Dan McCaslin: Car Camping at California’s Carrizo Plain | Outdoors

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We found dying flowers on the first day of spring at the spectacular Carrizo Plain while the gleaming dry Soda Lake shimmered beneath the terrifying Temblor Range below. Although the skies had sprinkled a bit on March 19, there was little evidence as my friends and I observed 2022’s vernal equinox on March 20.

California goldfields (a type of miniature sunflower: lasthenia californica), purple lupine, fiddlenecks, ceanothus, a type of buckwheat, and other botanical delights smeared their bright colors all around this desert landscape inland from San Luis Obispo (4.1.1.).

Carrizo Plain National Monument at 246,000 acres remains California’s largest natural grassland, sometimes termed our own “American Serengeti.” This broad prairie around 50 miles long and never more than 15 miles wide is defined by the Caliente Range to the west and the tense Temblor Range to the east.

As you view the Temblors — temblor means shake or tremble in Spanish — you can also discern the tormented earth fracture that geologists have termed the San Andreas Rift Zone. Corrugated folds and literal splits in the earth here mark a continental transform fault where the Pacific Plate slams into the North American Plate (technically: a right-lateral strike-slip).

My two school colleagues and I planned to select a completely free camp-spot out on the Bureau of Land Management lands below Selby Rocks. There are zero amenities here — no U.S. Forest Service-sanctioned camping sites (but also no fees) — only a very few rough fire circles. If you make a campfire, bring your own wood, and make sure you have a flat piece of metal upon which to make a fire, and plan to haul out your ashes the next day. With very little supervision, the area nonetheless had no trash (and no trash receptacles), no annoying ATVs or off-road motorcycles, and no water at all.

A free camping spot at Carrizo Plain.
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A free camping spot at Carrizo Plain. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

We found a wonderful quietude punctured only by rustling critters in the nearby grasses and the cries of a few birds. Thirteen endangered species call the Carrizo their home territory, including the giant kangaroo rat and blunt-nosed leopard lizard. The native California tule elk comprise one of these species, and while there were more than 500,000 of them at one time, by 1870 this unique subspecies of elk had been deemed extinct (cervus canadensis nannodes) until a single breeding pair was found. Today, the Pozo-La Panza herd has more than 600 tule elk.

Native pronghorn antelope also have been rewilded back into the Carrizo, with a large herd translocated here in the late 1980s from northern California. Arguably the fastest land animal in North America, we were able to spot some near the monument’s Southern Entrance as they streaked up the hillside opposite the roadway. Since they are highly endangered, there is no hunting allowed (although there are special hunting days in the Carrizo for dove, quail, rabbits and wild pig — check with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife).

Late winter and early spring are the best times to visit the Carrizo Plain if you plan to car camp and hike around. As a sort of mini-Death Valley, it has very little precipitation (less than 10 inches per year) and is marked by very hot and quite cold temperatures (in the low 30s on March 20). Since there are no towns or settlements nearby, Santa Margarita (population 1,300) is the closest place to purchase civilized items. Gasoline was more than $6 per gallon in Santa Margarita in late March.

Camping surrounded by late-blooming flowers, amid serene quiet and with no other campers visibly nearby, we inhaled intense views of the Temblor and Caliente ranges. These short, transverse ranges combine with the La Panza and other Western Transverse Mountains to create the beguiling landforms, fault scarps, and saline lakes like Soda Lake. Evening and sunrise particularly inspire onlookers, and our view of a near-full moon on the morning of March 21 lifted all our spirits.

Late bloom at Carrizo Plain.
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Late bloom at Carrizo Plain. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

As early as 2000 BCE, the indigenous Chumash people had complex settlements around an inundated Soda Lake’s fertile margins with more than 300 inhabitants at one time. In archaeologist David Whitley’s reckoning, a climate catastrophe struck during the so-called “Medieval Climatic Anomaly” stretching from about 800 CE to 1300 CE, and the population dropped to fewer than 30 inhabitants as the Soda Lake dried up because of climate changes after the time of the Renaissance in Europe (see “The Carrizo Collapse” in 4.1.1.). This outcome offers vital lessons for posthumans today as our own catastrophe looms in the ripening Anthropocene Age.

Shortly after entering the Carrizo National Monument’s North Entrance, you will see the Goodwin Education Center building maintained by the BLM. A sacred indigenous rock art site and holy monolith is nearby: Painted Rock in the Carrizo Plain (not the other Painted Rock on the Sierra Madre Ridge).

The San Andreas Fault Rift Zone with the Temblors in the background.
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The San Andreas Fault Rift Zone with the Temblors in the background. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Carrizo Painted Rock stands out as a smooth, horseshoe-shaped formation of marine sandstone measuring about 45 feet tall and 250 feet across. The many pictographs on the interior of this cleft rock, the inside of the horseshoe, have captured the imagination of visitors, and remain vital to indigenous Native American tribes to this day.

The Goodwin Education Center was closed on March 20, and the route to Painted Rock also was closed.

The moon above Carrizo Plain.
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The moon above Carrizo Plain. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

There are many unmarked dirt roads branching off Soda Lake Road (the single official road running north to south in the Carrizo). Staying on these dirt tracks in a 4-wheel-drive truck, we spotted many fine and isolated car-camping possibilities, and we chose one. We never saw other vehicles and noted just two other camping groups about a half-mile distant. You will need to explore on your own to locate a prime spot, and carry out all your trash. Bring water and firewood, a shovel, all your supplies, a clear head and a clean heart, and prepare to listen to Mother Momoy chanting her melodies on a soft desert wind as the Temblors wobble in the distance.

4.1.1.

» The route to the North Entrance of the Carrizo Plain requires a drive on Highway 101 to San Luis Obispo, and then on up the Cuesta Grade to Santa Margarita (Exit 211). Drive through town and stay on California 58 East to Soda Lake Road, where you see the Carrizo Plain National Monument sign. We returned by driving the length of the Carrizo and leaving via the South Entrance and joined Highway 166 and then Highway 101 near Santa Maria.

» David Whitley et al. “The Carrizo Collapse: Art and Politics in the Past” in “A Festschrift Honoring … Jay von Werlhof” (2007).

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity and has written extensively about the local backcountry. His latest book, Autobiography in the Anthropocene, is available at Lulu.com. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.



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