Posted by: James Wapotich | May 1, 2017

Trail Quest: Carrizo Plain Wildflowers

The impact of our winter rains can be seen in a variety of ways on the landscape. Bountiful snowfall has covered the tops of Sierras and Mount Pinos. Waterfalls have become reactivated and, in parts of southern California, the rains have set in motion what’s being referred to as a super bloom of wildflowers.

Seeds that have lied dormant for years are now in bloom as far south as Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Closer to home, just the right amount of rain and heat, after years of drought, have covered parts of Carrizo Plain, and the nearby mountains, with wildflowers.

The best time to see the wildflowers is March and April with largely the amount of heat we continue to get determining how far into May the display will last.

Anticipating large crowds visiting Carrizo Plain, I set out the night before to find a place to camp for the weekend.

Coreopsis super bloom Carrizo Plain national monument

Coreopsis are seen in bloom at Carrizo Plain

Carrizo Plain is reached from Santa Barbara by heading north on Highway 101, past San Luis Obispo, to State Route 58. There is no gas or amenities of any kind past the little town of Santa Margarita, so it’s best to stock up in San Luis Obispo. From Highway 101, continue east on State Route 58 to Soda Lake Road. Turn right and follow Soda Lake Road into the national monument. The road is paved all the way past Soda Lake before becoming unpaved.

Carrizo Plain can also be reached from the south from State Routes 166 and 33. Soda Lake Road runs the length of Carrizo Plain, however, from the south, only the first part of the road is paved. The unpaved portion is currently passable by most vehicles, but can become impassable during wet weather. The drive from Santa Barbara is about 3.5 hours.

Carrizo Plain is the largest single remaining native grassland in California. In 1984, Nature Conservancy and Bureau of Land Management began looking at ways to preserve this unique resource, and within four years started acquiring land there. Today, the preserve encompasses close to a quarter-million acres. In 2001, a proclamation was signed by President Clinton designating the area as a national monument.

The Bureau of Land Management’s website has a wealth of information about Carrizo Plain, including its natural history and visitor information.

wildflowers carrizo plain temblor mountains soda lake

Wildflowers and the Temblor Mountains frame a view of Soda Lake

The closest campground to Soda Lake, as well as many of the main wildflower viewing areas, is Selby Campground. The campground is reached by an unpaved road passable to most vehicles. The campground has 13 sites, which are available on a first come, first-served basis. Dispersed camping is also available in the foothills and mountainous areas, but not down along the valley floor. Camping is also available at KCL Campground, which has 12 sites. Both campgrounds have picnic tables and outhouses.

With Selby Campground already full, I park at the far end of the campground and continue on foot into the hills and find a spot overlooking the campground, settling in just before sunset. There are also good places for dispersed camping along the road leading up to Caliente Ridge.

In the morning, I head over to Goodwin Education Center, which serves as the visitor center. The center is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m, Thursdays through Sundays. The rangers have wisely placed a board outside with answers to commonly asked questions related to the monument, in particular current road conditions and where the best sites are for viewing wildflowers.

wildflower carrizo plain soda lake hillside daisies

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Carrizo Plain wildflowers temblor mountains soda lake goldfields

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With the exception of the paved portions of Soda Lake Road, the rest of the roads within the monument are unpaved. Panorama Road is closed. Simmler Road is passable with a high-clear vehicle, and often impassable after wet weather. Seven Mile Road can be driven in most vehicles and is the best one for crossing the plain. Elkhorn Road is passable for most vehicles from Seven Mile Road down to Wallace Creek.

Wildflowers are currently blooming around Soda Lake, particularly along Selby and Simmler Roads, as well as in the Temblor Mountains along Elkhorn Road. Inside the center are interpretative displays, maps, and other resources. I learn that while there are wildflowers in Temblor Mountains, much of the access is through private property, whereas the flowers around Soda Lake are all within the national monument.

The first half of Simmler Road from Soda Lake Road is passable by most vehicles and so I begin there. Here, wildflowers line the road and stretch out across the plain in huge, expansive fields. The only trails are those created by other visitors that meander through the flowers. Carpeting the plain are vast fields of hillside daisies and tidy tips. Also in the mix are coreopsis and goldenfields, all with yellow flowers, as well as some purple larkspur.

As I walk between the flowers, I’m struck by how saturated the colors appears. There is a subtle hint of fragrance in the air and the richness of the scene is a reminder to me of how many different variables must come together to create the beauty we see in nature.

Simmler Road leads between the two main basins of Soda Lake and so I’m able to wander down to the lake, taking in views of wildflowers contrasted against white salt flats and blue water.

My next stop is Overlook Hill. The parking area for the trail is reached from Soda Lake Road. It is a short hike to the top of the rise which offers great views out across of the lake and salt flats. From here, the views also include Mount Pinos to the southeast, and looking out across the lake, the Temblor Mountains, which are also awash in wildflowers, appearing as if they’ve been painted with color.

wildflowers soda lake temblor mountains Carrizo plain national monument

Wildflowers and the Temblor Mountains frame a view of Soda Lake

Soda Lake is a series of basins that cover roughly 4.5 square miles. There are two large basins and more than a hundred smaller ones. The average depth of even the largest is only 1-3 feet.

At one time, a river ran through through the Carrizo Plain and flowed into the Salinas River. However, it became cut off through uplift associated with the movement of the San Andres Fault, which runs directly through the plain. Over time, the uplift blocked the river, which reversed course and eventually formed a basin. Today, the creeks within Carrizo Plain flow towards Soda Lake, which is the lowest part of the plain. With no outlet, the water evaporates forming large salt flats. The lake was larger during the last ice age when rain was more plentiful.

Although the wildflowers at Overlook Hill are not as dense or abundant, I did see a greater variety, including baby blue eyes, cream cups, larkspur, and pink crinkled onion.

Another nearby hike is across the road where a trail leads down to the boardwalk along the lake. The hike is about a mile round trip.

Returning to my car, I continue along one of the roads that lead around the lake and happen to spot an avocet wading in one of the side channels that flows into the lake. I pull over to have a look, and while admiring the bird, I sense some movement to my right and notice a fox sunning itself. After a while the fox gets up; makes a nice big stretch; and then walks a few feet over to what looks like the entrance of its den. It makes a little circle stopping to yawn and scratch and basically provide a variety of poses. Meanwhile, cars are zipping by along the road, which the fox is pretty much indifferent to. It wasn’t until people began to stop to see what I was looking at that the fox decided to move on and disappeared into its den.

San Joaquin kit fox stretching Carrizo Plain national monument

San Joaquin kit fox

San Joaquin kit fox Carrizo Plain national monument

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san joaquin kit fox carrizo plain

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san joaquin kit fox resting carrizo plain

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The San Joaquin kit fox is the smallest fox in North America, weighing in at just five pounds. Historically they were found throughout the grasslands of the San Joaquin Valley and adjacent foothills and plains such as Carrizo Plain. However, because of encroaching development and habitat fragmentation their numbers have been dramatically reduced. Listed in 1967 as an endangered species, the largest remaining population is found at Carrizo Plain.

Also found at Carrizo Plain are tule elk and pronghorn antelope, which are just part of the unique wildlife and scenery, in addition to the wildflowers, that can be found there.

This article originally appeared in section A of the May 1st, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press. The next article will be on the hike to Caliente Mountain.

carrizo plain wildflowers super bloom

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