Carrizo Plain National Monument & Painted Rock (Part 1 of 2)

At one time there was a combined four-hundred miles of natural grassland in San Joaquin Valley and other nearby valleys. Since the “advancement” of white settlers in the region in the mid-1800s, those grasslands have been sacrificed for urban, agricultural, and industrial use. The Carrizo Plain National Monument holds the last of California’s natural grasslands. The Monument encompasses 250,000 acres of lands made up of both grasslands and Soda Lake, the largest remaining alkali wetland in Southern California.

The uniqueness of the Carrizo Plain offers a habitat for several species of endangered animals that otherwise may have ended up totally displaced if not for the action to preserve what little of their habitat remained. This includes the San Joaquin kit fox, the California condor, the giant kangaroo rat, the San Joaquin antelope squirrel, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, the longhorn fairy shrimp, and the vernal pool fairy shrimp. The plain is also the home of pronghorn antelope, and the tule elk.

A rich history of human habitation can also be traced to the Carrizo Plain, with the earliest inhabitants dating to the Paleo-Indian Period (11,000 – 9,000 B.C.). The Chumash, Salinan and Yokuts all make claim to the region. The earliest European travelers came in the late 1700s, with the first settlements taking place around 1850. The European settlers came for farming, ranching, and mining. Today nobody lives within the confines of the National Monument, however there is significant evidence which remains from all the cultures that once called this land home. Painted Rock is a prime example of the earliest people, it is often cited as “the most important rock painting in the United States”.

For several years it has been suggested that I visit Carrizo Plain National Monument, and in particular Painted Rock. I’ve often thought about it, however I’ve also been aware of the extensive vandalism that has taken place over the course of the last 100+ years,  destroying the most significant panels of pictographs.  The thought of seeing such a thing discouraged my interest, and kept me from actively pursuing a visit. It wasn’t until earlier this month when plans fell through to visit one of the Channel IsLands, that a friend and I decided to replace that trip with the Carrizo Plain.

We arrived late in the afternoon on a Friday, access to Painted Rock had just reopened the week prior, after the annual closure to protect nesting raptors. The first thing that we did upon arrival was head to Selby Campground to set up what would be our home-base for the next days. It was good to be out of the vehicle, I had driven that morning from Joshua Tree to Simi Valley, then Simi Valley to the monument. In total I had spent seven hours in the vehicle, a majority of which was fighting traffic on the series of highways running through the suburbs of Los Angeles.

We had our choice of camp sites. Selby was a ghost town, looking as if nobody had stepped foot there in months. All of the camp sites were overgrown, and unkempt. Sad considering the amount of work that had obviously been done in recent years,  each camp site having its own covered picnic table, fire ring, and water faucet. The campground also offered the classic NPS pit toilet, but no thanks, I’d rather dig a hole and bury it.

 

Southernmost portion of Selby Rocks.

Southernmost portion of Selby Rocks.

 

After getting camp set up and chugging a beer, there were still a few hours of daylight. We decided to venture off to the southern most Selby Rocks formation for our first excursion. Selby Rocks is a sandstone outcropping that runs north to south across the plain from Painted Rock. The southern most outcropping is situated below the campground. Selby Road provides easy drive up access to the site.  Trudging through the high grasses that surround the outcropping, I found myself constantly on the lookout for rattlesnakes. The evening hours being prime time for our slithering little friends, as they leave their shaded protection and go on the hunt for prey. (side note: Humans are not prey to rattlesnakes. They have no interest in humans, and would prefer to not interact with us. People get bitten by rattlesnakes because they feel threatened by our presence, either we step on them, almost step on them, then of course there are the idiots that decide to try to “play with them.”)

Walking along the southern Selby Rocks, it didn’t take long before finding extensive evidence of early man. The evidence here was mostly in the form of bedrock mortars, metates, and leeching pools. Essentially this outcropping was a prehistoric kitchen and food processing facility. It makes sense considering the unusual geologic properties of the sandstone, the natural pits and bowls had been utilized to ease the process of developing the essential tools necessary to sustain life. This was by no means a small kitchen, the number of food processing elements number close to one-hundred, making this the largest and most unique that I have encountered.

 

Five large mortars inside of naturally weathered sandstone.

Five large mortars inside of naturally weathered sandstone.

 

Close-up of a mortar inside of a natural recession in the sandstone.

Close-up of a mortar inside of a natural recession in the sandstone.

 

Inside each of the recessions seen in this photograph are man-made mortars.

Inside each of the recessions seen in this photograph are man-made mortars.

 

Due to recent rains in the region many of the natural pits and bowls were filled with stagnant water, known as vernal pools. These pools of water are teeming with life, most significantly the endangered Vernal pool fairy shrimp (Branchinecta lynchi). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service describes the Vernal pool fairy shrimp as translucent, slender crustaceans (relatives of lobsters, crabs, saltwater shrimp and barnacles). They are generally less than 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) in length, and swim on their backs by slowly moving their 11 pairs of swimming legs. They are unusual in that they use these same legs for breathing and feeding. They eat algae and plankton by scraping and straining them from surfaces within the vernal pool. They produce a gluey substance and mix it with their food before eating. Fairy shrimp are defenseless, and therefore occupy very temporary ponds, where aquatic vertebrate predators cannot survive.

Natural vernal pools.

Natural vernal pools.

 

Look closely to see the Vernal pool fairy shrimp.

Look closely to see the Vernal pool fairy shrimp.

 

They go on to say, the Vernal pool fairy shrimp typically hatches when the first rains of the year fill vernal pools. They mature in about 41 days under typical winter conditions. Adult fairy shrimp live only for a single season, while there is water in the pools. Toward the end of their brief lifetime, females produce thick-shelled “resting eggs” also known as cysts. During the summer, these cysts become embedded in the dried bottom mud, and during the winter, they are frozen for varying periods. These cysts hatch when the rains come again. In fact, it appears that prior freezing and/or drying seems to be necessary for the eggs to hatch.

Along with the kitchen and vernal pools we also managed to find traces of red pigment from pictographs in a small recession on a stand-alone sandstone formation. The pigment has become very faded from years of exposure to the element, making it difficult to decipher. The likeliness that additional pictographs had at one time adorned the southernmost Selby Rocks is great, however long gone.

Very faint pictographs at south Selby Rocks. I have enhanced this image to show the red pigment.

Very faint pictographs at south Selby Rocks. I have enhanced this image to show the red pigment.

 

Finishing up at Selby south, we decided to venture down through Selby Wash. Evidence of recent rains where highly evident by the significant amount of muddy pools in the wash. We followed a set of bobcat tracks through the wash, and into a section of narrows confined by sandstone. Comparatively to the other terrain in the region, the narrow slotish-like wash was out-of-place, but a stunning site. Above the wash we located another dozen or-so mortars ground into the bedrock.

Bedrock mortars above Selby Wash.

Bedrock mortars above Selby Wash.

 

One last stop for the day, the barn at Selby Ranch. But no sooner than we arrived, two Fish & Game Rangers pulled up and started snooping around my Jeep, looking in the windows, and into the back gate, which I had left open.  I didn’t appreciate their rudeness, so we walked back to the Jeep to see what was going on. The two female rangers appeared nice enough despite their line of questioning in regard to our activities in the area. Apparently it was bow season, and the rangers were on the lookout for illegal hunters. That is good and all, but I’m not appreciative of being questioned like I’m guilty of something that I’ve given no reason to be considered guilty of; unfortunately this has become the American way.

The barn at Selby Ranch.

The barn at Selby Ranch.

 

After our ranger encounter we returned to our campsite for the remainder of the evening. It was time for the obligatory outdoor meal of an assorted Mountain House freeze-dried meal. I know it sounds awful, but to be honest they are quite tasty. My favorites being the Beef Stroganoff, Chili Mac, and Lasagna with Meat Sauce. I highly recommend them for their ease of transportation, and preparation. You literally boil some water, dump it into the pouch, seal the pouch, wait ten minutes, and you have a full meal. After dinner, and a few beers it was time to hit the sack.

Sunset - overlooking the Carrizo Plain from Selby Campground

Sunset – overlooking the Carrizo Plain from Selby Campground

 

The big dipper and the Milky Way are clearly visible.

The big dipper and the Milky Way are clearly visible.

 

Enjoying the night around a campfire.

Enjoying the night around a campfire.

 

The morning came quickly for me, but not for my partner. His air mattress had popped overnight leaving him on the ground, and unable to sleep. He looked zombified, glossed over, and generally not “with it.” Unfortunately for him, we had a long day planned, which would take us to Painted Rock, and the remaining northern Selby Rocks.

Despite sleeping issues, we still managed an early start. As we passed the southern Selby Rocks, a western rattlesnake was waiting for us in the middle of the road. This was pretty much the exact area that we had been walking through the evening prior. Luckily I was able to miss him with the Jeep. We stopped and checked him out, and managed to move him off of the road and back into grasses. Seeing how he camouflaged with the grass, we realized just how careful we needed to be while traipsing across the plain.

A western rattlesnake relaxes in the middle of the road near Selby Rocks.

A western rattlesnake relaxes in the middle of the road near Selby Rocks.

 

Again on our way, we were soon again stopped in our tracks. Running across the plain were a herd of tule elk. We sat and watched them as they jolted across the plain, one right after the other. The herd was made up of a dozen or so cows, calfs, and spikes. The bull was massive, and took up the tail end of the frantic stampede. The sight of these creatures in the natural habitat was nothing short of majestic. When they went out sight, we moved on, only to see them again as they approached another herd on the plain. When the two herds met, the bulls clashed and locked horns with each other, a cloud of dust could be seen from a half mile away. They went on to fight for a couple of minutes while the other herd members mingled. Eventually the bulls settled, and the two herds joined as one, and run off together further across the plain.  So far this single event would make the entire trip memorable.

A herd of tule elk races across the plain.

A herd of tule elk races across the plain.

 

The fence line proved no problems for these elk. The bull of the herd can be seen at the rear.

The fence line proved no problems for these elk. The bull of the herd can be seen at the rear.

 

Another nearby herd waits.

Another nearby herd waits.

 

Finally arriving at the Painted Rock trailhead, we made final last-minute adjustments to our daypacks, and began the half-mile excursion across the old ranch road to the horse-shoe shaped alcove that we had only read about and seen in photographs. Entering the alcove, and approaching the pictograph panels, my heart sunk.

CONTINUE TO PART 2

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

  • LAEVE

    Thanks for the great article about this little known area. I’ve driven near there but never stopped.

    Years ago, I was at an International Right of Way conference in San Diego.

    We took a bus trip to northern San Diego County to view the vernal pools and fairy shrimp. Didn’t see any and most of us on the trip wondered if we’d ever see any.

    Well, finally, I have seen the vernal pool fairy shrimp.

    Yeah!