Depending on traffic conditions, within an hour or two drive from the huge urban sprawl of LA lies a hidden gem of a national monument, protecting the largest remaining native grassland of California and its unique species of flora and fauna. Carrizo Plain, designated a monument in 2001 by President Clinton, sits between the Temblor and Caliente mountain ranges along the San Andreas fault line, and feels worlds apart from the human developments of southern California (read the Presidential Proclamation which established the monument). In spring, if the conditions are right, this is the site of a superbloom which turns it into a surreal and colorful landscape (see here). The lack of rain in 2018, however, meant that there was no wildflower explosion in the grasslands of Carrizo Plain. When we visited in October we were welcomed by the dry grasslands with no flowers. Even like this, it was a truly special place to be in, where we felt the time slow down and the days go by peacefully, marked by sights of raptors, coyotes, owls, song birds, tarantulas and colorful lizards. However, if you’re looking for something more active, you can summit the Caliente Mountain or go on an 80-mile backpacking adventure that will bring you from the coast to Carrizo Plain. There are two good campgrounds in the monument, the KCL and Selby campgrounds, reachable by car along the main, unpaved Soda Lake Road (neither has drinking water). You will sleep at the foot of the Caliente Ridge, looking east toward the strange, round-shaped Temblor Range. There are several hiking and interpretive trails in the monument as well as an Education Center, and you can read all about them by downloading an excellent map and guide on the BLM website here. Aside from the chance of spotting rare San Joaquin kit foxes or California condors, you can also visit an important Native American site which is absolutely worth seeing. The road to it is closed by a barrier and you’ll have to book a guided or self-guided tour and pay a small entrance fee which will grant you access to a unique code to open the barrier and get to the trailhead for the Painted Rock site (read more about available tours in the monument here). Due to the spiritual importance and traditions, visitors are kindly asked to not take photographs at this site. On a side note, it was next to that barrier that we spotted a small colony of the elusive San Joaquin antelope squirrel, an endemic species of antelope squirrel native to the San Joaquin Valley where the national monument is located. Carrizo Plain, at 204,000 acres (82,500 hectares), is a small piece of what the California Valley used to look like a few centuries ago, where large herds of tule elk and pronghorn made their way through the vast grasslands. The plains of the monument have also known human exploitation in the past, through farming, grazing and mineral extraction from Soda Lake. This lake is the prominent feature in Carrizo Plain, harboring California’s largest alkali wetlands. During dry periods the exposed lakebed covered by sulfates and carbonates has a bright white color. The national monument sits right in the middle of oil country, and the drive to it will take you through some large oil fields. It was due to exploitation possibilities within the boundaries of the monument that it came under fire during the review in 2017, followed by a new oil drilling lease approval by the BLM in 2018. The nearby small city of Taft is the main gateway community with diners, shops, accommodation and a visitor center for the monument, but also a big supporter of the oil industry to which it owes its existence. More visitors that come here for the national monument represent an economic opportunity that can attract new national monument supporters in this community. And if you want to help and learn more from a local organization which is working to protect, enlarge and rewild the monument, contact Carrizo Plain Conservancy.
If you want to read more stories from national monuments you can check our blog.