Gallery photos below by Lee. To enter the manual slide show on this page, click on any image below, use slide controls to toggle images and image info.
Page 3: Interactive Google map showing geographic references to some of the areas to see.
Some observations on the 2019 Carrizo Plain bloom
The full bloom period of Carrizo Plain in 2019 will have lasted around two months. It began in early March, during the on-going rains and when the slip-and-slide of vehicles along the plain’s roads was a common inconvenience for visitors. The “peak” time of the ‘superbloom’—we prefer using a single word in lieu of the “correct” spelling ‘super bloom’—was around the middle of this period, or early April, although certain displays were still coming into their own in later weeks, such as the owl’s clover displays which we saw everywhere on the days of our visit, April 13-15.
Those who also visited in 2017 and commented recently on social media generally agreed this year’s bloom wasn’t as bright as 2017’s, but any comparatives don’t mean a whole lot because both years certainly produced their own superlatives. Keeping in mind that every species is not in bloom at the same time, we nominate for “Best of Show” Owl’s Clover (Castilleja exserta) to take the prize on the weekend we visited, with its vibrant magenta splotches that could be seen from distances everywhere, mixing beautifully with the greens of the grasses and the bright yellows of the California goldfields (Lasthenia californica). Although not the most prevalent bloom, it was the owl’s clover’s time to be painted by the Great Plein Air Artist on the rolling hills of the valley.
We took the southerly entrance from Route 166, heading immediately toward the great phacelia “lake” we saw in 2017, and, like 2017, again experiencing the many clouds of fine, pulverized sand thrown up by cars and trucks hurrying the opposite way, together with certain sections of bone-rattling washboard road and the large dodge-if-you-can potholes. This glowing purple flowerbed is a popular sight to behold, though getting there requires a bit of effort given the road conditions. It is located about 15 miles northwest of State Route 166 and about 20 miles southeast of State Route 58, about the center of the Carrizo Plain monument. The rich hue of the phacelia is most marked in the morning and afternoon, exhibiting an iridescence. The effect was markedly profound in 2017, making the lake a seeming continuous color a half-mile across, luminous from some two miles away.
This broad area of phacelia can be seen in Google Earth when selecting the April, 2017 historical satellite view. Although the aerial panel in the view only reaches far enough north to show the south half of the field, one can confirm the range of growth is in excess of a half-mile across, with trails also visible in accordance with the number of visitors who hiked into it, as there is no direct road access to its periphery. In that historical view, much of the 2017 superbloom in the southerly 15 miles of the plain is visible with certain areas showing extraordinarily rich color.
Google Earth is one method of touring the plain before venturing into it, but latitudes and longitudes are needed to obtain the best grasp of where to find things. The second page of this blog post contain some geotagged photos to help in that regard. When in the plain, very useful BLM and conservancy maps are posted at information kiosks along Soda Lake Road and at the visitor center. An important feature of these maps are areas noted as private property. Sign postings appear to have increased this year as to notifications of private property; wherever we saw these postings visitors were in compliance. It is important to keep in mind there are are an appreciable number of private tracts within the national monument, as indicated on some of the BLM maps linked below. Precise indications as to their location, short of actually seeing and understanding specific surveyors’ markers, are numerous range fences that often run north-south or east-west, reflective of the early government layouts of homesteads. The drive along Soda Lake Road and the accessible feeder roads into it can give you an experience approximating the original natural world of the early settlers or the native peoples before them. The wildflowers also bloomed then.
More BLM-sourced maps can be found at the page https://www.blm.gov/visit/carrizo-plain-national-monument or click link to the BLM page. On that page is a link to the map and guide page, a 10MB pdf download: https://www.blm.gov/documents/california/public-room/brochure/carrizo-plain-national-monument-recreation-map-and-guide, or click map and guide page. This guide is beautifully done, with information about the Guy L. Goodwin Education Center (the Visitor Center, open Thursday through Sunday); also, important campground information, flora and fauna introductions, information about the painted rock site, and a fairly comprehensive map of the entire national monument.
Several miles before reaching the lake, just before the Traver Ranch, is a non-bloom attraction, an interesting micro-canyon formed by a sudden drop in the floor of the plain. It lies more or less along one of the lesser fractures running parallel to the main San Andreas fault line. By the time of our stop there, the temperature had moved up to around 80 degrees, bringing out the most reptile activity we have seen anywhere this season, which overall included rattler sightings in three widely separated areas of the monument and the lucky sighting of the much less common glossy snake. We almost forgot to remember that, at this time of year, when traversing areas by foot in the Carrizo Plain, especially washes or rocky alcoves, one should be wary the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus), moreso in bloom times where food sources, such as the Giant Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys ingens) are plentiful from the rains. It’s amazing how fast one can move when the sudden sound of a rattler’s hiss is heard around the feet!
Curiously, this suddenly-appearing canyon exists on the north side of Soda Lake Road, but is not seen on the south side. Sinkhole-like erosion features like this are common in the south half of the plain, but what caused this to stop upstream at the road? A barrier of constructed rip-rap below the broadly graded roadside bench is an engineering clue, which stabilizes against further erosion beyond Soda Lake Road. The deep wash near the San Andreas Fault pictured is actually a fairly recent development and associated with an early road that once occupied places that are now downstream in the wash. As it sometimes happens with road construction, drainage patterns are modified with a redirection of flow, in this case perhaps due to heavy rainfall seasons which followed the old road cuts. Older USGS topographic maps show what is the old Soda Lake Road road, the principal route through the plain, but no wash. The current modern road is a new route to avoid what were earlier massive erosion problems.
All around the deep wash are little caves delving into the level ground, sometimes hidden among the flowers, built by little creatures that know how to design subterranean burrows to withstand flooding altogether. The giant kangaroo rat, nearly a foot long from head to tail, is seldom seen by casual visitors to the Carrizo Plain, but their extensive underground habitats are revealed as engineered entryways nearly everywhere. Some are placed in obvious view along the bare ground, but cleverer ones may be seen behind grass curtains at the ends of narrow Hobbit-like paths. Native and non-native grasses provide some cover from predators who can smell out the well-ventilated tunneling systems, but kangaroo rats need a lot more than that to survive as prey animals. Worse than their predators, the modern world has not been easy on them. Despite their apparent success in the Carrizo Plain, the giant kangaroo rat range has dwindled to only 2% of its historical size. To see one in Carrizo Plain is relatively rare nonetheless, as they spend scant time outside of their burrow.
The rats themselves seemed to not fare so well during our visit. We observed one being carried off by a raven. We took some photos of another, though they are not suitable for framing. The reality is that these poor rodents are “nature’s snacks” and the one we could photograph was a raven’s interrupted lunch. Ravens are, perhaps, the most visible birds in the plain, often seen sitting atop fence posts and power poles while they scan for anything that moves; although the rats are wary, the ravens find them conveniently from these sturdy perches. The rats have snowy white bellies, a color one would think undesirable against foliage, ground, or night. Another observation concerning these small creatures is the prevalence of scattered grass seeds nearby their tunnels. Piles of fresh-clipped oats were seen being dried in the sun for later storage in the burrows. Within the extensive burrow system, larders of these grass seeds might contain many liters of sustaining food for the long summer ahead and the winter to follow.
The San Andreas Fault not only runs the full length of the plain, some fifty miles, but is also the cause of the plain as an endorheic basin (meaning no drainage to the sea) and forms the Soda Lake complex at the low point of the basin. Not surprisingly, then, this area is well-watered and the best to see mile-long stretches of continuous flower fields.
Overlook Hill, aka Soda Lake Point View, immediately west of and about 120 feet higher than the lake bed, is an easy drive to a limited parking area or, alternately, one may hike up to the top along the road to parking. An even better experience, we think, is to drive into the lake complex along Simmler Road, accessed either from Soda Lake Road near the visitor center or, from the north, Elkhorn Road near Highway 58. Simmler Road, nearly six miles long between Elkhorn Road and Soda Lake Road, can be a bumpy, dusty experience but fortunately much of this length may be avoided, as many of the best views are seen in the south section of the road near Soda Lake Road.
Soda Lake, like all of the Carrizo Plain, was subjected to the most lateral displacement of portion the 7.9 1857 Tejon Earthquake energy path, which began at Parkfield some 55 miles to the north and traveled down the San Andreas fault to the end of the fault at what is now the Salton Sea. As a right-lateral fault (a person standing on the other side of the fault would appear to move to the right during the plate movement), Soda Lake moved some 30 feet toward Canada! The Southern California Earthquake Center put together a great self-guided tour of the geology of the Carrizo Plain, discussing the dynamics of the San Andreas Fault and can be dowloaded from their website at http://scecinfo.usc.edu/wallacecreek/guides/blm-cpna.pdf, or by clicking Carrizo Plain Geologic Tour.