizo Plain, California. Photo by Alan Scheirmier.

This feature was first published in the 2008 Wilderness Magazine. To receive the annual magazine and quarterly newsletters from The Wilderness Society, become a member today!

Freelance writer Anne McMahon of Santa Margarita, California, is a former newspaper reporter who also has worked for U.S. Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) and The Nature Conservancy.

State Highways 58 and 166, east-west roadways connecting the southern San Joaquin Valley to the Pacific Coast, skirt the boundaries of the 250,000-acre monument. Unless you are looking for it, you might miss the turnoff at Soda Lake Road, bisecting the monument for more than 40 miles. In spite of its remoteness — indeed, because of it — the Carrizo is a favorite destination for birdwatchers, nature photographers and artists, hikers, geologists and archeologists, campers, researchers, and others who find what they crave in its rich austerity.

This is not a place you happen upon on your way to somewhere else. Located in the southeastern corner of San Luis Obispo County, just a few hours’ drive from most of California’s 38 million residents, the Carrizo Plain National Monument feels light years away from the state’s iconic freeways, swimming pools, and palm trees.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) first acquired land there 20 years ago, working with the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Native Americans, and others. The BLM and DFG followed with acquisitions of their own. Today an area large enough to provide real hope for the survival of numerous endangered species and a respite for humans is managed seamlessly by the BLM, with TNC and DFG acting as managing partners.

Designated a national monument by President Bill Clinton in 2001, the Carrizo Plain is part of the BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System, comprising more than 26 million acres of lands “designated for their outstanding scientific values, including cultural, archaeological, biological, social, paleontological, and geologic resources.”

With DFG’s purchase of the 25,000-acre Chimineas Ranch, situated between the monument and the Las Padres National Forest, the Carrizo Plain is now the centerpiece of an immense macro-preserve that encompasses and connects vast wildlands, critical wildlife corridors, and an array of diverse ecosystems.

At its heart is Soda Lake. One of California’s largest alkali wetlands, the lake punctuates the monument’s 100,000-acre valley floor, which boasts a now-rare mix of perennial bunch grasses and forbs — a native grassland once ubiquitous throughout the Central Valley. Grasslands like this have all but disappeared, converted to urban centers, intensified agriculture, and annual non-native grasses introduced to California during the mission era. Even a few inches of winter rain will transform the Carrizo’s unique botanical mix into a breathtaking show of colorful spring wildflowers, making that season a favorite time for visitors.

But there really is no bad time to visit. Birders love winter for the array of migratory birds, including mountain plovers, curlews, and rough-legged hawks. Others say there is nothing like a summer evening on the Carrizo, when the blistering heat gives way to a cooling breeze, the stars light up the night sky, and you might hear tule elk bugling as part of a mating ritual.

“April is my favorite month,” says Bob Stafford, associate wildlife biologist for DFG. “The wildflowers are in bloom, and from Caliente Mountain you can sometimes see the snow-capped Sierra Nevada, thanks to unusually good air quality in the Central Valley after it rains.” For 11 years Stafford has been monitoring many of the Carrizo’s endangered species, including the San Joaquin kit fox, giant kangaroo rat, and blunt-nosed leopard lizard, as well as the herds of reintroduced pronghorn antelope and tule elk (the smallest of North America’s elk species, found only in California). “But,” he adds, “there is also nothing quite like November at Carrizo, with the quality of the light and the golden color of the hills.”

At just over 5100 feet, Caliente Mountain is the highest point in San Luis Obispo County, providing a great vantage point to view the Carrizo Plain and the Cuyama Valley (kwee-yá-ma), at the monument’s southern boundary. Caliente Ridge Road is best navigated with four-wheel drive, and don’t expect it to be open if it has recently rained — or snowed! Yes, a dusting of snow on the Caliente and Temblor Ranges is not unusual.

Despite the monument’s serenity, rumbles of controversy persist, including a debate about how cattle grazing affects the rare native species that make this place unique. Currently, there are multiple proposals for developing solar and wind energy on private land adjoining the monument. “The number-one threat is the possibility of oil drilling,” says The Wilderness Society’s Alice Bond. She and colleagues Nada Culver and Dr. Michelle Haefele produced an economic analysis showing how pristine public lands like the Carrizo increasingly provide an economic boost to nearby communities not only by luring tourists but also by attracting a variety of new residents and businesses. The BLM is now working with DFG and TNC on a long-term plan, which will guide management decisions. A draft will be circulated for public comment in late 2008, with a final version due a year later.

The monument’s motto is: The closer you look, the more you see. To fully see and experience the Carrizo, often called California’s Serengeti, bring plenty of time, food, and water, plus a full tank of gas. If you visit in summer, be prepared for triple-digit temperatures.

Despite the heat, summer may be the best time to spot some of the area’s 80 pronghorn, which, like the tule elk, were reintroduced to the area by DFG several years ago. The pronghorn population plummeted a few years ago, but it rebounded after grazing was stopped in pastures where they typically have their fawns; the early-spring vegetation now remains long enough to screen newborns from predators and provide forage for the mothers.

Tule elk numbers are also on the increase. Stafford says there are now about 260, comprising two herds that are year-round residents of the monument and neighboring private lands. According to Stafford, at one time only five tule elk — one bull and four cows — remained on Earth.

The Carrizo Plain National Monument, which is traversed by the San Andreas Fault, is also known for diverse fossil mammal remains of the Miocene Epoch (from 13 million to 25 million years ago), historic ranches, and prehistoric rock art, especially Painted Rock, one of the Carrizo’s most dramatic and significant archeological sites. “Painted Rock is exceedingly sacred,” says Pilulaw Khus, a traditional elder of the Bear Clan from the coastal band of the Chumash Nation. “Indigenous people from many different nations came there for celebrations.” Native Americans still gather there for special celebrations.

Monument Manager Johna Hurl stresses that visitors should be prepared whenever they visit. “The weather can be unpredictable,” she cautions. “Four-wheel drive doesn’t guarantee anything, and calling for a tow truck can cost up to $700!” She also wants you to know that the monument’s two campgrounds, the KCL and the Selby, are first-come, first-served. (Car camping is allowed in other areas of the monument, with certain restrictions.) “People come to Carrizo because of the vastness, the openness, and the quiet,” Hurl adds. “It is one of the few places on Earth you can still experience that.”

Wildflowers on Carrizo Plain, California. Photo by Alan Schmierer.
The western bluebird is one of many birds at Carrizo Plain National Monument, which has been designated as a globally important bird area by the American Bird Conservancy. Photo by Alan
Carrizo Plain National Monument, California. Photo by Alan