May 27, 2011

Offbeat Travels in the Offseason: Carrizo Plain

When I got my last job, one of the first things I told my friends was, "I'm going to need more vacation time."

In three months, I'd already taken three vacation days, nearly 1/3 of my total for the year. And I had lots more places I wanted to go, trips I wanted to take.

When I got laid off, one of the first things I did was book a trip to Carrizo Plain National Monument, a site not far up north that I'd been wanting to visit for at least a year. Situated between San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield, I didn't really have much reason to already be up there, so I had to make a special trip.

Rangers only do guided tours of the Monument - including Soda Lake and Painted Rock - through the end of May, so my timing was perfect.

I spent the night in Bakersfield in order to make the 10 a.m. tour, and was so paranoid about being late or missing it altogether that I got up at 6:30 a.m., left by 7:30 a.m., and arrived by 9 a.m., in plenty of time to explore the western shore of Soda Lake and its boardwalk before the tour began.

Carrizo Plain - which was only designated a monument in 2001 - is remarkable as the site was formerly submerged under a prehistoric sea, leaving behind an ephemeral, alkali lake that dries up into a stark white salt flat in the summer time. In the spring, especially after such a wet winter, Soda Lake does have some water in it, but no deeper than a foot, and increasingly receding as the temperatures warm and the summer advances.

Because of its salinity, few species of wildlife can exist in the waters of Soda Lake, except the fairy and brine shrimp that flourish there.

But there's plenty of wildlife surrounding the lake, across the plain - tule elk, kangaroo rats, kit foxes, migratory birds, raptors, pronghorn antelope...

...and burrowing owls. I'm not sure if these burrow but they were not happy to see me and didn't mind screeching about it.

There are plenty of rattlesnakes too, as we saw first hand when a juvenile rattler was slithering its way up one of my fellow tourist's pant leg, unbeknownst to her.

"There. is. a. snake. right. on. you...." I said.


I repeated it.

My heart was pounding so hard as she shook it off and stepped away that I didn't think to get a picture.

"I am so glad you saw that..." our cute ranger from Indiana said, explaining it was his last day on the job and did not want a snakebite to mark the end of his career.

As much as Carrizo Plain is a "best kept secret" of California, situated in the southeastern corner of San Luis Obispo County near the border of Kern County, west of Bakersfield, most of the people who go do so for the wildflowers and not the wildlife.

I, of course, arrived at the end of wildflower season, when tours were reduced from 50 participants to 5. I was there for Soda Lake.

And Painted Rock.

Painted Rock is a rock outcropping, one of the many interesting geologic features of the Carrizo Plain, whose alcove features pictographs from the Chumash Indians, who consider it a sacred site. Unfortunately the cave paintings (not really in a cave) were heavily damaged by graffiti in the 20th Century, so the site is off-limits to visitors without a ranger or a permit. Out of respect for the sacred site, this is the only photo I can publish, from inside the alcove looking out towards the lake.

The Plain is also an important site along the San Andreas Fault, which you often can't really see on the earth's surface. But at Wallace Creek, past the eastern shore of the lake, you can see the effects of it.

This creek used to be straight. It now bends severely as a result of the shifting plates.

As dry and hot as the Plain gets in the summer, the lake with its stark white, cracked surface, it's not a desert. It's actually grasslands in a Mediterranean climate, and that made it ripe for cattle ranchers and farmers, who tilled grain and other crops. There are some relics from the area's agricultural history scattered about as well.

I hit all of the major sites along the Carrizo Plain, but still, as I drove away, I thought to myself, "I have to go back." I want to see the lake when it truly is a dry lake. I want to camp there (though I've never actually been camping) and look at the stars. I want to take a proper hike and not just a quick climb to an overlook or a nature trail.

I want to show it to somebody who would have never found it on their own.

It's a place of surprising survivalism, where creatures adapt to inhabitable and inhospitable surroundings. The rare plantlife that can survive with such highly salty conditions - the iodine bush, for instance - somehow find their way there. And stay.

And although the lake is shallow and temporary enough to still be considered a dry lake (not fed by any existing river or stream, only by rainfall), it still manages to come back, regularly.

Even when it appears to be gone, some water is still there, under the cracked surface...

See also: Salton Sea

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