Story and Photos by David A. Laws.
I pulled my jacket close against the chill stirring of an early breeze. A heavy silence enveloped the world in the final darkest minutes before dawn. To the east, a gray sliver of pending morning peeked from beneath a band of straggling clouds to silhouette the rugged crest of the Temblor Range. Planning a day exploring the Carrizo Plain, I had risen early to drive 200 miles from my home in Pacific Grove to watch the sunrise and a promised floral Carrizo Plain Gold super bloom from this elevated spot at the northern entrance to the National Monument that has been called “California’s Serengeti.”
From my vantage point on the promontory of Soda Lake Overlook, white mineral deposits bordering the water reflected the swelling glow in the east, the first sign of physical landscape in an ocean of darkness. Orange tints, brightening by the minute, injected a promise of color into the neutral gray of the fading night. As the spectrum moved to the red of blood, ragged peaks sharply etched against the horizon slowly, slowly released the tip of a glowing disk. The first rays of sunlight spilled out over the ridge line into the morning.
The newborn flash of golden light reflected as pinks and yellows and reds and blues from the disparate textures of rocks, sand, desert scrub, saline wetlands, and flowers bursting into bloom from recent heavy rain. Denizens of the Plain, from blunt-nosed leopard lizards to giant tule elk, and burrowing owls to high-flying ferruginous hawks, began their scurrying and soaring.
With typical annual rainfall of less than ten inches, Carrizo qualifies as desert. Not the slickrock Utah desert of Edward Abbey, or the endless crescent dunes of T. E. Lawrence’s Arabia but a grassland with wildlife and vegetation more typical of a prairie. Isolated from the coast and the great Central Valley by mountain-building earthquake movements along the San Andreas Fault, the 50-mile long by 10-mile wide flat plain was sacred to the Chumash people for thousands of years. They called it “the place of the rabbits.”
Established in 2001 as the Carrizo Plain National Monument, nearly 250,000-acres between the Temblor and the Caliente mountain ranges are preserved as public lands. Fencing and structures from recent ranching activity are gradually being removed to return the valley to a landscape that changed little in thousands of years, except for violent lurches to the north every century or so.
Soda Lake: Lingering shadows dissolved in the flood of daylight revealing a slope of orange-tinged Fiddleneck blooms. A rising song of Western Meadowlarks broke the silence. Hailed as the essential musical theme of the prairie lands of the American West, their melodious refrain accompanied me as I walked downhill to a boardwalk edging Soda Lake.
Rainfall that once drained into the Salinas River is now trapped in a shallow basin on the north of the plain. Covering 3,000 acres when full, Soda Lake is the largest remaining natural alkali wetland in southern California. With no outlet, summer evaporation leaves a vast expanse of white mineral salts that shimmer and sway in the afternoon heat. Early settlers mined these saline deposits for preserving meat.
The boardwalk allowed proximity to the receding water without disturbing endangered fairy shrimp, the only life form that lives in the water. This crustacean species, Branchinecta lynchi, with eleven pairs of swimming legs, survives by laying drought-resistant eggs that embed in the soil as water evaporates. When the lake refills, the eggs hatch and the life cycle repeats.
Sandy spots alongside the walk glowed with California goldfields. The intense yellow flowers flowed like liquid gold between grey skeletons of the last season’s spiny saltbush shrubs. Eager to arrive on time for a coveted spot on a guided tour of Painted Rock, the major cultural feature of the Plain, I hastened back to my car.
Painted Rock: “Don’t stray off the trail. There’s rattlesnakes!” – Gannon, a seasonal intern at the Goodwin Center, warned our group of 20 or so visitors. He pointed to our destination, Painted Rock, a sandstone outcrop protruding from the valley floor that served as a sacred meeting place of Chumash, Salinan and Yokut people for generations. Access is restricted to preserve ancient pictographs and to protect nesting falcons and other raptors.
The trail led us across a treeless plain flush with new growth following recent winter storms. Intense patches of purple phacelia peeked through acres of fiddleneck blooms. As summer advances, this ephemeral riot of color will dry to gold, then slowly fade through shades of tan to the dusty grey of fall.
We entered an open horseshoe-shaped area at the center of the rock. Painted on the walls of eroded caves along the base, pictographs in multiple layers of black, red and white pigment from charcoal and local minerals span a period estimated from 3000 to just 200 years ago. Images of animals and humans, together with abstract representations of water, fertility, rain, and other religious symbols survived centuries of weathering. Modern vandals have not been so kind. Carved graffiti and shot gun blasts have taken their toll.
I tried to imagine how the area must have looked all those years ago and how people survived in such an unforgiving environment. Surely it must have been cooler and wetter, to support a population with time and energy to spend mixing and applying colors to the rocks. Gannon requested that we not post photographs on social media out of respect for the sacred nature of the images for the Chumash people.
Evidence of the importance of this secluded area to other living creatures abounded. Patiently waiting for the intruders to leave, a pair of long-eared owls peered from the darkness of a cave high above us. A hawk circled watchfully in the patch of sky overhead. I stepped warily around boneyards of mouse-size discards dropped by raptors dining on the cliffs above.
Traver Ranch: On returning to the visitor center, I was intrigued by the mechanical ingenuity evident in an exhibit of vintage farm equipment. Stout wire lines tethered the towering skeleton of a decaying, wooden grain elevator against the constant wind. Relics of giant grain harvesters, mechanical dinosaurs, loomed over us. Years of exposure have transformed scrapers, disks, ploughs, and tractors into weathered sculptures. Dusty reminders of settler’s dreams of agrarian prosperity. At the center I learned about the last working ranch on the Plain. I drove about 20 miles south down the unpaved stretch of Soda Lake Road and stopped to read the sign at the Traver Ranch. “Neat place, huh?” A voice boomed from behind.
A burly, bearded figure in work clothes and heavy boots stepped from his pick-up truck and pointed to a deserted house uphill behind a wire fence. “Used to stay there when I was kid,” he said. We called it the bat house because the attic was filled with ’em.” I asked him how he came to stay there. “I’m Alden Loucks. The Travers were my grandparents. They moved here and built the place because land was a few cents cheaper than up north. Real mistake. There’s no water.”
He told me that they purchased about 800 acres in the 1940s for the boom and bust life of dry land grain farming. Wheat seed sowed in late fall thrives after a wet winter; in dry years the crop fails. The last family member to work the property, Alden quit in 1986. Examples of the Travers’s farm equipment line an interpretive trail alongside the road. Re-roofed and with the windows secured against human entry, the solid block ranch house is preserved as habitat for threatened bats.
Life on the Plain: Coyotes, foxes, badgers, and other small mammals survived the farming era but hunters long ago cleared the land of everything large and edible. In 1985, the area was one of the first in the state to re-introduce pronghorn antelope and tule elk. Elk herds now exceed several hundred animals and are thriving. Pronghorns are not doing so well. Few fawns are fast enough to outrun coyotes and, although they are the fastest native animals in North America, adults cannot leap barbed wire fences to escape. Alden Loucks lives nearby in Maricopa and returns to help volunteers open the land to wild life.
Simmler Road, a dirt track crossing to the east side of the plain, is a popular spot for grazing elk. While resting in my vehicle for a refreshment break, I scoured the horizon for signs of life. Distant brown shapes raised my hopes. But, with no movement after several minutes, I concluded they were just a couple of darker bushes.
Something moving in my peripheral vision caught my attention. I looked behind me. Sure enough, creeping up behind were two critters about the size of large goats. Through binoculars, brown top coats, white bellies and inward-curving antlers confirmed them as pronghorns. Over the next 15 minutes I watched as they browsed, presumably aware of the vehicle but, apparently unfazed. They approached within about 50 feet before strolling nonchalantly back into the brush. Although I never saw any elk, this unexpected encounter with the most threatened animal on the Plain gave credence to the Carrizo as “California’s Serengeti.”
I continued driving on a dusty, unpaved road east towards the Temblor Range and into the heart of the super bloom. Random purple spears of owl’s clover penetrated a yellow ocean of goldfields and tidy tips. Closest to the salt, intense yellow goldfield predominated. On higher ground, tidy tips’ white-edged petals cast a lighter lemon hue. Towards mid-valley, the floral extravaganza faded into dense areas of immature Carrizo fiddleneck, their fuzzy leaves pregnant with buds ready to erupt into orange-tinged blooms. Occasional roadside clumps of frilly Lemon’s mustard glowed pink against this solid field of green.
Rising steeply from the valley floor, the road twisted through loose rocks where eons of earth movement along the San Andreas Fault has ground the foothills into geological debris. In Assembling California, John McPhee lists the showcase of landforms along this tectonic scar; “benches and scarps, its elongated grabens and beheaded channels, its desiccated sag ponds and dry deflected streams. From the air, the fault trace is keloid, virtually organic in its insistence and its creep — north forty degrees west.”
Savoring a closer view of these features that had intrigued me over the years of glimpses from the comfort of an airline seat on flights to Los Angeles, I headed north on Elkhorn Road. After miles of dodging deep ruts where others had become stuck in the mud, probably having ignored “Impassable When Wet” warnings to their peril, a sign announced my arrival at Wallace Creek. I strode up a stony trail towards a low ridge. A final few yards to the top of an embankment and I was staring into dramatic evidence of seismic forces that continue to shape California.
About 3,800 years ago, Wallace Creek flowed from the North American Plate straight across the restless San Andreas Fault to the Pacific Plate. As that plate moved northwest, the creek bed bent and followed the fault line until locating its original course and turning back out towards Soda Lake. Over time the channel has grown to about 150 yards in length. Although the average is 1.3 inches per year, displacement here is not slow and steady. It happens in sudden jerks that we know as earthquakes. Geologists say that this section of the plain lurched 30 feet north in a few terrifying seconds during the devasting 7.9 magnitude Fort Tejon temblor of 1857.
I stared at the displaced creek bed carved into the peaceful hillside and pondered the tectonic energy silently building pressure in the earth beneath my feet. With my curiosity overcome by a dose of caution, I decided it was time to set out for home. At any moment the next Big One could unleash the raw power stored under this notorious seismic hot spot.
It had been a long day, but sunlight still bathed the west facing foothills of the Temblor Range. Where my route home joined Highway 58, brilliant yellow slopes cascaded down into meadows bursting with waist-high, golden blooms of Hillside daisies. My visit to the Carrizo Plain that started with the first gold flash of morning ended with another luminous display of “Nature’s … hardest hue to hold.” 
IF YOU GO
The Carrizo Plain is located about 70 miles east of San Luis Obispo in Central California. The northern entrance is from Highway 58, the southern from Highway 166. Allow 4-plus hours driving time from San Francisco or Los Angeles.
The Bureau of Land Management website advises “Prepare yourself for your adventure. The Carrizo Plain National Monument does not provide any services such as water, food, or fuel. Plan your trip accordingly. Expect warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters. Daytime summer temperatures often exceed 100°F, with a record high of 115°F.”
The Goodwin Education and Visitor Center is open seasonally from the beginning of December to the end of May. Normal days of operation during those months are Thursday through Sunday. Informational maps and brochures are available at the front door when the center is closed. Tours of Painted Rock are secured by reservation.
 Quoted from “Nothing gold can stay” by poet Robert Frost.
 All photos by the author except where otherwise noted.