A California Spring

April 08, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

A couple weeks ago, Lisa and I flew down to Los Angeles to visit her family in Ventura. After spending a few days with her cousins, we said good-bye and set off on a drive up the state to San Jose, where we'd be flying back to Seattle in a couple of days.

Entering the National MonumentEntering the National Monument Our original plan had been to drive up the coastal highway, however, all the recent rain had thwarted that plan; washed-out bridges and landslides had closed a huge section of the road to tourists. So instead we decided to drive up the interior of the state and visit the Carrizo Plain.

The Carrizo Plain is a long, wide valley through the mountain ranges of Central California which follows the San Andreas Fault. And in late March-- particularly late March, 2017 after a very wet winter-- the grass is green and the entire landscape turns purple and yellow with wildflowers.

From the town of Maricopa, it's a long, open, and empty drive through the Carrizo Plain National Monument, interrupted only occasionally by a historic marker or an old ranch. In the middle, there's a lone Visitor Center, with not much there except a small souvenir shop and some informational displays. From the Visitor Center, you can see Painted Rock in the distance, a prominent rock formation which is still used for ceremonies by the Native Americans of the area. It's off-limits to tourists except during guided tours, but those weren't available this time of year anyway, so we kept driving. Soda Lake and wildflowersSoda Lake and wildflowers

We drove for a time past Soda Lake, which most months of the year is a dry lake bed. Thanks to all the recent rain, it wasn't actually dry, and it and another nearby lake bed stretched on for miles like a huge mirror lying across the plain.

At one point we stopped at a short hiking trail and visited Wallace Creek, running downhill from the mountains and into the valley, and which is bisected by the San Andreas Fault. Wallace Creek, turned into a Z from fault activityWallace Creek, turned into a Z from fault activity Over the past 3700 years the movement of the fault has turned the straight creek bed into a Z-shape, so the downhill part of the creek is about 425 feet north of the uphill part.

Driving north from there, we kept following the plain away from the National Monument and into the emptiness of countless open pastures, occasionally driving by a herd of cows or a small cluster of ranch buildings, but all in all, it was some of the most remote driving I've ever done. The highway running through the emptinessThe highway running through the emptiness

We didn't pass a single gas station or store for many miles, until we found ourselves crossing the San Andreas fault again, marked by a tiny creek along the valley floor. And just down the road lay the tiny town of Parkfield (population 18), the earthquake capital of California.

There was a little cafe, lodge, and town park there, but very little else. After a look North American Plate to the left, Pacific Plate to the rightNorth American Plate to the left, Pacific Plate to the right around the town, we pressed on. The road got narrower and turned to gravel, and at a couple points we had to pull off the road to let a tractor drive by. One point-- several miles after the paved road had turned to gravel, and as we were winding our way up into some hills-- we were stopped by a farmer in a bulldozer, his dogs running alongside him. He warned us about a boggy section of road near the top of the mountain we were going up. We were in a rented SUV, but it wasn't four-wheel drive, and we weren't sure if we'd be able to make it, but since turning around would mean driving many miles to the nearest cross-street and finding a way around, we decided to  View across Central CaliforniaView across Central California keep going and see for ourselves.

Luckily, the boggy patch didn't turn out to be too bad, and after a series of increasingly spectacular views, we crested the ridge and continued our journey through the emptiness of central California. Several miles further, at the next crossroad, we decided we'd had enough of the emptiness and drove out of the valley, heading west until we rejoined Highway 101. We spent the night in the little town of King City, which wasn't far from our destination for the next morning: Pinnacles National Park. Trail leading up to the Pinnacles OverlookTrail leading up to the Pinnacles Overlook

Pinnacles National Park is an eroded remnant of an old volcano that once sat along the San Andreas Fault and was basically ripped in half by fault activity; the pinnacles are the remnants of the Western half of the volcano. The fault is now many miles away, but the Pinnacles remain, and are a spectacular feature of the natural landscape. They're home to many species of birds, including the California Condor, and have a lot of caves in the area as well, which are home to bats and other wildlife.

Lizard in the grassLizard in the grass We only had a couple hours to spend at the Pinnacles before we had to head up to San Jose to catch an afternoon flight, so we hiked a mile up a trail that rose straight into the heart of the Pinnacles, to an overlook surrounded by rocky spires. Turkey vultures and hawks soared overhead-- we didn't see any condors, sadly.

On the way out we stopped at an old river bed on the way out, where the fault line used to run a long, long time ago. Now it was full of wildflowers and lizards, and a creek meandering its way downhill from the Pinnacles still visible in the distance.

Flying over SeattleFlying over Seattle From there we pretty much drove straight into San Jose, with one final long stretch of scenic green pastures before we began to see civilization again. We returned the car, caught our plane without incident and headed home. When we reached Seattle, we got some nice views as the plane did a long slow circle above the city in order to approach the airport from the North for landing. It's nice to be home, but I do miss the California sun and the summery fields of wildflowers.


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