Travel Magazine

The Carrizo Plain: A Glimpse of California's Past

By Carolinearnoldtravel @CarolineSArnold
A Day Exploring California's Grasslands (May 2011)

The Carrizo Plain:  A Glimpse of California's Past

Beginning in the early 1800's Spanish Missions used the land of the Carrizo Plain for grazing cattle.

In the mid’1800's, when pioneers descended the foothills surrounding California’s Central Valley, they found hundreds of thousands of elk, deer, and antelope grazing on the valley floor.  In some places, there were so many animals that they darkened the plain as far as the eye could see.  Today, the valley is no longer a haven for wildlife.  Instead of animals, there are ranches, roads, and towns spread across the plain. To get a glimpse of what California’s Central Valley was like before it was developed, you can go to the Carrizo Plain, a little known valley where designation as a National Monument is helping to preserve California wildlife in its natural habitat. Both pronghorn antelope and Tule elk have been reintroduced to the area and the herds are growing. It is also home to the endangered San Joaquin Valley kit fox, giant kangaroo rat, which hops around at night collecting seeds, and a variety of other small mammals, reptiles, and birds.
A Haven for Wildlife

The Carrizo Plain:  A Glimpse of California's Past

Herds of Pronghorn Antelope can be seen on the Carrizo Plain, usually in the morning or evening.  They typically rest during the middle of the day.

Hidden behind the Temblor range to the northeast and the Caliente Range to the southwest, the Carrizo plain is a flat valley that follows the San Andreas Fault as it heads north toward San Francisco. (You can pick up a self-guided geologic auto tour at the Visitor Center.  You can see where past earthquakes have actually rearranged fencelines and creek beds!) A visit to the Carrizo Plain is a day’s trip from Bakersfield or, if you want to get up early, from Los Angeles.  We went there recently from our house on Mount Pinos.  We have been to the Carrizo Plain three times, each time in a different season.  Our first trip was in March, and the valley floor was lush with green grass, yellow spring flowers and thousands of migrating and nesting birds.  Our second visit was in November, after the sandhill cranes had arrived for their winter stay in the shallow soda lake at the far end of the valley.  At the end of the day we watched them take off, flapping their wide wings and honking like geese.  On this trip, in May, the spring flowers were gone and the grass had turned golden, but the wild mustard was in bloom and meadowlarks and other birds were busy nesting.  Red tailed hawks perched on poles along the side of the road in between bouts of circling in search of prey.
Springtime is Nesting Time

The Carrizo Plain:  A Glimpse of California's Past

Bullock's Oriole

Historically, the Carrizo plain has been ranch land, and it is still crisscrossed by fences, and roads are punctuated by cattle guards to keep the cattle that still graze there where they belong.  We entered the Monument from the east end, north of Maricopa on CA 166/33.  The narrow road is paved at first, but quickly turns to dirt.  You can’t drive very fast, but that is fine if you want to look for wildlife or appreciate the scenery.  Absolutely no services are available along the 30 mile road to the visitor center.  We brought a picnic lunch and stopped at one of the two campgrounds to eat it.  Only one other campsite was occupied.  To our delight, a pair of yellow and orange Bullock’s orioles, who had a nest hanging in the eucalyptus tree over our heads, were busy collecting insects for their hungry babies.
Rock Art and a Dry Lake Bed

The Carrizo Plain:  A Glimpse of California's Past

Soda Lake on the Carrizo Plain is dries up in summer leaving behind crystals of sulphate and carbonate salts.

At the northwest end of the monument is the Goodwin Education Center, which is small, but filled with interesting exhibits and helpful park staff. On previous visits, we had walked from the parking lot not far from there to Painted Rock, once one of California’s most spectacular examples of Native American rock art, but now badly damaged by vandals.  In the past, Painted Rock was open to the public.  Now, in order to see it, you have to go online and make a reservation for a guided or self-guided tour.  On the weekend we were there, it was closed to protect the native raptors which were nesting in the rocks.
Before we left, we stopped at Soda Lake and walked along the boardwalk.  The drainage of the valley is such that the water collects and evaporates, leaving mineral deposits behind.  In winter, Soda Lake is filled with water and provides a home for sandhill cranes and other birds.  In summer, it is a dry lake bed. After leaving Soda Lake, we headed northwest and left the Monument.  As we passed through farmland on our way back to highway 58, we saw a lone pronghorn antelope standing in a field.  Perhaps on another day, we would come back and see a whole herd.

The Carrizo Plain:  A Glimpse of California's Past

The Carrizo Plain became a National Monument in 2000.

Getting there: The Carrizo Plain National Monument can be accessed either from Highway 33/166 north of Maricopa, or from Highway 58 west of McKittrick. At Traver Ranch, about ten miles from the east entrance you can stop and pick up a map and get other information.  Be sure to have plenty of gas and bring your own water and food.  As we drove along the road through the Monument, we stopped frequently to look at birds and take photos, and rarely met other cars.  That is the attraction of the Carrizo Plain.  While it is not that far from civilization, not many people go there.

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