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Soda Lake, a dry salt pan, shimmers in the distance at Carrizo Plain National Monument. In the upper left of the frame is the sandstone pinnacle known as Painted Rock, an important Chumash site. (Chuck Graham photo)

Driving slowly on Soda Lake Road, I stopped every time something caught my eye, and with my binoculars scanned the horizon for various signs of life. After coming up empty on every occasion, something faint in the distance drew my interest. I jumped out of my truck and found myself standing between the expanse of the Temblor and Caliente Mountain Ranges, lost in silence within Carrizo Plain National Monument.

It wasn’t clear what I saw, but whatever it was vanished in the rolling grasslands about a mile away. I wanted to stretch my legs, so I picked up my 600 mm lens and took a stroll in that direction. Within 15 minutes, the grasslands came alive and I wasn’t alone anymore. The large heads of pronghorn antelope rose above the grass line, not sure themselves what was hiding behind a tripod. At least 30 of North America’s fastest mammal herded together. Not wanting to disturb the pronghorn, I backed away as they continued grazing across the largest remaining remnant of original San Joaquin Valley habitat.

Pronghorn antelope and Tule elk once roamed these magnificent grasslands in vast numbers, were hunted to extinction by the late 1800s, but reintroduced to the region in the late 1980s. Since then, antelope and elk herds are on the rise, steadily growing across what’s become known as “California’s Serengeti.”

Land of Extremes

The Carrizo Plain resembles what much of California appeared like 300 years ago. The Spanish called the grasslands “Llano Estero,” or “salt marsh plain.” Then-President Bill Clinton designated the 250,000 acres of grass and woodlands a national monument in January 2001. That was good news for 13 threatened and endangered species, including unique critters like the San Joaquin kit fox, blunt-nosed leopard lizard, giant kangaroo rat and antelope squirrel. Carrizo is critical habitat for endangered California condors.

“You have to be patient and look closely,” said Johna Hurl, manager of the Carrizo Plain National Monument. “Turn your car off and hear the sounds of nature all around you.”

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A boardwalk along Soda Lake offers a closeup view of Carrizo Plain National Monument’s unique flora and fauna. (Chuck Graham photo)

More than 100 species of birds live seasonally or year-round at Carrizo. Belding Savannah sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, roadrunners and horned larks flutter through the tall grasses. A quarter of California’s sandhill crane population overwinters in 3,000-acre Soda Lake, one of the largest undisturbed alkali wetlands in the state. Mountain plovers use the plains as a roosting place.

Because there’s no outlet for water rushing down from the mountains into Soda Lake, it eventually evaporates into a sometimes glistening, other occasions blinding salt pan, an expanse of sulfate and carbonate salts that seems to slowly sway during the heat of the day.

“It’s the solitude and tranquility,” Hurl said. “That’s special in California with a large population base.”

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One of the Carrizo Plain’s resident northern orioles offers a colorful accent to the desert environment. (Chuck Graham photo)

Sandstone rock outcroppings dot the plains like mighty cathedrals at the base of the Caliente Mountains. Coated in lichen and havens for nesting birds, they were also significant for Chumash and Yokut Indians who once lived in the region. Ancient mortars used to grind seeds and nuts can be found on the gritty crags, but more important is the spiritual and cultural significance at Painted Rock. The 55-foot, horseshoe-shaped amphitheater is known as one of the most important rock art sites in the United States. The paintings range in age from 200 to 3,000 years old.

Standing inside the horseshoe-shaped monolith, its importance all made sense to me. Overlooking the Carrizo Plain toward Soda Lake, I pictured Native Americans gathering inside, a place of a story, of worship, surrounded by rock art in red, black and white. It signifies their cultural and spiritual diversity, but the meaning of their impressive rock art is somewhat of a mystery.

Ascending above Carrizo

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A pronghorn buck and three females pause while grazing on the Carrizo Plain. (Chuck Graham photo)

The temp outside was 16 degrees, but pedaling along the Caliente Ridge at dawn was my inspiration for warmth. The sun crept above the Sierra Madre Range, while shadows retreated across the Carrizo Plain. The Temblor Mountains — concealing the gouge that’s the San Andreas Fault — loomed to the east. Painted Rock jutted in morning glow as a herd of 20 pronghorn lope single file across the open plains.

While ascending above the arid plains, I left the saltbush scrub and valley grasslands and mountain biked into California juniper woodland. I startled a lanky coyote, its pink tongue wagging at 5,000 feet. Golden eagles, Ferruginous hawks and prairie falcons perched on bare, tattered branches and soared and swooped toward the open plains.

Before I knew it the hard climbing was finished. Catching my breath, I lifted my head and gazed across toward the Sierra Madres to the southwest and back to the coast and San Luis Obispo. At 5,106 feet, Caliente Mountain is the highest point in San Luis Obispo County, offering sweeping views of Carrizo’s 50-mile stretch of breathtaking grasslands.

“On a clear day you can almost see the ocean up there,” said Hurl.

The Living Plains

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A northern Pacific rattlesnake isn’t happy about seeing visitors. (Chuck Graham photo)

Bouncing along Simmler Road, there was no mistaking that spring had arrived across the Carrizo Plain. A thick blanket of wildflowers swept across the grasslands from the base of the Temblors to the Calientes. In some areas the floral display was so dense I couldn’t see the fertile soil from which the flowers sprang.

The mountain ranges were a carpet of green, and below, its sweeping slopes were teeming with owl’s clover, California poppies, golden yarrow and golden astor. A walk on the boardwalk skirting the periphery of Soda Lake revealed a throng of waterfowl. Green-winged and cinnamon teals, Gadwalls, Lesser Scaups and a common merganser reveled in the swollen alkali lake.

Back at Simmler Road, I hiked toward Elkhorn Road. A kit fox leaped from behind a saltbush, then vanished in a blur. A baby black-tailed jackrabbit huddled in a muddy alcove soaking in the sun, but exposed to the unforgiving fauna concealed in the plains of Carrizo. As the sun sank behind the Caliente Mountains, pink and purple hues swept across the plains and Temblor Mountains, signifying the end of another day in California’s Serengeti.

If You Go

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Sunset casts the Temblor Mountains in a pink glow. (Chuck Graham photo)

The Carrizo Plain is jointly managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the state Department of Fish & Game and The Nature Conservancy. Click here for more information or call 661.391.6000.

To reach the Carrizo Plain from San Luis Obispo, take Highway 101 north to Santa Margarita to Highway 58. Head east for 51 miles and turn right on Soda Lake Road to enter the national monument.

The Goodwin Education Center, at the Carrizo Plain, is open from December through May, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Brochures, campfire permits, interpretive area and restrooms are available.

Primitive camping is available at KCL and Selby Camps. Primitive toilets and nonpotable water is sometimes available at Selby Camp.

Local freelance writer Chuck Graham is editor of Deep magazine.