Carrizo Plain, Pinnacles and Ft. Ord; wildflower explosion all through central and coastal California
We had been up-and-down the state of California on Interstate 5 dozens of times, but never turned off near Buttonwillow to see the Carrizo Plain National Monument just an hour to the west. But several friends had recently posted photos of the monument’s spectacular wildlife bloom, and that’s all it took to cause us to take the journey to a very special place.
A bit of online research revealed that, just a few hundred years ago, California’s Central Valley was a vast, undeveloped grassland where elk and antelope grazed and the spring landscape was a’blaze in wildflowers. Over the last 200 years, agriculture and human settlement has forever changed the face of the valley; the Corrizo Plain preserves a segment of California as it once was. It’s a place of scenic grandeur where you can virtually hear the sounds of silence!
So, off we went; from Interstate 5 we headed west through a far-flung oil field, with derricks pumping away, pulling oil and natural gas out of California bedrock. We were soon into emerald green hills, testimony to the long, wet and fairly cold winter the state has experienced.
We took winding CA Hwy. 58, becoming more scenic by the mile. Golden and purple wildflowers began to show their faces, and as we reached a deep pass through the dramatic hills, suddenly the slopes were a’glow in gold, purple and yellow hues.
The monument website notes that March to April is the most usual time to see wildflowers in abundance, though this long, wet winter promises blooms deep into May. During our visit a week ago, goldfields carpeted the hills with brilliant golden hues, and daisies, poppies and lupine were beginning to burst forth. A BLM rep noted that the cool temperatures should allow April flowers to stay in bloom longer than normal, and that in May, buckwheat, mariposa lilies and farewell-to-spring flowers should make a strong appearance.
The Monument offers two campgrounds, and the nearby Los Padres National Forest offers additional camping options. San Luis Obispo and Morro Play on the coast are just a bit further west, offering a number of hotel, motel and bed and breakfast accommodations, as well as seafood and views of the mighty Pacific.
The Carizzo Plain provides a wealth of hiking and bicycling, horseback riding and stunning birdwatching, wildlife and wildflower viewing. Wildlife for the hardy explorer can include sightings of pronghorn antelope, tule elk, black-tailed deer, bobcats and mountain lions, coyotes and ground squirrels. For a map of the Carrizo Plain National Monument, go to: CA_CarrizoPlain_NM
Geographically, it’s an exciting place, with the Caliente Range running through the monument and the Sierra Madre Mountains lying just to the west. Of particular interest is the San Andreas Fault, which on January 9, 1857 ruptured the monument area with a huge earthquake causing 30 feet of lateral offset within the Carizzo Plain, splitting the surface with a fault-line stretching 220 miles. Take the trail on Wallace Creek, and watch for the unusual land forms, following the trail guide to see the remnants of this huge earthquake more than 160 years before.
To make a several day exploration of our emerald green national monuments or parks, include a visit to either Pinnacles National Park or Fort Ord National Monument on your return north. Both offer stunningly scenic vistas and promise wildflower blooms this year like none recently.
Pinnacles is our most recent of 59 national parks, also the result of the San Andreas Fault. The park features the rugged remnants of an ancient volcano just north of Los Angeles, moving steadily along the fault about 2.5 inches per year, distancing itself from the mother volcano!
Ft. Ord, established as a national monument in 2012, is sandwiched between Monterey and Salinas and offers an undiscovered gem with plenty of hiking, bicycling and birding options, as well as wildflower and wildlife viewing in its undulating backcountry.
How to get there: To reach Carrizo Plain National Monument, take interstate 5 south, exit Buttonwillow and follow Highway 58 to the west and the signage to the monument; it’s 250 miles and four hours from Stockton.
To reach Pinnacles National Park or Ft. Ord National Monument, continue west on Highway 58, then turn north on Highway 101.
For more information: Carrizo Plain National Monument, blm.gov/nlcs_web/sites/ca/st/en/prog/nlcs/Carrizo_Plain_NM.html, phone: (805) 475-2131; Pinnacles National Park, nps.gov/pinn; phone: 831.389.4486; for Ft. Ord National Monument, https://www.blm.gov/nlcs_web/sites/ca/st/en/prog/nlcs/Fort_Ord_NM.html, phone: (831) 582-2200 . Camping at federal campgrounds can be booked through www.recreation.gov, or by calling 877.444.6777.