I drove out to the Carrizo Plain National Monument after a few days of intermittent rain showers. It is a semi-arid grassland of several hundred thousand acres that remains today, for the most part, as it was hundreds if not thousands of years ago. That alone, in the nation’s most populace state of California, is perhaps a remarkable enough trait in itself to warrant a visit by backcountry gadabouts, those who appreciate the simple pleasure of roaming freely within vast, open natural spaces and unspoiled landscapes. The nearby San Joaquin Valley, by contrast, has been carved up into a patchwork of farm fields, ranches and subdivisions.
I go to the Carrizo Plain when I feel like escaping the artificial metropolitan bubble of humanity and its hurried masses, but don’t feel much like hiking. I enjoy the plain’s winter ambiance, after seasonal rains dampen the dessicated terrain and when the temperatures are cool and lumpy gray clouds float overhead. It is a place I cherish for its serenity and desolation and its palpable silence. At first glance, upon my initial visit years ago, it seemed like a wasteland of little interest, but over the last decade I have developed a rather keen appreciation of its many subtle and dramatic characteristics and the natural and anthropological wonders found there.
The San Andreas Fault runs through the eastern side of the plain forming the appropriately named Temblor Range. It is here that on January 9, 1857 the 7.9 magnitude Fort Tejon earthquake resulted in a 30 foot offset in Wallace Creek, which can be seen today in the arroyo’s dramatic z-shaped meandering course.
While the northern side of the Temblor Range is sparsely dotted with juniper, the southern face is barren due to the lack of rain. The result is a starkly beautiful landscape with sections of badland terrain. Perhaps the most prominent example of this barren landscape is found in Dragon’s Back Ridge, which has formed as a result of the tremendous pressure created along the San Andreas Fault, where the Pacific Plate and North American Plate slide passed each other.
On this most recent trip I took a walk across the width of the plain and on up to the top of the Dragon’s Back. I had hoped to see some pronghorn antelope or perhaps a San Joaquin Kit fox, but, alas, no such luck. I saw nothing larger than a single jackrabbit speedily bounding away from me. I passed by several empty vernal pools in this relatively dry year, but not much else.
I passed over a couple of undulations in the otherwise flat plain, and as I proceeded farther into the depths of the plain, I turned regularly to look back and note my location relative the distant Caliente Range, which defines the southern flank of the Carrizo Plain, and for some time my truck was hidden from sight.
Later, while on top of the Dragon’s Back, my truck was barely visible and only when the light hit the metal and glass just right to cast a reflection. My vehicle looked puny, a mere speck, against the vastness of the grassy plain. It was not easily seen, which despite carefully surveying the landscape on my way to the ridge to avoid becoming lost, made it easy to lose my place of return.
Of course, use of a GPS would have rendered such concerns irrelevant, but I prefer not to rely too heavily on such technological crutches. They are convenient and handy, but no substitute for real skills. And I also find it more entertaining and satisfying finding my own way rather than having my eyes glued to a machine.
Dragon’s Back is comprised of a long line of steep gullies and pointy ridges along it’s southern slope. These ridge lines are steep sided and the tops typically span roughly some three to six feet across and form a sort of ramp that can be walked up and down. Animal trails run along each of these pointy ridges or spines and in certain locations here and there atop the main ridge lie piles of animal poop like that of coyotes or foxes. It is clearly an active location though I saw no life. The top of Dragon’s offers commanding views of the Carrizo Plain.
In late afternoon dark clouds condensed over the ridge casting a deep shadow over the plain. My truck no longer reflected sunlight and it disappeared from sight. As I headed down the ridge back to the plain I took a bearing on a prominent feature of the distant Caliente Range, which corresponded to the location of my truck, and headed toward it hoping not to stray too far from where I needed to go.
As I made the final approach to where I had parked, a hole formed in the dark cloud blanket overhead and a bright shaft of sunlight shown from above on my truck like a giant spotlight. I turned for a last look a Dragon’s Back and the golden light of late afternoon illuminated the ridge against a blackened backdrop of thick cloud cover.
The Carrizo Experience: Ten Hours on the Plain I: Ruminants on the Range.
The Carrizo Experience: Ten Hours on the Plain II: The Bedrock Mortars of Selby Rocks.
The Carrizo Experience: Ten Hours on the Plain III: Pictographs of the Plain
The Carrizo Experience: Ten Hours on the Plain IV: Soda Lake
Wallace Creek Offset at the San Andreas Fault
Cave’s Eye View on the Carrizo Plain
Summertime Soda Lake
Soda Lake Winter Reflections
Carrizo Plain Wildflowers
Datura Bloom on the Carrizo