I drove through the night anticipating what the following morning would reveal. Envisioning a palette of vibrant colors splashed across its rolling mountains and sweeping grasslands, the Carrizo Plain National Monument never disappoints.
As sun rose above the Temblor Range to the east, shadows retreated across the plain, revealing what I had hoped for. Soon I was bewildered by the strength in color: four shades of yellow, then patches of orange, a sea of purple, some sprinkling of blues, swaths of pinks and whites. It was everything I had imagined along with a few surprises following the wettest winter in years.
During the fall of 2016, I read a newspaper article about the strong possibility of a La Niña episode bearing down on Central and Southern California, forcing me to cringe at the thought of prolonged drought conditions through the winter of 2017.
In 2016, Southern California was expected to receive the mother of all El Niños, but that mostly stayed in the northern part of the state. In the past, La Niña episodes tend to follow El Niños, but not this past winter. So much for weather reports.
In October 2016 it rained three times, same with November. Then in December it rained a steady amount, but January 2017 it rained consistently. In late January I headed out to the Carrizo Plain to have a look. I was already dreaming of a massive superbloom, and was feeling optimistic, especially after spending three days there. It rained those three days, and the moisture on the plain and sheets of water washing off the Caliente Mountains kept me beaming. The grasslands and adjacent mountain ranges were also exceptionally green.
It continued to rain at a steady clip leading up to the deluge on Feb. 17-18. After that it was only a matter of time until there was a profusion of wildflowers carpeting the Carrizo Plain, approximately six weeks following that significant mid-February storm.
Ditch the car
There was so much color on the Carrizo Plain that it would’ve been easy not to the leave the car and simply gawk from afar. Leaving the car behind, however, was the way to go; less traffic and people, thus allowing that utter silence for which the Carrizo Plain is known to surround you.
All those various shades of yellow dominating the landscape were mustard-colored fiddleneck, sweeping hillside daisy, fragrant tickseed coreopsis and creamy-colored tidy tips. Some of these carpets stretched as far as I could see.
During the springs of 2010 and 2016, Simmler Road, which connects Soda Lake and Elkhorn Roads and runs along the eastside of Soda Lake, was loaded with carpets of tickseed coreopsis and tidy tips. This year I left my truck along the Simmler Road and walked several miles out and around two vernal pools where these flowers bloomed all the way up to and around the pools. Mixed in were taller stands of Lemmon’s mustard, curlicued fiddleneck and Parry’s larkspur.
Drowning in flowers
I was still content camping on the Caliente Mountain side of the Carrizo Plain. My wife and I were spotting flowers we hadn’t seen since 2010, such as thistle sage, Parry’s mallow, arroyo lupine, snake’s head, yellow pincushion and owl’s clover about 8 miles southeast of the KCL Campground.
The sea of phacelia that had bloomed in the past was also in the vicinity due east of the campground. That highly concentrated bed of purple stretched farther across the plain and was a deeper purple than it had been in previous years. It was a nice, leisurely walk to that gradual depression where the phacelia really germinates and really stood out when looking at it from Soda Lake Road.
I found several wildflowers near where we were staying that I’d never seen before, all on top of a rolling hill near the north entrance of the National Monument. Tall grasses forced me to hike gingerly to avoid any run-ins with sleepy western Pacific rattlesnakes. Along the way I stumbled upon vibrant red maids, gypsum-loving larkspur, wild onion and the endangered San Joaquin woolly threads.
After that five-day stretch on the Carrizo Plain, my wife and I returned home. It was early as we slowly drove out of the monument on Soda Lake Road, when we were pleasantly surprised to see North America’s fastest land mammal feeding, galloping and frolicking in a vast field of hillside daisies 200 yards west of the road.
We really didn’t think the five pronghorn antelope would approach us, but within 10 minutes they made their way toward us. The bull led the way, but once he reached the edge of the road he galloped back to the west following the younger antelope that were more skittish and had already dispersed. At one point the bull was so close we could count his long, black eyelashes.
To the Temblors
I have to admit that initially I was a little uninspired by all the splashes of yellow on the typically arid Temblor Range. It appeared as if that was the only color on that long row of open book-like canyons. Hillside daisies mostly dominated the landscape, but looking more closely, while scanning with my binoculars from Soda Lake Road, revealed huge swaths of purple and orange.
Instagram, however, was the proof in the pudding and feeds were blowing up with imagery of a bonanza of wildflowers in the Temblor Range. I saw a photo of someone hiking in the Temblors with desert candles and direct messaged him for its whereabouts.
After returning from the islands following a day of guiding a kayak trip, I arrived a week later in the Carrizo Plain. I was still 90 minutes from where I needed to be and already into the night, dodging nocturnal giant kangaroo rats and San Joaquin kit foxes.
I eventually slept in the parking lot at Wallace Creek and woke up to a rainbow under mostly cloudy skies over the Caliente Mountains. After driving 20 minutes southeast on Elkhorn Road, I arrived at the place to be, on the Carrizo Plain. There were more cars there than I had ever seen at one time on Elkhorn Road, but the hillsides were loaded in color.
The trail beyond the wooden gate quickly ascended a narrow ridgeline, and as the trail rose in elevation, various wildflowers eventually stood out amongst all the yellow hillside daisies. Immediately I noticed hillsides of shredding evening primrose. Mixed in were a few California poppies and chia.
Crossing a narrow saddle, thick clusters of Parry’s mallow in various shades of lavender, pink and white swayed in the wind. Above the saddle, brilliant stocks of desert candles towered over the hillside daisies.
As the trail steepened, those orange patches that I had seen from afar on Soda Lake Road came into view. From the week before, my wife and I thought it was California poppies. Now, under cloudy skies and chilly winds, I thought I was looking at poppies that were closed up for the day. Instead I was staring at the best display I’ve ever seen of San Joaquin blazing star.
It’s always difficult to leave the Carrizo Plain, especially after waiting so long for a superbloom to grace the grasslands. Here’s hoping I don’t forget this one too soon before the next one arrives.