Wildflowers 2017 – More than a Superbloom at the Carrizo Plain

Having spent a good amount of time alone in the wilderness, I relish the chance to connect with nature without distractions. But this time, this year’s Superbloom, was a time to share nature’s connections with others. The people we met and the conversations we had with so many who were inspired by the millions of native plants smiling in flowers across the landscape, reminded us that together we can both enjoy and protect the wild that is left in this world.

Our first adventure experiencing the Superbloom was on the Carrizo Plain, a lonely valley bordered by the coastal range to the west (adjacent to San Luis Obispo), and the Tremblor Range to the east (which slowly descends into the San Joaquin Valley and the little oil town of Taft).

Here is a small taste of the flavors we enjoyed.


Phacelia lake II

The wild of the Carrizo, however, was not easy to protect, as evidenced by past tragedy documented in an excellent article by Matt Kettmann.

Soon after the monument was created in 2001 (by President Clinton), 13-year BLM veteran Marlene Braun was named manager. Having been stationed in Alaska and Nevada, the workaholic Braun finally felt at home on the Carrizo, and took intense pride in protecting it. She scaled back grazing on sensitive grasslands and began developing the monument’s first management plan, which would phase out long-term livestock permits. Every agency signed on, even the BLM’s California office. Then, in March 2004, the Bush administration—which was critical of Clinton’s last-minute monument designations—appointed Ron Huntsinger as Braun’s supervisor in BLM’s Bakersfield field office. With marching orders to favor ranching over preservation and “fix this plan,” Huntsinger and Braun became immediate enemies. The two butted heads repeatedly, so much so that in May 2005, Braun—who had also been dealing with her own psychological demons—arranged her personal affairs and wrote a few important letters about her fears for the Carrizo. She then took a .38 caliber revolver, killed her two dogs—neatly placing their bodies under a quilt—and turned the gun on herself.

Braun’s suicide shocked the region, resulted in a federal investigation, and eventually led to Huntsinger’s transfer. The management plan was the fourth casualty. “The whole process imploded. It collapsed,” explained Neil Havlik, who was named to the monument’s advisory committee when it was created in 2002. “It was finally decided that the process should start all over again.”

The full story can be found here:

And the fight continues to protect this natural jewel as the current administration in Washington DC is now questioning the continued existence of the Carrizo Plain National Monument.

Wildlfowers Carrizo Plain
Lake Phacelia, populated with purple smiles. Yet one variation speaks out in the lower left – the stuff of evolution and a metaphor for the what is required to protect the Plain.
– Great Valley phacelia (Phacelia ciliata).
Close-up of the divergent character.
– Great Valley phacelia (Phacelia ciliata).


California native plant botanists. They must know something.
– Baby blue-eyes (Nemophila menziesii).
– Baby (very) blue-eyes (Nemophila menziesii).

For the complete plant list of the Carrizo Plain, try the official BLM list:


Soda Lake. One of the rare times it is actually a lake!
The rocks of the Plain. This outcrop of cross-bedded marine sandstone was laid down during the Early Miocene (about 20 million years old).
The Carrizo Plain looking north from the Caliente Range. Painted Rock, a sacred Chumash rock painting site, is the rock outcropping in left-background. Soda Lake is in the mid-background.
Massive sea of yellow with splashes of green in the Caliente Range.
Solar energy being collected by nature and technology.

Regarding the solar panels on the Plain, Neil Havlik explains,

When several proposals for solar power facilities in the Carrizo Plain area of eastern San Luis Obispo County, California, became publicly known in 2009, those proposals raised many questions. How big would they be? How would they be managed? What would be the environmental and social impacts of their creation? Would they be a benefit to the community or a detriment?

Overall, in the view of this one observer, the solar facilities have been a significant benefit to the Carrizo Plain. There are several reasons for this.

The public debate over the solar facilities was lively and lengthy. It included the imposition of more than 125 conditions of approval, ranging from environmental mitigations to bus-pooling for workers (more than 1,000 at the peak of construction) to reduce impacts on traffic. Many of the environmental conditions were enhanced by the settlement of litigation that followed the County’s approval of the projects. The result has been the creation of a second cohort of conserved lands second only in size to Carrizo Plain National Monument itself, together with renewed interest in continued expansion of those lands…

The full article can be found here:

The one bird that defines wide, open landscapes, it is the Western Meadowlark. This one appears to suddenly realize he has been caught singing flowers!


The colors as they were. Some of the photos of the Plain’s wildflowers that are going viral on the internet have suffered a bit of Photoshop over-exuberance.

Fellow nature photographers getting ready on the ridge to catch the late afternoon sun as it streaks across Colour Mountain.
Colour Mountain! This was one of the most photographed scenes on the Plain. The watercolor palate of native wildflower colors, the purple, the orange, the yellow, the blue, was stunning. In the foreground are crowds of yellow common hillside daisies (Monolopia lanceolata) and a few purple wild hyacinths (Dichelostemma capitatum), all waving in the wind.
Just a little closer!
The canyon to the right of Colour Mountain.
Monet was here.
When leaving Colour Mountain, don’t forget to look back! The white-colored snake’s head (Malacothrix coulteri) decorates the foreground.

And another mountain nearby.

The further south one drives along Elkhorn Road, the colors just keep coming.
What many thought were California poppies splashing oranges across the landscape (as seen in the above photos), were usually these little gems, the San Joaquin blazingstar (Mentzelia pectinata).


The Plain’s version of Half Dome with Parry’s mallow (Eremalche parryi) in the foreground.
The Carrizo Half Dome close up.
Desert candles (Caulanthus inflatus) punch up through the sandstone soils.
A bouquet of California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), blue chia (Salvia columbariae), and the white Fremont’s pincushion (Chaenactis fremontii).
In a field of daisies (Monolopia lanceolata).
Booth’s Evening Primrose (Eremothera boothii).

A lonely Californian juniper
(Juniperus californica) guarding the Tremblor Range.


Everywhere, awash in color! The pink swash on the right is filled with the drying seed cases of shiny pepper grass (Lepidium nitidum).
The valley floor was filled with yellow common hillside daisies (Monolopia lanceolata).
Orange San Joaquin blazingstars (Mentzelia pectinata), yellow common hillside daisies (Monolopia lanceolata), Great Valley phacelia (Phacelia ciliata), with a lupine and maybe a white snake’s head thrown into the mix!


So much to learn from the rocks.

“A great earthquake shook the mountains, ripping a deep gash through the rock formations…”
– Spanish travelers describing the 1857 earthquake in the Carrizo Plain; from “The Legend of Los Temblores,” in Cuentos, by Angus MacLean.

A guide to Wallace Creek geology can be found here:

The San Andreas Fault at Wallace Creek. The Pacific Plate has been moving north relative to the spot where this photo was taken on the North American Plate, moving the creek with it. At this particular spot, the fault has moved about 420 feet over the past 3,800 years.


We searched and searched for a glimpse of a pronghorn, but no luck. We did, however, capture a few of the Plain’s other attractive denizens. To read more about these amazing antelopes (plus the Plain), see Jack Elliot’s blog here:

The classic open space bird singing full tilt, the Horned Lark!
Walk slowly on the trails and you will often have a companion. Taking one last look at me before leaping into squirrel burrow, the common side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana).
A jackrabbit taking a pause before jumping over the hill.
Savanna Sparrow.
The curious California Thrasher peering from its perch.
Long-billed Curlews flying under the radar.
Bee friends swarming!


On the way out of the Plain, we took Hurricane Road to the little oil town of Taft (go to Ruby’s Grill in town for lunch!). While the maps make the road look like it requires 4-wheel-drive, not so, at least when it’s dry.

A canyon filled with wildflowers!
Creamcups (Platystemon californicus).
On the way down to Taft, just a few more colors.
A single silver bush lupine (Lupinus albifrons) decorates the foreground along the side of twisting Hurricane Road.


Flower Child – The photographer’s assistant.

14 Comments on “Wildflowers 2017 – More than a Superbloom at the Carrizo Plain

  1. Absolutely stunning photography…these photos and comments should be bound into a book! I learned a great deal from your quoted sections from other sources, as well as your photo labels.

  2. Really nice photos Rick! You made it to places and saw colors I did not see on my kind of abbreviated trip to Carrizo last week.

    Billy dog came along for the ride, and had a pretty good time. There were a lot of ground squirrel burrows to inspect, and that kept him pretty busy. Only later did I recognize that he was also implementing an exotic weed control program. I presume Erodium populations will crash at Carrizo next year, because back home I combed from Billy’s luxuriant fur what appears to be most of this year’s entire seed output. We saw grey fox and mule deer along the road on the way home. I love California’s native landscapes!

  3. Visited Carrizo last weekend and a friend shared this post — was beautiful to see it from another’s perspective!

  4. THANK YOU for sharing this magnificence of Nature with us. Thank you for taking the time to post the photos and write up the very informative accompanying text.
    Thank you for sharing your love and passion for Nature especially when she abundantly displays all her beauty. The year is one of those very special years.

  5. I wouldn’t want to be there for the Big One. Actually, it might be the best place to be for the Big One, especially during a bloom like this. And no three story buildings. I would position myself on the Pacific plate and waive good-bye to the North American. Looks better than Anza Borrego and no 3 hour traffic gridlock or rude wait staff. Beautiful, I wish I would have made it up.

  6. Beautifully presented article & gorgeous photography. Thank you SO much for all your work- the assistant did a fine job !

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