Friday, June 1, 2018

~ In Pursuit of Wildness: The Carrizo Plain National Monument ~

The article "In Pursuit of Wildness: The Carrizo Plain National Monument" by Robert Griego was originally published on the "RoadRUNNER Touring & Travel" magazine website on 04/09/2018.

A sleeping giant lies on the valley floor between the Temblor Range and the Caliente Range. That is where this story begins. In 1857, the strongest earthquake in California’s recorded history ripped through the San Andreas Fault, wrenching the western side of the Carrizo Plain National Monument 31 feet northward. But today the giant quietly sleeps.
Carrizo Plain National Monument is readily accessed from the north on Highway 58, from the south on Highway 166 or, for the more adventurous, via the route from the east on Highway 33, up to the Temblor Range where “dispersed camping” is permitted. A campfire permit, which is required and free, can be obtained from the US Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Park Service (NPS), and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL Fire), or at
Once I leave Highway 33 near Taft, I’m confronted by three forks along a dirt road—one pointing south, one west, and one north. The route south looks good, but after five miles, I hit a dead end. A huge mountain covered in wildflowers stands before me. When lost, I try to stay calm and focused, and today the wildflowers along this canyon are my reward as I begin to capture the colors. Then, around the next bend, I am rewarded again by the appearance of an oblivious badger hunting for a meal. Back at the junction, I feel certain the road pointing west and up a steep hill has to be the right one. The wildflowers stop me every few hundred yards, and the sweeping views from the top of the Temblor Range have me looking down onto the valley floor. From this vantage, I can see the Sierra Range, which is in my backyard at Three Rivers. Tule elk and pronghorn antelope share the open plain below.
The summit of Caliente Mountain, the highest peak in San Luis Obispo County, is 5,106 feet, and the Temblors reach 4,332 feet at McKittrick Summit. There are two established campgrounds on the valley floor: Selby Campground and KCL Campground. I like them both. KCL Campground is quiet and peaceful, and a great spot for day hikes.
The Temblor Range is rough and a few four-wheel drive trucks pass me as I move slowly on the dirt roads. It’s quiet here and flowers sway gently in the breeze. It’s an uplifting sight that makes me glad I took this route. Nothing beats reconnecting with nature. My camp tonight is simple and my fire is my companion. The night sky is absolutely brilliant and perfect. The sound of an owl lingers well into the night. Quiet, peaceful, and a satisfying end to my first day at Carrizo Plain National Monument.
My pocket rocket stove quickly heats water for my morning coffee and oatmeal mixed with raisins. Grabbing a granola bar from my food stash, I’m ready to continue exploring. On the warm valley floor the giant sleeps under a blanket of wildflower blooms. The colors are breathtaking, and Soda Lake serves up amazing pictures with the Temblor Range in the background. The largest natural alkali lake in California, it attracts migrating sandhill cranes, especially so during wet winters. Leaving my motorcycle behind, I climb awhile amid the wildflowers. Baby blue eyes cover the hillside, and from the higher vantage point, I can see to Painted Rock, standing 55 feet above the Carrizo Plain. A sacred landmark to the Chumash, Yokuts, and other native peoples who lived, hunted, and traded in this area, Painted Rock is recognized as one of the most important rock painting (pictograph) sites in the United States.
My motorcycle is parked on a bluff and I begin walking across the prairie, imagining this landscape in ancient times and the native tribes moving across it in harmony with nature. There is no one else around and the quiet consumes me. The screech of a red-tailed hawk brings me back to reality. The Caliente Range is where I’m now heading, but I stop almost as soon as I begin. Two San Joaquin kit fox (among the most endangered animals in California) appear to be playing tag on the hillside. Darting this way and that, one speeds up, touches the other, and scampers away. Wildlife having fun.
The dirt road up the Caliente Range is fairly good, and looking back on Soda Lake’s surroundings, I am captivated once more by the massive display of wildflowers. The first spot that I come to along the dirt road looks perfect for my dispersed campsite. There’s one car there but the driver tells me she’s leaving in a few minutes and that the night views are “amazing!” She also says there is cell phone reception. It’s settled then. This is home for the night.

Planning a Visit
The largest remaining tract of the San Joaquin Valley biogeographic province with limited evidence of human alteration, The Carrizo Plain National Monument is bordered by the Temblor Range to the northeast and the Caliente Range to the southwest. Covering almost 250,000 acres, it is managed jointly by the Bureau of Land Management, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Nature Conservancy.
To Do
The Carrizo Plain National Monument is open year-round, and it can be one of California’s most beautiful wildflower viewing areas in the spring. Cool weather makes April a prime time to explore and see the flowers. Activities include birding, hiking and bicycling, horseback riding, guided tours of Painted Rock, camping, stargazing, picnicking, and exploring the Goodwin Education Center. Incredible views appear at every turn here, so bring your camera, binoculars, extra water, campfire permit, your imagination, and time.
Painted Rock is closed to public access from March 1 through July 15 to protect biological and cultural resources. Guided tours are offered March through May and self-guided tours extend from July 16 through the end of February (all tours by permit only).
Goodwin Education Center (Visitor Center) opens December through May, Thursday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 
4 p.m. Closed on holidays.
The Carrizo Plain is a fee-free area, including KCL and Selby Campgrounds.
Visit for more information.

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