Carrizo Plain / Painted Rock

Carrizo Plain / Painted Rock


At first glance, the Carrizo Plain doesn’t appear to be hiding any secrets. The National Monument in eastern San Luis Obispo County, one hour west of Bakersfield, is huge, flat and remote. It’s the largest single native grassland remaining in California comprising 250,000 acres, fifty miles long and fifteen miles wide. In the center of this desolate area is Soda Lake, three thousand acres of self contained, alkali wetlands. The water in the seasonal lake is undrinkable and other potable water sources are limited.

In spite of the dryness and isolation of the area, people still venture out into and even live in the Carrizo Plain. The small communities of California Valley and Simmler are located here. Although there are 500 plus in the towns’ population, there are no gas stations, no restaurants, no grocery stores, really no services, except for a CDF station with a water tank out front providing free, potable water.

A quiet local treasure, dating back thousands of years, is Painted Rock, a sandstone monolith standing forty five feet above the Carrizo Plain floor. Early native Salinan, Chumash and Yokut Indians decorated the rock with colorful petroglyphs and pictographs. Considered a sacred site, Painted Rock is still used by modern day Chumash for religious rituals. Even latter day Spanish and Portuguese left their marks on the horseshoe shaped rock. An early settler etched his name as “Geo. Lewis, 1908.”

The drawings have deteriorated over the years from vandalism and damage from burrowing animals and the elements but many are still faintly visible. The site is now protected as a National Monument and the Archeological Resources Protection Act makes it a crime to deface, climb or walk on any of its surfaces. Violations can result in fines and/or imprisonment. Beginning in 2011, a Bureau of Land Management permit will be required to visit Painted Rock. (The site is closed from March 1 to July 15 during the nesting season of the various raptor species which live there, which include red tail hawks, owls, and golden eagles.)

Another not so secret aspect of the Carrizo Plain is that the infamous San Andreas Fault, a major California earthquake fault, borders California Valley, in the Carrizo Plain. Evidence of the movement of the North American tectonic plate and the Pacific plate moving past each other at the rate of about an inch per year, is visibly demonstrated here.

Endangered animal life exists in the Carrizo Plain grassland in greater numbers than anywhere else in the state. The San Joaquin kit fox, giant kangaroo rat, San Joaquin antelope squirrel, and blue nosed leopard lizard are among the threatened species protected in the plain. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife reintroduced tule elk and pronghorn antelope into the area’s habitat, revitalizing both species’ populations. The Carrizo Plain is also an important environment for California condors, which were reintroduced into the wild in 1991. Condors, a species of vulture, were on the verge of extinction with only 22 left in the wild. The birds began to recover through captive breeding programs and as of 2010, the number of condors in zoos grew to 381 split about equally between those living in the wild and those in zoos.

The Carrizo Plain’s secrets are well worth investigating but be prepared. This is a tough environment but beautiful in its austere landscape and well worth the trip. Call ahead for road and weather conditions. (805) 475-2131, The Guy L. Goodwin Educational Center opens from December until the end of May, Thursday through Sunday, 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Fill your tank before you go, remember that there are no gas stations in California Valley. There is limited cell phone reception (mostly Verizon) but emergency 911 calls are answered by the California Valley fire station. Pack maps, signal mirror, water, food, first aid kit, and extra clothing. Wear heavy duty footwear and stay on established trails. There is no recreational target shooting permitted. Remember that you will need a BLM permit for self guided tours of Painted Rock, from July 16th through the end of February.

The walk from the visitor center to Painted Rock is 3/4 mile one way. There are weekend tours in April and May, interpretive displays, a diorama about the area’s animals and a mural painted by Santa Barbara artist John Iwerks reflecting the stark beauty and diversity of the Carrizo Plain. (805) 475-2131.




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