Carrizo Plain exploration reveals vast and subtle wonders
By Alex Wilson 02/21/2013
Carrizo Plain National Monument is close to the northwestern corner of Ventura County, but its remote natural beauty sets it apart as a true escape from the fast pace of civilization.
Its ecological and cultural significance became clear to me while working on a habitat restoration project with Los Padres ForestWatch, and visiting sacred and geologically unique features with my wife, Dawn.
Pronghorn antelope run free across the distant horizon. Endangered birds and reptiles scurry around Native American rock art. The barren expanse of salty, white Soda Lake and miles of gently swaying grasslands instill feelings reminiscent of those experienced in the vast solitude of Death Valley National Park, although there are far fewer visitors.
Springtime draws people seeking brilliant displays of colorful wildflowers blanketing hillsides. Others come for the numerous bird species. This is the largest remaining native grassland in California, bordered by the rugged Temblor and Caliente mountain ranges.
ForestWatch primarily focuses on nearby Los Padres National Forest, but leaders have also taken the Carrizo Plain under wing. I joined a camping trip to remove obsolete barbed-wire fences from historic ranches, to prevent injuries to wildlife, including pronghorn antelope, North America’s fastest mammals.
We cut rusty, relic barbed wire with heavy-duty clippers, and then rolled it into circles to be hauled away. Pulling posts from the ground required serious muscle power and special tools. Stubborn posts took the weight of four men pushing hard just to get them to budge. Clearing away miles of fence resulted in a feeling of sweaty accomplishment. A potluck dinner with other volunteers, chatting around a roaring campfire, and sleeping under the stars was a well-earned reward.
Another exploration of the monument with my wife revealed uniquely visible portions of the San Andreas Fault. Wallace Creek displays dramatic evidence of the shifting earth where the Pacific and North American plates meet. The creek bed winding through rolling hills above the fault makes two abrupt turns more than 400 feet apart. It moved more than 20 feet during one large 1857 temblor.
We also obtained permits required by the Bureau of Land Management to visit Painted Rock. It’s one of the largest and most significant rock art sites anywhere. Most of the artwork is in the center of a crescent-shaped sandstone formation jutting out of the plain. I could only guess at the possibly profound meaning of the abstract figures and animals.
The rock art was created over thousands of years, and ceremonies are still held there by members of several tribes who inhabit surrounding regions. Vandalism from years ago by people insensitive to its spiritual and cultural significance is unsettling to see. Some of the names and dates were carved into the rock more than 100 years ago, and hark back to an era when the hardy settlers labored in difficult conditions to farm wheat and graze cattle.
Exploring the natural and cultural heritage of Carrizo Plain National Monument takes effort, but the rewards can be tremendous. Visiting takes planning and a bit of courage, because there are no stores or gas stations across its more than 200,000 acres, and very little shade. Most of the roads are unpaved and can quickly turn muddy after it rains.
Another way to learn about ForestWatch is by attending Ojai Wild! It’s a fun benefit event where outdoors enthusiasts share a gourmet barbecue, bid on items like trips and nature photographs in a silent auction, and listen to live music in a beautiful oak grove. This April 13 ForestWatch will present its Wilderness Legacy Award to Patagonia and company founder Yvon Chouinard.