At dawn I lit out toward a cluster of sandstone spires overlooking the Carrizo Plain National Monument at the southern end of California’s San Joaquin Valley. I pulled out my binoculars and scanned the grasslands cloaked in tidy tips, California poppies and owl’s clover. I counted 81 Tule elk that morning browsing on the carpet of wildflowers. It felt like a timeless moment in old California.
In 2001, President Bill Clinton deemed Carrizo Plains a national monument, protecting the single largest native grasslands remaining in California. At 250,000 acres, the monument has come to be known as “California’s Serengeti” for its herds of Tule elk, pronghorn antelope and black-tailed deer. In fact, its Tule elk herd is one of the fastest growing herds in the state, with about 400 animals. The monument harbors more endangered species than anywhere else in the Golden state. Those animals include the California condor, antelope ground squirrel, giant kangaroo rat, San Joaquin kit fox and blunt-nosed leopard lizard.
The sweeping landscape is also the biggest protected habitat along the Pacific Flyway, a major migration route for North American birds, making it a bird watcher’s paradise. Roughly 200 avian species have been recorded on the Carrizo Plain. It’s especially good for raptors and the ravens that harass them.
But it isn’t all plains. This 50-mile stretch of protected land includes the Temblor and Caliente Mountain Ranges and Soda Lake, the largest natural alkali lake in the state. This lake is a unique sight, whether it’s full of water and frolicking birds, or dried out with dust devils spinning across it.
All of this natural beauty and diverse wildlife sits in California’s Central Valley, better known for industrial agriculture than for wildflowers. This location may help explain why, as the Bureau of Land Management puts it, the “Carrizo Plain National Monument is one of the best kept secrets” in the state.
I typically make three to four trips a year out to the Carrizo Plain. Its silence, dramatic landscapes, flora and fauna are intoxicating. Every time I head out there I see and photograph something I hadn’t seen the time before. I’m already planning next year’s excursions. I simply can’t get enough.