Carrizo Plain National Monument

Saturday April 16th we visited Carrizo Plain National Monument in San Luis Obispo County. We drove up there Friday afternoon (taking a wonderful dose of LA traffic…), stayed overnight in a pet-friendly motel and headed to the monument Saturday morning.

Thankfully, the monument is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, so pets are allowed (unlike most of the State Parks in California). In the evening we went back to the motel, stayed over night again and made our way back home on Sunday (with a short detour to Los Padres National Forest).

Carrizo Plain is the largest remaining undeveloped grassland in California, and it’s somewhat famous for it’s wonderful display of wildflowers in Spring – which is why we wanted to go there. :) This year was pretty wet so we thought that mid April would be a good time for the wildflowers, but it was not such a good year according to the lady at the Visitor Center, and we were somewhat late, too. The best time to go there seems to be mid to end of March, maybe early April (though the weekend before we visited they even had some inches of snow!) – so next time we’ll be there in March. :)

Entering from the north, our first stop was Overlook Hill before we proceeded to the Visitor Center to pick up a map (which turned out to be just the same rough overlook that can also be found on the website). There’s a funny story about the stuffed Condor displayed in the Visitor Center: it was one of the first Condors released into the wild in California, but it died because it hit a power pole… ouch. :P

We drove a little farther south and then up onto Caliente Ridge – it was dry, so it was possible to drive on the dirt road up there with our normal car – otherwise, a 4×4 with high clearance would’ve been quite advisable. On the way up, it’s impossible to miss Selby Rocks, a rock formation that sticks out of the soil. The much more famous “Painted Rock” area is closed from March through June to protect the wildlife – so is access to Selby Rocks, but it’s still pretty easy to get a nice photo from the dirt road.

Caliente Ridge is the western border of Carrizo Plain and the views are quite nice – but the hike there was rather boring, cold, and windy. We headed back down to the plain and drove further south for our picnic at KCL campground (and we fled to the car from a ton of small blue-greenish bugs – some of them survived in our car all the way home to San Diego), then drove back north towards Soda Lake and Simmler Road, were the biggest display of wildflowers was.

The “Temblor Range” is the eastern boundary of Carrizo Plain. I think it could  be worth it to drive up there via the Hurrican Crocker Spring Road, either from Highway 33 on the other side of the range (where the road is paved according to the map), or from the Elkhorn Road inside the monument (which more or less goes along the San Andreas fault line) – but the latter is a pretty long drive on a dirt road.

I have the feeling that we only explored a tiny bit of the monument because we only drove about halfway in (unto KCL campground) from the north, but for the record and a future visit here’s a little summary:

  • Caliente Ridge: it’s quite safe to say that this can be skipped if you’re not absolutely hot for the 8 mile (one way!) hike up to the summit of Caliente Mountain. The views towards the soft rolling hills are nice, but it’s not necessary to do anything more than drive up there to get them. ;)
  • Painted Rock: a set of rocks with stone mortars and massive paintings by Native Americans. And it’s a sad story.
  • Wallace Creek: we missed that one, it’s the spot were you can see the San Andreas fault line “at work”. This could maybe be combined with…
  • The drive across Temblor Range on Hurrican Crocker Spring Road: I definitely want to try that.
  • Overlook Hill: well, it’s just that. A nice starting point, but we didn’t spend more than maybe 10 minutes there. :)
  • Soda Lake Boardwalk: it just across the street from Overlook Hill, and I’m tempted to say that it is one of the things that can safely be skipped (unless you’re a recycling fan and want to admire the planks of the boardwalk made from recycled milk canisters). And Soda Lake has the same thrilling smell as Salton Sea – minus the weirdness factor. ;)

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