The Carrizo Plain was officially designated a National Monument a decade ago today on January 17, 2001.
Vast. Silence. Perhaps no two words more aptly describe the Carrizo Plain. As I stopped the engine and stepped from my truck I was struck by its immensity. The dirt road shot out before me into a needle point, far-off in the shimmering distance to the north, where it crossed the San Andreas Fault and disappeared at the base of the Temblor Range.
The sun-baked grassland swept westward, its individual stalks melting into the solid color of an immeasurable distance, and then abruptly stopping in a flat line where it met the faded, pastel blue of the horizon. So this is what the Golden State’s 400-mile long San Joaquin Valley once looked like, I thought, as I stood alone with my ears ringing from a silence that seemed to press in on me.
Tucked away in the southeastern corner of San Luis Obispo County, the monument spans a quarter of a million acres of grasslands and rolling mountains. Sometimes called California’s Serengeti, this Golden State savannah offers refuge to an impressive list of large mammals including pronghorn antelopes, Tule elks and San Joaquin kit foxes to name just a few. Hawks, eagles and falcons soar through the thermals overhead, while the seasonal wetlands of Soda Lake attract numerous species of migratory birds including thousands of sandhill cranes.
One of the more spectacular, yet fleeting, displays of the Carrizo’s grandeur comes in late winter and early spring. In March and April, the Temblor Range explodes in a glorious profusion of wildflowers. The annual bloom varies in intensity and timing depending on a variety of seasonal fluctuations, but for a few weeks the steep slopes of the hilly country transform into a polychrome patch work of brilliant color. The ephemeral burst grows thick enough to be seen for miles, which makes locating the sites with the best and heaviest blooms fairly easy.
Elkhorn Road runs along the base of the Temblors and provides excellent views of the flowers from a distance. A few other roads wind their way through and over the steep hills, the north facing side of which is lightly wooded. The roads in among the hills can get really steep and narrow and are at times little more than a Jeep trail in some particular places. I put my truck in 4×4 just so I was not constantly spinning my tires on the steep, hard packed grass covered dirt. Last year I was a bit late making it out to there, though, and the wildflowers had already hit their peak perhaps a week or two before. The photos below are from April 6, 2010.
The blue line on the interactive map guide below marks the course of Elkhorn Road along the foot of the Temblor Range and access to it from Highway-33 or Highway-58.
Theodore Payne Wildflower Hotline ((818) 768-3533 or www.wildflowerhotline.org) to find the best places to view wildflowers in Southern and Central California. The hotline is updated every Thursday evening with new information on more than 90 wildflower sites.