Look longer, appreciate more at remote Carrizo Plain National Monument

The little town of Santa Margarita displays a billboard that proclaims it as “The Gateway to Carrizo Plain National Monument.” A road sign nearby also offers a warning about the zone drivers will soon enter: “Next services, 82 miles.”

Carrizo is truly the desert primeval, an expanse of sun-bleached soil and wind-sculpted rocks. Forty years ago, after riding a motorcycle all night from Las Vegas, I threw my sleeping bag down here, awoke at dawn, judged this place barren and ugly, then fled. I’m older now, a little smarter, and willing to state how wrong I was. It’s not only beautiful, but precious.

Tucked into the southwest corner of the San Joaquin Valley, this national monument, declared in 2001, saves and celebrates a small percentage of a sere natural landscape that used to be widespread across the region. As such, it provides a last paw-hold for endangered kit foxes and giant kangaroo rats, holy sites for indigenous American tribes, and respite from the turmoil of modern life for any visitor.

“People sometimes ask, how do I stand being way out here in the middle of nowhere?” says Jackie Czapla, who staffs the monument’s tiny visitor center four days a week. “Easy. Because I just love it.”

Admittedly, the big swing from winter single-digit temperatures to summers that leap up into triple digits is jolting. But she has treasured such sights as the preserve’s pronghorn antelope frolicking around her while she rides her horse, or a bobcat mom taking her new kittens to a water source.

At 250,000 acres (nearly 10 times the size of Pinnacles National Park) Carrizo Plain might be the largest preserve most Californians haven’t heard of, though it boasts remarkable geologic features of its own. A pair of them draw a visitor’s gaze right away. The first is Soda Lake, a 5-mile-long dry alkaline sink shimmering in the sun, providing a white dance floor where pale dust-devils often waltz on a hot afternoon. The second is a low, knobby ridge on the valley floor, one of the places where the mighty San Andreas Fault’s gift for torturing a landscape has grown starkly apparent.

That latter feature helped build the former. Tectonic uplift turned Soda Lake from a river into a sump with no outlet, one that now evaporates all inflows, leaving behind a huge bleached crust of sodium sulfate and sodium carbonate. Early in the 20th century, this stuff was harvested to make detergents. But that industry, like others attempted in the harsh valley, including wheat farming and cattle ranching, faded from the scene.

Even so, once in a while this desert truly blooms. It takes a robust autumn rain to set up a wildflower eruption, and a late February rain to pull the trigger. If that occurs, the valley explodes into a broad yellow band of goldfields, set with the bright sparks of purple owl clover, chaparral nightshade, redmaids and desert mallow. At that point, the hotlines and websites for wildflower buffs will start to buzz like avid bumblebees, and Czapla sees her usual trickle of tourists to the visitor center swell to a stream of hundreds per day.

A wet year also fills up Soda Lake, drawing migratory birds such as sandhill cranes. When there were more wheat farms in the area, these cranes would feed on grain by day, roost in the lake shallows by night. Now, there aren’t so many farms – ones that raise wheat, that is. Fields north of the preserve have been taken over by the immense obsidian swaths of industrial solar farms. These have tried to mitigate their operations by designating additional land areas for the further enhancement of wildlife values.

In the Carrizo Plain monument proper, natural conditions steadily reassert themselves, encouraged by the lead agency here, the federal Bureau of Land Management and its partners, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy, the latter of which guided the initial push to launch this preserve in the 1980s, when it was feared that oil drilling might despoil the entire landscape. A subsequent reintroduction of pronghorn and tule elk to the foothills and canyons by Fish and Wildlife has gone well, though a succession of dry years has scattered the animals out far beyond the monument’s official boundaries.

Within its borders, on the valley floor and amid the dramatic sandstone outcrops, the giant kangaroo rats are free to dig their burrows and stack their traditional circles of drying grass seeds, the antelope squirrels can curl their white tails over their backs like sun parasols, and the kit foxes can do their level best to turn both groups into lunch. Visiting songbirds splash in the tenajas (water puddles cradled by the rocks); ravens soar, perch and croak; a broad variety of hawks and owls stoop on unwary prey; and even golden eagles cruise by.

Despite the billboard at Santa Margarita (on the west side of the junction of highways 101 and 58), other towns, too, serve as gateways to Carrizo: Bakersfield lies eastward, across the Temblor Mountains (at the junction of Highways 58 and 99). And Maricopa (on Highway 166), provides the nearest set of full services and motels 11 miles from the monument’s southern boundary. Santa Margarita is 50 miles and Bakersfield is 70 miles from Carrizo.

Drivers from the Bay Area or Sacramento areas heading to Los Angeles or San Diego can break up that long trip down I-5 by indulging in a visit. This monument has two small, free campgrounds, spartan yet tidy.

The valley floor is crossed by dirt roads with signs that say “Rough Road,” and “Impassable During Wet Weather” – and not as a joke. These driving routes in favorable weather and the relatively open hiking possibilities (mostly in hills of the Caliente Range to the west) make it possible to wander the rumpled landscape largely at will.

A big exception to this is Painted Rock, a magical, curved outcrop nestled close to the Caliente hills. It’s sacred to the Chumash tribes, whose traditional realm extends west to Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands, and the Yokuts tribes, whose territory sprawls to the east. Because of cultural sensitivity, and birds nesting among the rocks mid-March through May, visitors may only go there on Saturday tours with a BLM guide.

On a recent Saturday, guide Sara Balmuch, 22, a BLM intern with a degree in archaeology, spoke on the history of the 3,000-year-old rock drawings, showed us samples of the red, black and white pigments used to make them, and led us on a hike to the rounded fortress of sandstone, where the ancient art glowed softly in desert light.

On our walk back out, I asked Balmuch, who’d been living and working in the monument for just three weeks, about her overall impressions.

“It’s hard to handle all this emptiness when you first arrive,” she said. “The sheer scale makes it hard to take in. But there’s a saying about Carrizo that’s totally right: The more you look, the more you see. You calm down, you settle in. And then you start to get it.”