Night on Carrizo Plain, Tule Elk and Caliente Peak

SelbySun kissed sandstone.

“A house was simply a place to sleep. The time that mattered would be spent outdoors.”

-Elmer Kelton, Stand Proud (1984)

We arrive at Selby Campground in the waning darkness before first light. It’s frosty and clear skied, the glow of dawn growing brighter above the skyline of the distant Temblor Range as we sip hot coffee. The campground sits on an abandoned oil pad leveled out of the foothills of the Caliente Range, tucked back in a draw above the Carrizo Plain. It’s bare, minimal but sufficient, and nearly as stark as the plain itself.

“We left a little early,” Stillman says. I’ve been awake since 2:30 a.m. and the black coffee feels as good as it tastes. “It’s nice to be up here at dawn,” I say.

In all the times I’ve been to the Carrizo Plain and watched the sunset I’ve never seen the sunrise. It’s not long before the orangy light of early morning illuminates the nearby hillsides and brings some welcome warmth. A few ravens pass overhead breaking the silence between our idle chitchat with their throaty cackles.

“Well. Shall we get going?”

“Yeah, might as well.”

carrizo carrizo We roam the vast grass land. There are few sounds. Dry grass crushing under foot and brushing against our legs, the occasional melodious songs that bursts forth from unseen birds. Wind rushing past ears. In certain places, between sloping undulations, where the surrounding mountain ranges disappear from sight, I feel like I’m lost in the vast rolling hills of the American Midwest.

Views of the gleaming white saltpan of Soda Lake across the plain, and the barren Temblor Range in the background, inspire thoughts of ancient hominids hunting big game with bow and arrow. It’s a thought that comes to mind every time I visit the Carrizo Plain. The landscape has a primordial feel.

We come upon low-lying shelves of exposed bedrock in a crease of the land that leads out of the foothills. In spots here and there along the dry drainage depressions in the sandstone hold small pools of water. Such natural tanks always catch my eye, like in the forest up on top of Whiteacre Peak, but especially in a dry realm like the Carrizo Plain. Yet, these natural reservoirs are a bit different here on the plain. I quickly notice something else about them. The soft stone is heavily scarred with long scratch marks all around each pool of water. The tell-tale traces of hoofed animals. Deer, elk or pronghorn antelope.

There are cows nearby, but they appear to be fenced out of this particular area and I haven’t seen the usual ubiquitous cow patties littering the area. Looking down the fence line a little bit later, it’s clear by the way the grass is growing on either side of the barbed wire barrier that the cows graze the grassland on the opposite side of the fence from where the natural tanks of water are located.

On a landscape of very little fresh water such seasonally available collections of rainwater would naturally attract thirsty wildlife. I wonder how many ungulates were taken in this particular area in ancient times. This place has an unrecorded history told only by its landscape features to those with keen eyes and a pondering mind.

tule elkTule elk on Carrizo Plain.


prairie falconPrairie falcon

carrizo Soda LakeOverlooking the Caliente Range foothills at night from Selby Camp lookout, the white saltpan of Soda Lake seen in the distance.

Selby RocksSelby Rocks in the light of a full moon.

On our second day we hiked to the top of Caliente Peak (5106′) in temperatures in the 40s beneath clear skies with light gusts of wind. It was an excellent day of winter hiking. It’s 17 miles round trip on a smooth gated road that runs atop the ridgeline along the spine of the Caliente Range.

The trail meanders through scrub oak and juniper and through some patches of open grassland in places. On clear days it offers superb views of the Cuyama Valley to the south and the Carrizo Plain to the north. It’s the best place to gain a bird’s eye view of the plain and the San Andreas Fault which runs the length of its far side. The old wooden World War II lookout hut, built to house watchman surveying the air for Japanese planes that presumably might have sought to attack the nearby oil fields, is nothing but a pile of lumber these days.

Caliente PeakCaliente PeakCaliente PeakThe line of crinkled hills seen here about center frame, this side of the Temblor Range which are the larger mountains, is Dragon’s Back Ridge. Caliente Peak Caliente PeakCaliente Peak

Caliente PeakThe old lookout hut is but a pile of lumber. A photo of the structure when standing can be seen here.

Caliente PeakCaliente Peak Soda Lake in the distance.carrizo plains 340Soda Lake

Caliente PeakLooking west from Caliente Peak.

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6 Responses to Night on Carrizo Plain, Tule Elk and Caliente Peak

  1. David Shearer says:

    Great photos and commentary, Jack. It makes me want to make the trip, if only for a day, before the summer sun scorches the plains and renders Carrizo uninhabitable to those of us unaccustomed to desert living.

  2. Pam says:

    The plain has a very stark beauty which I enjoy very much. It looks like it is quite dry this year. It is truly amazing when the rains come and the wildflowers bloom.

  3. Nicely written with great observations. Like the look of that distant Soda Lake,

  4. richard woolsey says:

    Hi Jack, I am a new subscriber . . . just wanted to express my appreciation for sharing your travels with others, many whom I am certain would love to be following in your tracks. You have a nice, poetic way of describing your experiences which helps readers visualize being there along side of you. Happy Trails, Richard

  5. Joey says:

    I am a new resident to San Luis Obispo county, and I found your blog while researching a planned hike up Caliente Mtn. Excellent writing, great imagery – thank you!

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