Four Days in Carrizo Plain National Monument
One of the first things I noticed was the quiet. Not that dead calm, deafening silence type of quiet, where the only thing you can hear is the sound of your own heart pumping the blood through your veins; no, there is plenty of sound around you. But it’s different. It’s harmonious, it’s cohesive, it’s … completely 100% natural. The bugs buzzing, the birds singing, the wind gently blowing across the grassy plain, all coming together in a sublime symphony, yet in some way quiet, lacking just one thing: that low background rumble of man and his various activities, the hum of humanity.
Driving in through the southern entrance of Carrizo Plain National Monument for four days of solo camping, exploring, writing, and just plain vegging out, I was almost immediately lonely. But it was a good lonely.
After about 30 minutes of driving, I saw something in the road up ahead that seemed to be out of place. Stopping to scope out the anomaly though binoculars, I realized it was two pronghorn antelope. The pair slowly meandered back and forth before finally crossing the road and wandering up a small hill. I inched the car forward, a little bit at a time, not wanting to spook them, eventually getting closer to them than I ever would have imagined possible.
After a good long encounter, I bid them farewell to resume their foraging. My journey continued deeper into the park, and after another 20 minutes or so I saw something else in the road up ahead. Another anomaly. But it was bigger, and darker in color. Definitely not more pronghorn; could it be some of the tule elk who also grace the park?
No … it was another car.
As we passed each other and both waved enthusiastically, it dawned on me that I had just traversed about half of Carrizo Plain National Monument before seeing another human being. Carrizo Plain … The Big Lonely.
In his final days in office, then-President Bill Clinton established Carrizo Plain National Monument by presidential order on January 12th, 2001. It is currently administered under a cooperative agreement by the Bureau of Land Management, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the Nature Conservancy. Only about a hundred miles from Los Angeles, yet still unknown to most people, Carrizo Plain is home to the largest remaining native grassland in California and a small but vital remnant of the natural ecosystem that once spanned California’s massive Central Valley.
Carrizo Plain is also home to the largest concentration of endangered species anywhere in California, including the California condor, the San Joaquin kit fox, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, the giant kangaroo rat, and the San Joaquin antelope squirrel, to name a few. And two iconic land mammals, the pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) and the tule elk (Cervus elaphus nannodes), were reintroduced to the Carrizo in the 1980s in hopes of further restoring this small but ecologically important piece of what California used to be.
Barbed wire fences are just some of the man-made remnants of the Carrizo’s long history of cattle ranching. Volunteers with groups like Friends of the Carrizo Plain regularly remove old fences, but there are still hundreds of miles of barbed wire crisscrossing the monument. Yet many of them have been strategically modified: instead of the typical four strands of barbed wire, the top strand has been removed, and the bottom strand has been replaced by smooth, barbless wire. Why? Because elk prefer to jump fences, while pronghorn tend to crawl under them, and even with these modifications the fences are still effective at their primary purpose: keeping cattle where they are supposed to be. Domesticated cattle, it seems, don’t jump, and don’t crawl. But the tule elk and pronghorn antelope are free to move about the expansive plain relatively unencumbered.
The Carrizo has been nicknamed “California’s Serengeti,” in reference to Africa’s iconic ecosystem where millions of animals roam free. Driving along the dirt roads of the Carrizo Plain, seeing nothing but birds for hours at a time, is not nearly the same as driving across the Serengeti or other wildlife-rich areas. But it once was. And it could be again. Someday. If we continue to do the right thing.
When you’re scanning the plains for wildlife, you search for things that look out of place: colors, shapes, sizes, and movement that stand out from the landscape. Driving across the plain late one breezy afternoon, on a mission to hopefully finally find some tule elk, I suddenly saw movement. A dark figure was bounding quickly across the landscape. Then another. Then yet another. Soon I was surrounded by them, dozens, maybe hundreds. But something didn’t seem quite right. They were too small, too close to the ground to be elk. What in the world was happening? What were those things? And what were they running from (or to)?
Everywhere, tumbleweeds loping quickly across the plain. Mocking me.
The Carrizo Plain is hemmed in by two mountain ranges, the Caliente and Temblor Ranges, and bisected by the San Andreas Fault, that not so imaginary line in the sand where the Pacific Plate grinds against the North American Plate in infrequent fits and starts that we like to call earthquakes.
The plain itself has no natural drainage, so the watershed drains inward, tothe lowest spot, located at the northern end of the plain: Soda Lake, which at 3,000 acres is the largest remaining natural alkali wetland in southern California. And it’s called home, at least temporarily, by more than 180 different species of birds every year.
On my final evening camping in Carrizo Plain, I made a chicken and rice burrito and finished off the last of a bottle of Pinot Noir. In the twilight, with a soundtrack of howls from a nearby pack of coyotes, I grabbed my camera and walked the steep access road that wound its way up to a tank supplying intermittent water to the campground. The view from up there was one of the best in the entire park, which is saying a lot. From my perch in the foothills of the Caliente Mountains, I could look north to Soda Lake; directly across the plain to the jagged topography caused by millenia of movement on the San Andreas Fault, with the Temblor Range beyond; and south deep into the heart of the plain itself.
The light was fading quickly, so I snapped a few last pictures and hurried back to my tent and quickly fell asleep.
After packing up camp early the next morning, I drove south out of the park. Although constantly scanning the vast landscape for more pronghorn and maybe some of those elusive tule elk, I came up empty. My mind started to wander. I imagined a time in the near future, maybe just 40, 50 years from now, when the pronghorn and the tule elk stretched across the Carrizo as far as the eye could see, hunted relentlessly by mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, and maybe even some wolves, with abundant California condors and turkey vultures picking away at the remains of the dead carcasses scattered across the restored native grasslands. California’s Serengeti, indeed.
In the middle of this not so far fetched daydream, I spotted two small shapes. They were way out there, on the side of a hill, about a third of a mile across the empty plain. It was two more pronghorn.
I pulled over to the side of the road, grabbed my camera, and took off on foot. Within a dozen or so steps across the short grass, my mind had transported me back to my time in Africa, traipsing through the low grass, with nothing but a camera in hand. Little in life can compare to the experience of tracking wildlife on foot in their native habitat.
The pronghorn pair were a bit skittish, and I was careful not to move forward too quickly. Eventually they became almost indifferent to my presence, still keeping an eye on me but going on with their business. At one point, the male walked up to the female and touched his nose to hers, in what I took to be a showing of sweet, gentle affection. He then walked around behind and mounted her.
I thanked them for doing their part to help repopulate this near-pristine remnant of ancient California, and then turned around to start the short hike back to my car and the long drive back home.