Carrizo Plain National Monument – Nature, archaeology and geology come together

A sign for carriz plain national monument in the desert.

Carrizo Plain National Monument

The Carrizo Plain National Monument is found on the far eastern edge of Central California in San Luis Obispo County. Unlike the area’s beaches and oak studded hills, the Carrizo Plains might seem to be a desolate wasteland, void of anything of interest. However, there is an abundance of life here if you look closer, and the time of year when you visit is important. Springtime rewards you with wildflower displays to the horizon. Native American pictographs can be seen at the Painted Rock and this is one of the best places to see the San Andreas Fault and the effects it has on the land.

The sunrise over Soda Lake on the Carrizo Plains in Central California

Sunrise over the Carrizo Plain

The Carrizo Plain National Monument is another of those little-known treasures of Central California, much like the Pinnacles National Park further to the north. It encompasses over 385 square miles.You might think that a place like this is uninteresting: No trees grow here. It averages 6 inches of rain each year, mainly in the winter. There is a lake that is dried salt most of the year. It is a “plain” so it’s mainly flat. But it is the largest remaining native grassland in California; there are Native American petroglyphs at the Painted Rock site on the plain; the area is awash in wildflowers following good winters and the trace of the San Andreas Fault is plainly seen as it passes through the area.

Physical relief map of the Carrizo Plains National Monument

Carrizo Plain National Monument Quick Facts:

Address: Eastern San Luis Obispo County; bounded by Highways 58 (north), 166 (south) and 33 (east).

GPS Coordinates: 35.18970, -119.86452 (Goodwin Educational Center, monument visitor center). The center is open seasonally from the beginning of December to the end of May.

Organization: Bureau of Land Management and The Nature Conservancy

Visiting Painted Rock: Permit information can be found here.

Contact: Goodwin Education Center, Phone: (805) 475-2131
Open: December 1 – May 31. Hours: 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., Th. – Su.

BLM Bakersfield Office (open year round): Phone: (661) 391-6000

Springtime view of the boardwalk on the edge of Soda Lake, Carrizo PlainsA springtime view of the boardwalk along Soda Lake

Summertime at Soda Lake - a view of the dried salts

The salt crust of Soda Lake

The Carrizo Plain is a basin, meaning that all the drainage from the surrounding hills empties into Soda Lake and remains there. In a river system, salts leached from the soil are diluted and carried away, eventually reaching the ocean.

Here, with no outlet, the salts accumulate year after year forming this interesting lake. By the summer, any water has evaporated leaving the crust shown above.

Brine shrimp, also known as fairy shrimp, thrive here and in other hypersaline lakes. Their eggs survive the summer drying and hatch when winter rains fill the lake.

Purple wildflowers in the Carrizo Plain NM2016 wildflowers on the Carrizo Plain

Wildflowers on the floor of the Carrizo PlainsA little rainfall goes a long way here – beautiful wildflower displays in the Spring of 2010

Beautiful wildflowers on the hillsides surrounding the Carrizo PlainsAs if gigantic buckets of paint have been spilled down the hillsides. A beautiful photo and even more breathtaking in person.

During years with good winter rainfall, the Carrizo Plain National Monument comes alive with gorgeous displays of wildflowers. Poppies, lupines, goldfields, fiddleneck and many other varieties of flowers awake from the seemingly barren soil and delight the eye.

Pronghorn Antelope can be seen often here and in the surrounding countryside

Pronghorn Antelope, very fast runners

Owls, ground squirrels, kit fox and antelope are among the varied wildlife that might be spotted when visiting the Carrizo Plain National Monument.

Aerial view of the Painted Rock on the Carrizo Plain

An aerial view of the Painted Rock showing the texture of the sandstone

Some of the many Native American pictographs on the Painted Rock, Carrizo Plains

Some of the pictographs that are found both on the interior and exterior of the Painted Rock. These were done by Native


An antique hay rake

An old, abandoned farm implement that comprises a more recent part of the heritage of the Carrizo Plain.

The Painted Rock is an imposing structure that seems to arise out of the valley floor. Native Americans visited here and painted pictographs or petroglyphs on the rock for reasons still not deciphered. This was an area of overlap of the Chumash, Salinan and Yokut tribes. It bears some similarity to the pictographs that can be found in the hills above Santa Barbara in the Painted Cave.

Much later settlers to the area found the land to be suitable (at least when there were good rains) for dryland grain farming. The wheat or barley was harvested by some fairly complex machinery for the times and then cattle or sheep were grazed on the remaining stubble.

There is a fine display of period farm equipment available for viewing at the Traver Ranch, 18 miles south of the Goodwin Center. (35.058029, -119.608001)

Aerial View of the San Andreas Fault on the Carrizo Plains

The barrenness of the landscape allows visitors and geologists easy access to view the trace of the San Andreas Fault as it passes through the Carrizo Plain.

The offset of Wallace Creek caused by the San Andreas Fault

Wallace Creek

This “Z” shaped alignment of Wallace creek shown above, has been caused by the shifting of the San Andreas Fault. The closest portion is the creek exiting the hills; the middle portion is the trace of the fault itself and the upper portion is the creek bed as it heads to the valley floor. The right side of the fault is the North American plate and the left side is the Pacific plate.

Solar panels at the California Valley Solar Ranch in the Carrizo Plain

Some of the solar arrays at the California Valley Solar Ranch which is located north of the National Monument. This installation provides 250 megawatts of power. –>

More pictographs from the Painted Rock in Carrizo Plain

Native American pictograph


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