Celebrate Spring on the Carrizo

It’s a good time to visit the Carrizo Plain.

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Spring is a wonderful time in Central California, when the dry inland areas come to life:

t’s difficult, if you’re interested in the natural world, not to try to imagine what local landscapes looked like before modern agriculture and urbanization spread over so much of Central California.

One site that preserves a sample of our Valley in earlier times is the Kaweah Oaks Preserve, which is a half-dozen miles east of Visalia along Highway 198. There it is possible to get a good idea of what the well-water forests of the Kaweah River Delta looked like before 1850.

But what about the drier parts of our Valley? Is there anything left that gives us a view into how those landscapes appeared and worked?

The answer, fortunately, is yes. The Carrizo Plain National Monument, west of Bakersfield, preserves a fascinating semiarid landscape that closely resembles even today what much of the Great Central Valley must have looked like several centuries ago.

Strictly speaking, the Carrizo Plain should not be considered a part of the San Joaquin Valley. The plain occupies its own mountain-rimmed valley, has no drainage to the outside world and even features a mineralized lakebed at its center. But, biologically, the Carrizo country strongly resembles what the more arid parts of our Valley looked like before they were plowed. Grasslands dominated by perennial bunch grasses and seasonal wildflowers roll across the landscape. Pronghorn antelope, jackrabbits, ground squirrels, and snakes and lizards make their homes in the spacious openness.

This winter, rains have been relatively kind to the Carrizo, and now that spring has arrived, the next few weeks should see a good wildflower show. During a recent visit, yellow expanses of goldfields and coreopsis had already begun to glow with color, and many other wildflowers were in bud and getting ready to bloom.

If you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse of a herd of pronghorn. These amazingly fleet animals, which can move for short distances as fast as 60 mph, once lived in Central California in almost countless numbers. Today, the Carrizo provides them with their last home in this part of California. And keep an eye out also for the kit fox, a graceful miniature fox that hunts small rodents.
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Look also for the trace of the San Andreas fault, which runs through the monument and shapes much of the landscape. The last time the fault let go in this area, in 1857, the western part of the monument jumped about 30 feet north in relation to the area to the east.

Two-thirds the size of Sequoia National Park, the Carrizo Plain National Monument was established in January 2001 and placed under the control of the Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the Department of the Interior. In recent years the area’s managers have been quietly adding simple visitor facilities.

A visit to the Carrizo Plain makes a wonderful spring outing. Travel time from Visalia is two-plus hours. Access comes via Highway 58 west of Bakersfield. Services are extremely limited, so pack a picnic lunch and something to drink. During your visit be sure to seek out the Goodwin Education Center, a small but highly informative facility that includes exhibits that help you understand the Carrizo’s spare landscapes. And don’t forget to watch for pronghorn and earthquakes!

# Three Rivers resident William Tweed writes about the natural world of Tulare County.

Let’s not forget that the Carrizo Plain National Monument Resource Management Plan is still receiving public comments, and the future of this beautiful area is able to be shaped by those concerned with conserving its natural wonders, flora and fauna. In the meantime, BLM is rather rudderless, here and in DC, with only an acting director.


One Response

  1. FOCP have a – Flowers and Service in the Spring hike: April 5-10 (Sun-Fri)
    This National Monument is famous for springtime wildflowers. We will plan a welcome hike on April 5, three and a half days of service, and a full day for exploring the monument. Use of accommodations at Goodwin Ranch included. Limited to 12 participants; $30 covers 5 dinners. For more information, contact leader: Craig Deutsche, (310-477-6670). (Sierra Club)

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