Chances are even if you live in California, you've never been to Carrizo Plains National Monument. I didn't even know it existed until I looked at a map several years ago and thought, huh, never been there.
A 250,000 acre enclosed grassland plain, Carrizo is the largest single native grassland remaining in California. Gazing over the wide expanses of grasses and wildflowers, it is a look back at the Central Valley three hundred years ago, before grazing cattle and industrial agriculture pushed out native plant species and invasive monocultures took over.
Carrizo is also home to the Carrizo Plain Rock Art Discontiguous District, which was designated a national historic landmark in 2012. Painted Rock is a marine sandstone formation with Chumash and Yokut pictograph rock art from 2000 B.C. Between March and July, Painted Cave is only accessible on a Saturday guided tour due to bird nesting. Learn more about tours and reservations here.
San Andreas Fault cuts across the plain and the monument's website claims the plain is one of the best places to view the fault. The landscape is certainly dramatic in some areas, but the Wallace Creek area, which the ranger told us to visit, was a bit of a letdown. If you're interested in plate tectonics, the interpretive trail may be of interest to you.
At the northeast end of the park is Soda Lake, a 3,000-acre alkaline lake. Despite the initially hostile appearance of alkaline lakes, they're home to thriving ecosystems and bring a number of migrating bird populations come late spring. It's one of the largest undisturbed alkaline wetlands left in California. It does get a little stinky though.
Carrizo Plain is not without controversy. It is a prime example of the struggle between industry and conservation. At one point The Wilderness Society considered nominating the monument to be a World Heritage Site, but the Independent Petroleum Association and residents of nearby Taft were concerned it would negatively affect oil drilling in surrounding areas. According to Los Padres Forest Watch, "oil companies were able to retain underground mineral rights within the monument boundaries. In 2008, one of these companies – Vintage Production (a subsidiary of oil giant Occidental Petroleum) – announced plans to conduct oil exploration activities in the heart of the Carrizo Plain using 60,000-lb “thumper trucks” and dynamite." These types of activities negatively affect wildlife habitat, particularly ground-dwelling species.
You know those happy cows from California? They need places to graze. When I think of cattle grazing, I think of the rolling green hills of San Luis Obispo, Monterey, and Sonoma counties. Little did I know, those grasses are non-native invasive species, mostly mat grasses, that were able to take over once overgrazing diminished native bunch grass populations. Cattle grazing continues in areas around the national monument, and it is increasingly used to control invasive plant species and to benefit native species, though the scientific evidence to back this up is minimal. However, overgrazing continues to be a problem in the area, especially in sections where fences are in need of repair.
Spring with its spectacular wildflower displays is the best time of year to visit. Do remember there are no services here other than the Goodwin Education Center and a couple of developed campgrounds. Roads from the south are dirt and heavily rutted. In dry weather, this shouldn't be a problem for most cars. Temperatures can range greatly from day to night so be prepared with layers, water, and sun protection. There is no entry fee and you can camp for free in certain areas, but you will need to pay for developed sites.
Getting to Carrizo is half the adventure. We entered the park from the south on Soda Lake Road, which connects to Highway 166 and the Los Padres National Forest. We exited the park via the northern route on Highway 58 towards Santa Margarita. You can also come from the east on the 58 from Taft.