Land Before Time

With windswept grasslands, teeming wildlife and ancient rock art, the remote Carrizo Plain promises a taste of ďOld California.Ē

By Chuck Graham

Photo by Chuck Graham

THE SOUND OF SILENCE: The remote and unspoiled Carrizo Plain is one of Californiaís best-kept secrets. A grassland surrounded by mountain ranges, it feels as far away from civilization as the lunar surface, and sits in a quiet stillness that roars with ma


uring the winter, one of my favorite drives is northeast on Highway 33, past Ojai and up and over the chaparral-choked coastal mountains and through the Sespe Wilderness. The winding road leads to a stunning overlook of the Cuyama Valley and its barren badlands. From there, itís a serpentine-like descent until the road parallels the Cuyama River, through Ventucopa (where Kern, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties meet), eventually meeting up with Highway 166.

Heading east on the two-lane Highway 166, the Carrizo Plain National Monument signage comes up quickly. Itís only 10 minutes down the road before a hard left is required at what once was an old Union 76 station. As soon as that left is made, everything slows way down for me. Much of the Carrizo Plain still appears as it did 200 years ago. ďOld CaliforniaĒ beckons.

Tuling on the Grasslands
During the winter of 2017, the eastern flank of the Caliente Mountains was a vibrant, rolling green, swept in consistent, light rain. At just over 5,100 feet the Calientes are the high point in San Luis Obispo County and fall within the national monument. Snow dusted its upper reaches. A herd of Tule elk grazed in the dewy, mid-winter grasses at the base of the mountains in the Carrizo Plain. This is one of the fastest growing herds in California, living on what is the last of Californiaís historic grasslands.

Last winter was kind to Central California. Early rains had produced the foraging habitat these large herbivores needed. My companion and I counted 81 elk as they had slowed to a crawl on a lush hillside, enjoying nutrient-rich grasses covering the frigid foothills of the Caliente Range.

Not far away, on a steep sandstone face honeycombed in alcoves and small caves, one can find Chumash or Yokut Indian rock art. At one site is a depiction of a lone elk tucked into a small, gritty alcove 10 feet off the ground. Whoever drew it so long ago may have been watching thousands of Tule elk browsing as far as that artist could see.

Natural Cathedral
Painted Rock juts prominently at the foot of the Caliente Range. Tall, broad and with a substantial entry to its natural, cathedral-like sandstone amphitheater, itís one of the more significant Native American sites in North America, and one of the main reasons former President Bill Clinton deemed it a national monument in 2001.

Due to where itís located and the tremendous view it offers from within, the swarm of nature can be overwhelming around Painted Rock, especially early in the day and late in the afternoon, when wildlife is most active. When Iíve walked inside Painted Rock in the past, Iíve been startled on several occasions by barn owls and prairie falcons emerging in a flurry of feathers from potential nest or perch sites, clinging to the multi-colored lichen that cloaks the upper reaches of the sandstone cathedral. A walk around the perimeter of Painted Rock is a haven for desert cottontails, white-crowned sparrows, soaring red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, raucous ravens, burrowing owls, coyotes, western Pacific rattlesnakes, side-blotched lizards and maybe even the endangered San Joaquin kit fox.

Despite being vandalized in the past, there are still some fine examples of elaborate rock art on the shaded sandstone that has withstood the test of time. Wind and rain can be detrimental to rock art during the winter. During the summer sandstone can sweat in the sweltering heat and humidity, the Carrizo Plain being one of the sunniest places in the state.

Painted Rock was and still is a vital gathering spot for local Native American cultures, resting on the boundary of Chumash and Yokut territories. It looks out over the extent of the Carrizo Plain, Soda Lake and the Temblor Range on the far eastern side of the grasslands. With much more wildlife back then, the spiritual significance must have been undeniable. Itís certainly evident in the rock art clinging to the sandstone.

Due to a throng of nesting birds, visiting Painted Rock is by permit only from July 30 to March 1, through There are a few tours led by naturalists after March 1, offered through the Goodwin Education Center located within the national monument. Winter is a great time to visit when temperatures are cooler.

Salty Soda
Soda Lake, an expanse of white sulfates and carbonates, is so dry that the salt deposits crunch beneath oneís feet. In winter, it is also frigid, early morning temps hovering around 30 degrees. At just over 2,000 feet a thin layer of frost will add to the crunch, breaking the utter silence on the Carrizo Plain.

Soda Lake needs at least 6 inches of rain for it to fill with water. Once it does, however, it becomes an important stopover for migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway. American avocets and a variety of other shorebirds and waterfowl forage in the shallows.

Soda Lake is the largest remaining natural alkali wetland in southern California, and the only closed basin tucked within the Caliente and Temblor Mountains. It has several advantageous viewing platforms. Two of them are on either side of Soda Lake Road, the main drag through the national monument. Thereís the very short but steep hike to an overlook with amazing views not only of the alkali lake, but also of the entire grassland habitat. On the other side of Soda Lake Road is a carpark and a trail leading to a raised boardwalk with interpretive signs.

On the east side of Soda Lake is dusty Simmler Road, a dirt track that isnít always passable after wet weather. Itís one of the roads that connects Soda Lake and Elkhorn Roads on either side of the grasslands. When itís passable there are several pullouts along the way offering different perspectives across the lake toward the Caliente Range.

Afternoons are also entertaining when Soda Lake is dry. Winds typically increase, and huge dust devils may stir across the glaring pan. Particles of carbonates and sulfates swirl in the winds like small tornadoes as the plumes waft skyward.


Information Central
The Carrizo Plain is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. A visit to the Goodwin Education Center offers information about wildlife sightings, road conditions, maps and interpretive displays about the grassland habitats in the southern San Joaquin Valley and all the endangered flora and fauna in the Carrizo Plain. The center is open at the beginning of December through the end of May, Thursday-Sunday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. 805.475.2131,

There are two free campgrounds within the Carrizo Plain National Monument. Semi-primitive Selby and KCL Campgrounds are first come, first serve and have shade and restrooms. They are both located off Soda Lake Road at the base of the Caliente Mountains. Dispersed car camping is allowed in designated areas off Soda Lake Road. Visitors need to bring all provisions with them, as there are no facilities within the Carrizo Plain. Check with the BLM regarding locations, rules and regulations.

For options other than camping, try the Buckhorn Motel, Bar and Grill in New Cuyama. Located along Highway 166, itís been newly renovated and offers simple but stylish rooms with dťcor inspired by the American West and midcentury design. Itís also a decent spot to have a beer and wash the dust down after an excursion on the Carrizo Plain. 4923 Primero Street, New Cuyama, 661.766.2825,

If traveling west on Highway 166, a stay at the Caprice Motel isnít far from the Carrizo Plainís southerly entrance. 222 Kern Street, Taft, 661.765.2161,

If youíre heading out of Ojai to the Carrizo Plain, have dinner at Farmer and the Cook. Enjoy one of their smoothies, their Ojai guacamole and chips and their huarache. They also have provisions for a trip on the grasslands. 339 West El Roblar Drive, Ojai, 805.640.9608,

Outside the national monument, try The Place in Ventucopa along Highway 33 for some good, old fashioned home cooking. I like their elk burger and choice of homemade pies. 4014 Highway 33, Ventucopa, 661.766.2660,

A remnant of Californiaís long-ago past, the Carrizo Plain is the largest single native grassland remaining in the state. Its ample vegetation supports a herd of Tule elk, which once roamed far and wide across the Central Valley.

There are signs that humans thrived here as well: Pictographs thousands of years old adorn sandstone alcoves at Painted Rock.


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