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Carrizo Plain, land of extremes.

Carrizo Plain, land of extremes "A lot of people think we're condemned to live out here," said the manager of a motel perched on the edge of the Carrizo Plain. "But we love it."

The Carrizo is a land of extremes. Sear and barren much of the year, it bursts with life at the coming of winter rains. Sun-blasted at midday, it falls into seductive shadow at dusk.

This remote 45-mile-long plain, in eastern San Luis Obispo County, is also an ecological "island," a landlocked ark for animals and plants vanquished elsewhere. Now it contains Carrizo Plain Natural Area, California's largest nature preserve. It's not the easiest place to visit. But if you don't mind long drives and gravel roads, you can marvel at sandhill cranes this month, rare flowers later on, Chumash Indian art year-round.

A plain ignored by the past

Carrizo Plain runs northwest-southeast. To the west rise the Caliente and La Panza ranges, to the east the Temblor Range--aptly named, for the San Andreas Fault skitters at its base.

The Carrizo's position in the shadow of the La Panzas reduces its annual rainfall to 8 to 10 inches. But near the middle of the plain lies a remnant of wetter times--Soda Lake, which was a true lake some 10,000 years ago but is now an ephemeral alkaline wetland.

Human use of the Carrizo has been marginal. Chumash Indians hunted here; they recorded their presence in the animals daubed onto Painted Rock on the plain's western edge. But Spanish explorers side-stepped the area. By the 1880s, American ranchers ran cattle here, but few of the operations found long-term success.

It's the very absence of human activity that makes the Carrizo unique. While other portions of central California were being plowed and bulldozed, the Carrizo Plain stayed much as it had always been. (One exception: here, as everywhere else in California, native grasses were displaced by exotics introduced by ranchers and their herds.)

Today, the preserve holds more rare and endangered vertebrates than any other place in California; species include the San Joaquin kit fox and the giant kangaroo rat. Rare plants include Lost Hills saltbush, alkali larkspur, and California jewel flower.

Now preserved for the future

In 1984, the Bureau of Land Management, the California Department of Fish and Game, and The Nature Conservancy began buying land to preserve the plain. At present, Carrizo Plain Natural Area totals 115,000 acres, and eventually it will reach 180,000.

Preserve biologists hope to reverse man-made changes. They're replanting native perennial grasses and reintroducing animals--notably the pronghorn antelope, hunted to extinction here at the beginning of this century.

Visiting the Carrizo Plain

The plain lies 50 miles east of San Luis Obispo, 65 miles west of Bakersfield. From Interstate 5, turn west on State 58 at Buttonwillow and drive 45 twisty miles to California Valley, at the plain's north end. Or leave I-5 at State 166 (21 miles south of Bakersfield) and drive west 32 miles to Soda Lake Road, at Reyes Station at the plain's south end. From U.S. 101 at Santa Maria, take State 166 east 68 miles to Reyes Station; from U.S. 101 at Santa Margarita, follow State 58 east 41 miles to California Valley.

Soda Lake Road runs along the west side of the plain. For an overview, take the spur road that branches west from Soda Lake Road 2 miles south of the preserve's north boundary.

Park at the spur's end, then follow a short trail uphill to see the entire plain. The habitat you see before you is Central Valley grassland. Within it are subhabitats: alkali wetlands and sinks, saltbush scrub, and annual grasslands.

This time of year, the most interesting sight is salt-rimmed Soda Lake. Starting in November, roughly a quarter of California's sandhill cranes winter here, reaching a peak of 5,000 to 6,000 birds in January.

Another spectacle comes in early spring: vernal pools. Because clay underlies much of the plain, water collects on the surface, forming ponds. Come March, the flowers that germinate in these ponds turn the plain into a garden of tiny, rare blossoms.

To see the Carrizo's other outstanding landmark, Painted Rock, continue along Soda Lake Road 5 miles south from the overlook to a road branching off to the west. At its end looms the large sandstone rock. Long protected from public viewing, the Chumash Indian art painted on rock faces can now be seen by hiking a short trail that heads out from the parking lot at the end of the road.

Staying at the Carrizo

Though a BLM campground will be finished next year, Carrizo currently has no developed camping facilities. The BLM permits primitive camping at two sites: at the Selby Trailhead and at the KCL Ranch. For information and directions, call the BLM at (805) 861-4236. The nearest developed campground is at La Panza in Los Padres National Forest; it's on Pozo Road off State 58, 10 miles northwest of California Valley.

In California Valley, Burgett's Carrizo Plain Resort has rooms from $25 a night. Burgett's restaurant and store are open from 9 to 8 only when there are guests at the motel. For reservations, call or write the resort, 12906 Soda Lake Rd., California Valley 93453; 475-2363.

Guided trips: reserve now

The Carrizo benefits from being seen with a guide. Space on trips is limited; reservations are recommended.

January 13. Nature Conservancy-sponsored bird-watching trips. Call Chuck Warner at 475-2360.

January 27. Natural history day-hike, also offered by the Conservancy. Write to John Roser, 5359 Barrenda Ave., Atascadero 93422.

January 27 and February 10. Saturday work days. Help plant native grasses and shrubs. Call Chuck Warner (number above).

Monthly. BLM offers guided tours, tentatively beginning in December. Each trip focuses on a topic--birds, geology, cultural history, botany. For dates and details, write to Roy Van de Hoek, BLM, 4301 Roseville Highway, Bakersfield 93308, or call the BLM number listed above.
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Title Annotation:eastern of San Luis Obispo County, California
Date:Nov 1, 1989
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