Carrizo Plain National Monument is ‘One of the Best Kept Secrets in California’

The remote monument protects the single largest native grasslands in the state

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.

photo of tidy tips flowersall photos by Chuck GrahamClick or tap this image to view a photo essay from the Carrizo Plain

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.





Click or tap an image thumbnail to see a photo essay of the Carrizo Plain

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

The Latest

Being Black while in Nature: ‘You’re an Endangered Species’

Many black nature-lovers have to employ defense mechanisms — lest a situation turn sticky and they have to answer questions from a suspecting police officer.

Poppy Noor The Guardian

Humans Explain Things to Me

Nature once tumbled through our language. There are practical ways we can bring it back.

William Powers

Finding Second Lives for Electric Car Batteries

The production of electric and hybrid vehicles generates tons of battery waste, but some companies are finding creative ways to reduce it.

Bill Siuru

With Warming Temperatures, Alaska Pollock Are Shifting Northward

In the Bering Sea, fish are finding refuge far from their traditional range. What does this mean for ecosystems and commercial fisheries?

Theresa Soley

Rock Climbing Can Pose Threat to Cliff-Dwelling Birds, but May also Offer Opportunity

Despite disturbing high-altitude habitat, climbers could be a valuable resource for bird conservation projects.

Brianna Grant

Race, Wealth, and Public Spaces: US Beaches are a New Flashpoint of the Lockdown

Beaches are a polarizing issue amid the pandemic. Experts say that’s because a ‘frenzy of privatization’ led to smaller, more crowded public spaces.

Ankita Rao The Guardian