16 Things to Do at Carrizo Plain National Monument [2018]

Carrizo Plain National Monument is only a few hours outside of Los Angeles but yet it’s one of the most remote sites in the state of California. It’s known for a host of unique geological features like Soda Lake, Painted Rock, the San Andreas Fault, and when the conditions are just right, the valley floor erupts with brilliant wildflowers. Here are 16 things to do if you’re planning a visit to Carrizo Plain National Monument. 

Carrizo Plain National Monument map

Carrizo Plain National Monument is a pretty big wide open area but there’s only one major road that most people travel on. You can take a look a look at the BLM map below for a look at where you can find things like restrooms, parking, trailhead, etc.

You can also check out their official guide to the monument here:

1. The Carrizo Plain wildflowers

Although Carrizo Plain National Monument is relatively unknown, its growing popularity is due in large part to the magnificent wildflower display that carpets the hillsides in the spring.

The display doesn’t always peak each year, so some years have a less than stellar showing but when the wildflowers come out in full display it’s one of the most breathtaking displays of natural beauty in the country.

Checking out the super bloom (during its peak) should be on just about everyone’s bucket list.

The wildflowers usually bloom from mid-March to the first week of May but it all depends on the weather.

San Luis Obispo County, California, is home to the Carrizo Plain and it typically gets over a foot of rain from October through mid-February, which helps with the wildflower bloom.

But when the area gets less rain than that, the chances go down for a superbloom and the ground retains a green or brown appearance, depending on how bad the drought was.

If you’re trying to get an update on the wildflowers you can call the automated hotline at (805) 475-2035 or try to call the park to speak to someone about the wildflower report.

Be prepared for crowds if you’re visiting during the peak of the bloom and consider arriving early or later in the evenings when crowds might be thinned out.

Patterns of the superbloom at Carrizo Plain National Monument
Superbloom at Carrizo Plain National Monument. Photo by the BLM.

2. Painted Rock

Around 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, Native Americans painted their sacred images on the sandstone formation at Painted Rock. It’s a large rock, 250 feet across and about 45 feet tall, located near Soda Lake.

The rock features are created by the Chumash, Salinan and Yokuts peoples over thousands of years but some marks are from more recent rimes when early White settlers in the early 1900s left marks on the rock.

Unfortunately, people have chose to vandalize the site over the years so measures have been taken to limit access.

But you can still check it out. Painted Rock may be visited as part of a BLM guided tour or seasonally with a self-guided tour permit. Depending on the time of year you visit, you may be required to obtain a permit.

  • March 1 to July 15: Available to BLM guided tours only.
    • Tours are docent-led and occur Saturdays during March, April, and May from 10:00am to 3:00pm, weather permitting.
  • July 16 to end of February: A self-guided tour permit is available and required
Booking your tours

BLM guided tour reservations and self-guided tour permits can be booked online at www.recreation.gov or via phone: 1-877-444-6777

International reservations 518-885-3639 and TDD 1-877-833-6777.

Carrizo Plain National Monument Painted Rock
Carrizo Plain National Monument Painted Rock. Photo by Greg Schechter.

3. Soda Lake

Soda Lake is normally dry lake bed, and it spans an area about 3,000 acres. It’s claim to fame is being the “largest remaining natural alkali wetland in southern California and the only closed basin within the coastal mountains.”

As water evaporates from this lake, white deposits of sulfates and carbonates are left in its place. During the winter the lake usually fills with water and offers refuge for migratory birds. It’s a unique geological feature to check out and it’s not too far away from Painted Rock so you can usually knock both of these sights out around the same time.

Walking the board walk at Soda Lake
Walking the board walk at Soda Lake. Photo by Chuck Abbe.

4. San Andreas Fault

The San Andreas Fault runs through the Carrizo Plain along the northeast side of the plain, at the base of the Elkhorn Scarp. The section of the San Andreas fault in the Carrizo Plain is actually the oldest section along the entire fault zone.

During the last 11 million years, the San Andreas Fault has moved the Pacific Plate some 183 miles. And in 1857, the strongest earthquake in California’s history ruptured the fault directly through the Carrizo, causing the fault to offset between 16 and 26 feet!

If you want to find out more about the fault and see it up close and personal then you should hop on the Wallace Creek Trail, which is a self-guided .75 mile interpretive trail constructed at Wallace Creek along a portion of the San Andreas Fault.

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Photo by Doc Searls.

5. Wildlife spotting

Carrizo Plain National Monument is home to a number of  endangered, threatened, and rare animal species.

These include the San Joaquin kit fox, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, the giant kangaroo rat and the San Joaquin antelope squirrel.

The kit fox is about the size of a housecat and comes with big ears and a long bushy tail. The feed off rodents and get enough water from their prey that they don’t have to drink water to survive. Due to the extreme heat, these are most active at night and choose to remain in dens throughout the day. Interestingly, a single fox might between three and 24 different dens each year.

Other interesting wildlife include are longhorn fairy shrimp and other species of fairy shrimp, which can be found in vernal pools in the area. There are also efforts being made to reintroduce pronghorn antelope and tule elk to the area.

6. Car tour of the park

Most car tourists stay on Soda Lake Road as they stop at the many scenic viewpoints, interpretive overlooks, hiking trails, and other points of interest along the way. But you can get a little adventurous and access the backroads.

Take a look at the map at the top of the article for more a look at the different roads running through the park.

Keep in mind the speed limit on BLM roads is 25 MPH.

Hiking

There are only a few developed trails at the monument, which include the the Caliente Ridge Trail and some interpretive trails.

7. Caliente Ridge Trail

The Caliente Ridge Trailhead is a 7-mile long trail (moderate hike) that can be accessed from a small trailhead located at the top of Caliente Ridge. It provides panoramic views of the Carrizo Plain as well as the Temblor Range and parts of Cuyama Valley. It’s also known for being a great way to spot wildlife and do some bird watching.

The Caliente Mountain Trailhead is more strenuous hike. This trailhead is located 13 miles west of Cuyama on Highway 166. The trail isn’t very well defined and it’s a popular trail for deer and quail hunting.

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Along the Caliente Ridge Trail. Photo by Marc.

8. Painted Rock Trail

The Painted Rock Trail is located 2 miles south of the Goodwin Education Center. It’s a short and level 1.4-mile round trip trail to the Painted Rock cultural site. Keep in mind Painted Rock is closed from March 1st to July 15th.

9. Travers Ranch Trail

The Travers Ranch homestead has a self-guided tour of old farming equipment and discusses the history of farming on the Carrizo Plain.

10. Wallace Creek Trail

As already mentioned, this self-guided .75 mile interpretive trail “walks visitors through the geological activity of the San Andreas Fault on the Carrizo Plain over time.” If you’re interested in seeing the San Andreas Fault, this trail might be a great option for you.

11. Soda Lake Boardwalk Trail

This is a boardwalk that follows the edge of Soda Lake is located on Soda Lake Road across from Overlook Hill. It’s a great way to get up close to Soda Lake.

12. Overlook Hill Trail

This is a short but steep trail located off Soda Lake Road 2.1 miles inside the north entrance and provides a great view of Soda Lake and the Carrizo Plain.

13. Goodwin Education Center

You might want to start your visit at the Goodwin Education Center. That’s because you’ll be able to pick up a map and learn all about many of the distinctive features in the park.

The Center is open seasonally from the beginning of December to the end of May and the normal hours of operation during those months are Thursday – Sunday, 9:00am to 4:00pm.

At the center you’ll find interpretive displays and exhibits explaining the uniqueness of the Carrizo Plain and adjoining Elkhorn Plain. You’ll be able to learn about the endangered plants and animals fo the San Joaquin Valley, the geology of the San Andreas Fault, the history and significance of Painted Rock.

If you have any questions you can call them at 805-475-2131.

Carrizo Plain: Goodwin Education Center
The Goodwin Education Center. Photo by jshyun.

Camping

The Carrizo Plain has two developed campgrounds.

14. KCL Campground

KCL Campground is a semi-primitive campground where you’ll find a restroom, picnic tables, fire rings, informational kiosk, and horse corrals.

15. Selby Campground

The Selby Campground is a semi-primitive campground located at the base of the Caliente Mountains. This campground is more secluded than KCL and you you’ll find a restroom, picnic tables, fire rings, informational kiosk, and horse corrals.

Generally, dispersed car camping is permitted in the foothills and mountainous areas but it is not permitted on the valley floor area to protect sensitive biological resources and to prevent obstruction of scenic vistas, nor is it permitted at Soda Lake and adjacent areas.

16. Hunting

Hunting is allowed at Carrizo Plain National Monument and is managed and regulated by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The areas not open for hunting and shooting include safety zones, which are ¼ mile areas around all sites listed below:

  • The Guy L. Goodwin Education Center
  • Painted Rock
  • All designated campgrounds
  • Administrative and recreational facilities including Painted Rock Ranch, Washburn Ranch, and MU Ranch
  • All pullouts and informational kiosks
  • Soda Lake
  • Traver Ranch
  • Wallace Creek

Also, target shooting is not allowed in the Monument.

My advice would be to call up the monument ahead of time to get more details on what’s allowed just to be on the safe side.

Final word

Carrizo Plain National Monument is a unique place to visit. It offers some rare geological sights to check out and one of the most beautiful wildflower displays in the country when you can catch it at the right moment.