Thursday, April 6, 2017

When California Was Wild: A Glimpse Into The Past At Carrizo Plain

"When California was wild, it was one sweet bee-garden throughout its entire length, north and south, and all the way across from the snowy Sierra to the ocean." 
John Muir in The Mountains of California (1894)

In his 1912 book, The Yosemite, John Muir described the view from Pacheco Pass, his first impression of the Great Central Valley as he gazed across toward the Sierra Nevada:

"At my feet lay the Great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine." 

John Muir's "lake of pure sunshine," reimagined here at Carrizo Plain.

Those bee-gardens, those lakes of sunshine, are almost all gone now, reduced to a few remaining patches of grassland that have been inundated with alien species and exotic annual grasses.  To see a fragment of what John Muir and others before him experienced upon gazing across the Great Central Valley, we paid a visit to Carrizo Plain National Monument. 

Stretching 50 miles north to south along the San Andreas fault zone, tucked between the Temblor and Caliente mountain ranges, Carrizo Plain is the largest remaining area of San Joaquin Valley grassland in California (or anywhere, for that matter).  Some argue that it should be considered a valley of the Coast Range, since it is separated from the Great Central Valley by the Temblor Range to the east.  But the assemblage of species found here is indicative of true San Joaquin Valley grassland habitat. 

Typical San Joaquin Valley grassland, with a mix of perennial grasses and annual wildflowers.

A note on the geology going on at Carrizo Plain (from my very basic understanding): Carrizo Plain is among the best places to see the famed San Andreas Fault, the fault that extends an excess of 800 miles through California, marking the boundary between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates.  It is a right-lateral strike-slip fault, which means that the Pacific Plate, west of the fault, is slowly moving north.  Because of the aridity of the region, the fault scarp has not been eroded very much and stands out in stark relief at the base of the Temblor mountains. 

I admit that I was more focused on plants and birds during our trip (priorities), but I did notice the fault scarp,
seen here at the base of the mountains, and knew what I was looking at! 

Carrizo Plain is home to several endangered species, including San Joaquin Valley Kit Fox (Vulpes macrotis mutica), the Giant Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys ingens), and Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizard (Gambelia sila).  Soda Lake, the largest remaining alkali wetland in California, is an overwintering ground for thousands of shorebirds, like Long-billed Curlews.  The potentially endangered and seriously declining Tri-colored Blackbird (Agelaius tricolor) can also be found here, along with Mountain Plovers (Charadrius montanus), a near-threatened species that relies on disappearing shortgrass prairie habitat.  (Contrary to its common name, Mountain Plovers live and breed on shortgrass prairie, not in the mountains.)

Tule Elk herd, on the move at sunset

Tule Elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) and Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), which once roamed freely across the Great Central Valley in large herds, have both been successfully reintroduced at Carrizo Plain.  We saw one large herd of Tule Elk and three separate herds of Pronghorn during our weekend stay.  The plain is also a winter home for North America's largest hawk, the Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis).  (We saw two or three, soaring high above us).  Critically endangered California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus) are known to frequent the area, as are Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) and Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus), all of which evaded my best birding efforts.


The descriptions and sentiments expressed by John Muir in The Mountains of California (1894) so closely match my own experiences at Carrizo Plain that I think I'll let Muir himself, California's great conservationist, lover of nature and master of poetic prose, take over.

"The Great Central Plain of California, during the months of March, April, and May, was one smooth, continuous bed of honey-bloom, so marvelously rich that, in walking from one end of it to the other, a distance of more than 400 miles, your foot would press about a hundred flowers at every step."

"When I first saw this central garden, the most extensive and regular of all the bee-pastures of the State, it seemed all one sheet of plant gold..."

"I at length waded out into the midst of it. All the ground was covered, not with grass and green leaves, but with radiant corollas, about ankle-deep next the foot-hills, knee-deep or more five or six miles out. Here were bahia, madia, madaria, burrielia, chrysopsis, corethrogyne, grindelia, etc., growing in close social congregations of various shades of yellow, blending finely with the purples of clarkia, orthocarpus, and Ĺ“nothera, whose delicate petals were drinking the vital sunbeams without giving back any sparkling glow."

Orthocarpus, now Castilleja exserta (Purple Owl's Clover), Layia (Tidy Tips) and Lasthenia (Goldfields)

"Sauntering in any direction, hundreds of these happy sun-plants brushed against my feet at every step, and closed over them as if I were wading in liquid gold. The air was sweet with fragrance, the larks sang their blessed songs, rising on the wing as I advanced, then sinking out of sight in the polleny sod, while myriads of wild bees stirred the lower air with their monotonous hum."

Horned Lark, singing his "blessed song," unchanged since Muir's days. 

"The time will undoubtedly come when the entire area of this noble valley will be tilled like a garden, when the fertilizing waters of the mountains, now flowing to the sea, will be distributed to every acre, giving rise to prosperous towns, wealth, arts, etc. Then, I suppose, there will be few left, even among botanists, to deplore the vanished primeval flora."

"I at length waded out into the midst of it..."

Thankfully, a piece of this beautiful flowery grassland will remain protected at Carrizo Plain National Monument, a reminder of the beauty of California's wild "bee gardens" of old.


  1. Great piece on a great place. I hope that you aren't averse to me sharing this. Good stuff!

  2. A friend and I just visited, and wondered whether all of the Central Valley once must have looked like the Carrizo Plain. What a wonderful article, thanks for putting it together.

  3. This is a very informative article. Thanks for posting. I would just point out that the Tipton's kangaroo rat is only found in the San Joaquin Valley east of the California aqueduct. The federally endangered Giant kangaroo rat inhabits the Carrizo as well as the unlisted Heerman's kangaroo rat and the short-nosed kangaroo rat (the Tipton equivalent occurs east of the aqueduct).

    1. Thank you for the correction! You're right; I somehow got my information mixed up and have fixed my mistake. Thanks for reading!