[Author’s note: This spring Carrizo Plain was the location of what wildflower enthusiasts have called one of the greatest super blooms in decades. We spent a Sunday in the Plain recently and marveled at the amazing colors and the difference spring seems to make when Soda Lake is full and the grass is green. But I’ll always prefer a winter day when the air is clear, the visitors few and the land so still that you can hear the quiet.]
It was a day not unlike one I might have seen in a Clint Eastwood western: rolling hills covered with a thin layer of well-dried grass, distant mountains that seemed to shimmer in the dusty haze, cattle grazing not too far from the shell of an abandoned ranch house, a herd of pronghorn antelope bounding over the rusted barbwire fencing.
It was New Year’s Day 2001, our first foray to the Carrizo Plain area. Even at 10 a.m. the day was cold and crisp.
Yvonne and I had spent New Year’s Eve at the Buckhorn in New Cuyama after exploring the western half of the Sierra Madre Mountains.
Rather than circling back to Santa Barbara on Highway 33, we decided to take the long way home through Carrizo Plain.
The turnoff to Carrizo is somewhat innocuous, the Soda Lake Road barely wide enough to meet San Luis Obispo County fire standards. Sandwiched between several run-down buildings, it is hard to spot until the last possible moment.
The patchwork asphalt road leads for several miles up a small valley then up over a rise to point where the Plain opens up into a wide and what appears to be never-ending flat lands with rolling hills and mountains on either side.
Not having been here before, I didn’t have a sense of what I was seeing, other than the immediate: the solitude, the lack of motion, the stillness. This is a quiet place, I thought, spare country.
Little did I know then how much things would come alive in just a few months’ time when the wildflowers turned the hillsides massive shades of orange, blue, purple, red and yellow. Amazing what a bit of warming weather, 9 inches of annual rain and longer days can create.
Sense of Place
As we drove through the basin that forms the Plain, the fact that we were the only two people here — or would be the entire day — provided us with a rare opportunity to define our sense of this place.
I’m told that the word “Carrizo” refers to a type of grass that once grew in such abundance and was so tall that it touched the bellies of early settlers’ horses as they rode through the area. That would have been something to see.
But summer and fall drought, along with cattle gazing, had reduced the grasses to bare stalks, making it a bit difficult to envision such a time. Lacking grass, the hillsides had a starkness that is almost jarring.
At the same time, this imparts a fluid quality, a sinuous grace as their curving edges of the ridges line up one after the other.
The Plain has often been referred to as “California’s Serengeti,” but I’m having a hard time imagining that. The area is home to a number of endangered, threatened and rare species of animals, including the San Joaquin kit fox, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, the giant kangaroo rat, and the San Joaquin antelope squirrel. Not quite the type of mammals you’d find roaming a Tanzanian countryside.
A sign board near the entry into Carrizo Plain notes that the area is home to some of the richest fossil beds in Southern California, with some five different species of mammals having lived here as long ago as 10 million to 20 million years ago. Understanding such a quiet place brings along with it the challenging of conceiving the time it has taken to evolve to this point.
Once a River Valley
The Carrizo Plain was once a long river valley that emanated from somewhere to the east, the product of the collisions of two gigantic tectonic pieces of the Earth’s crust: the North American and Pacific plates.
Situated almost directly beneath the line of collision along the San Andreas Fault, the basin subsided, transforming it into an inland sea from a river valley. Water that once flowed further north into the Salinas River millions of years ago now drains directly into one of California’s largest alkaline bodies of water, the 3,000-acre Soda Lake.
In early January, well before the area’s meager rains have fallen, Soda Lake was completely dry, creating a massive white surface that beckons us from afar. Up close, however, rather than the smooth white surface we were expecting, we discovered it is composed of what one writer described as “a glistening expanse of sulfate and carbonate salts.”
With nowhere else to go, the water that is able to flow down into the lake during the winter months evaporates, leaving only the crystalline forms of the mineral salts behind. The smell is not particularly appealing.
Although Soda Lake Road is the main route through Carrizo Plain, it is also possible to drive through by taking Elkhorn Road, which parallels Soda Lake Road on the north side of the basin. You might not want to take it unless you’ve got a high clearance vehicle, however, preferably with four-wheel drive.
Elkhorn Road has one characteristic that Soda Lake does not: as you travel along it, for the most part you’re driving right atop the San Andreas Fault.
Most tourists who visit Carrizo Plain take the Simmler turnoff and cut across to Elkhorn Road to visit a tributary by the name of Wallace Creek, which offers visitors a glimpse of the fault line. It’s about 5 miles across and then a mile or so east on Elkhorn Road to the creek. It is a beautiful drive.
More recently we’ve done it when Soda Lake is full, and the sight is absolutely breathtaking. The trade-off, of course, is that we’re also there with hundreds of others who’ve come for the wildflowers.
With dozens of cars squeezing past east other and dust clouds following in their wake, the feeling isn’t quite the same as that first of January in 2001 when we had the Plain to ourselves and the land was quiet. But, man, when the wildflowers are blooming, there is no place like Carrizo Plain.
The main attraction at Wallace Creek is the walk up to a viewpoint that overlooks the San Andreas Fault. While the fault itself lies thousands of feet underground, on the surface it is easy to see the 200-300-yard offset created when movement along the fault line shifted the lower part of the creek to the west.
Until the 1950s, when Santa Barbara geologist Thomas Dibblee published a paper in 1953 with co-author Mason Hill, plate tectonics were a little understood and highly theoretical concept. But Dibblee and Hill proposed that there had been as much as 350 miles of lateral movement along the San Andreas Fault, and that creek offsets in places such as Wallace Creek were proof.
The last major earthquake to hit this area occurred in 1857 when a 200-plus-mile part of the San Andreas Fault ruptured near Parkfield. Dubbed the Fort Tejon Earthquake because the most extensive damage occurred there, the lower Wallace Creek creekbed below the fault line shifted almost 30 feet. It is still shifting on average of about 1.3 inches a year.
On the Ridge
We retraced our route back down Stimmler Road to the south side of the Plain and then a bit further back down the Soda Lake Road to another side road that leads up to Selby Ridge. There’s a nice campground a mile or so up the dirt route, but we continue on to the saddle at the top of the ridge and onto a section of the Caliente Mountains that overlooks the Cuyama Valley on one side and Carrizo Plain on the other.
The basin is so flat that it is hard to gain perspective from it, but from several thousand feet in the sky the geography is much easier to visualize. This is the “basin and range” type country that John McPhee described in his book of that title, Basin and Range, alternating vertical lines interspaced with low-lying basins and valleys.
It is what makes it so easy to drive east-west through Santa Barbara County and almost impossible to go north-south.
The road east of Selby Saddle is now a wilderness study area so it’s out of the car and on foot if you want to go out to Caliente Mountain, which turns out to be the highest point in San Luis Obispo County at 5,106 feet.
Here the wind begins to blow a bit, and by noon the clouds are beginning to build overhead. We don’t have enough time on this trip to reach the peak, but walking the ridgeline is something I know I’ll do on another trip. The views are spectacular.
A Larger Community
On the way back down, we took a side trip out to the campground. I’m sure it is hot in the summertime here. The shaded covers over the camp tables are a testament to the fact that there is very, very little respite from the sun.
Nearby is an absolutely beautiful set of rocks that invite exploration. The formation is long, and the graceful lines form what a school of dolphins might look like as they surface and dive. There are no paintings here, but the numbers and depths of the mortars ground into the rock tell us this area — known as the Selby Rocks — must have been a very important food preparation spot for the native people who lived here hundreds or thousands of years ago.
Not too far away is another outcropping of bedrock known as Painted Rock, one of the most famous rock art sites in California. Geologists have named the formation Vaqueros Sandstone, cowboy rock. Though it underlies much of the Carrizo Plain, it only peeks out here and there at places like Painted Rock, Selby Rocks and a few other spots.
To reach Painted Rock, we headed back down Selby Ridge Road to Soda Lake, and from there to the Goodwin Education Center. It was now midafternoon and we had still seen no one else. On New Year’s, apparently the visitor center is closed as well.
In 2001, access to Painted Rock was by car for about 2 miles to a small parking area and then a quarter-mile or so walk. At present, Painted Rock is now closed to the public from the start of March through July 15, at other times of the year a permit is required to visit the site.
From afar the site looks like a dot on the plains, but up close it is huge — more than 50 feet tall and perhaps 250 feet long. As we followed the path around the outer perimeter of Painted Rock, we discovered it is actually horseshoe-shaped and rather than being solid has an opening at the lower end.
The narrow opening enlarges to a wide oval that could easily have been a community meeting area or gathering spot of sorts if it were not for the incredible red, black and white paintings that adorn the sides of the inner walls. They exude a spirituality that cannot be ignored.
Most of the paintings had been seriously damaged many years ago. Although that makes them more difficult to gain any sense of meaning from them, it does not diminish their power nor the importance this place mush have held for the Chumash, the Yokut or other native peoples who built a set of relationships and larger community in which the Carrizo Plain played such an important role.
Threats, Not Promises
As we walked back to our car, both Yvonne and I tried to put what we’ve just experienced into some sort of context. The land, the quiet, the overwhelming time, and the lasting impressions of those who lived here a long, long time ago are all things that future visitors might not have been able to experience had then-President Bill Clinton not created the Carrizo Plain National Monument just a few weeks after our New Year’s trip.
A Sunday ago, we visited Carrizo Plain again, this time for the wildflowers. Earth Day at Carrizo Plain. It was a warm day and the hillsides filled with flowers. With the hundreds of others who’d also come out to experience them, it wasn’t quite the same as our first visit but special nevertheless.
It may have taken a quiet day in January to embed the sense of this place in us, but once imparted it doesn’t go away.
Yet just a few days after we and thousands of others had celebrated another Earth Day throughout the country, President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review all national monuments over 100,000 acres in size and created over the past 30 years to determine their suitability for re-designation for other uses. At just over 200,000 acres, Carrizo Plain is one of those on the list.
According to Zinke, the order’s intent was to provide communities with a “meaningful voice” in the designation of monuments to ensure such designations do not result in “lost jobs, reduced wages or reduced public access,” but the intent is clear: the only values that count are the material ones.
On the surface it wouldn’t appear that there is much to worry about, given the Plain’s important archaeological, geological and biological resources as well as its value to those who visit.
But according to ForestWatch, a Santa Barbara-based environmental advocacy group, there a have been a number of efforts to open it to oil exploration in recent years. Possibly more problematic is the expansion of solar farms in the nearby California Valley area. Many of these are close enough to the monument to be visible from Soda Lake.
Make Yours a Meaningful Voice
Please share your thoughts with our political representatives: Sens. Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris, D-Calif.; Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara; and Zinke to let them know you want Carrizo Plain National Monument protected.
Zinke can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202.208.7351. The Interior Department also has a feedback form you can use to leave an online message for him.
— Noozhawk outdoors writer Ray Ford has been hiking, backpacking and bicycling in the Santa Barbara area since the 1970s. He is a longtime local outdoors columnist, author and photographer. Click here for additional columns, or view his previous work at his website, Santa Barbara Outdoors. E-mail him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter: @riveray. The opinions expressed are his own.