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ADV RidesCarrizo Plain: One Of California’s Often Overlooked ADV Destinations

Carrizo Plain: One Of California’s Often Overlooked ADV Destinations

 This hidden gem in California’s coastal range is a must-do ADV ride.

Published on 06.04.2020

Early explorers did not have it easy, compared to us in the present day. All things are relative of course, but it was once considered the norm that crossing a largely unexplored country was done at the speed of horseback, while having to simply know where to find food and water along the way, and often under threat of attack from both outside forces and internal strife. Today, roadside gift shops sell “I pee outside” t-shirts as a badge of honor, and “you will have to s*** in the woods” can appear in the list of hardships one will have to deal with during an “overland” outing. Starvation, versus defecation without porcelain. The trials and tribulations of travel have tamed over time.

Today, we have almost obscenely overpowered and overly capable adventure motorcycles which can take a rider virtually anywhere they can imagine with relative ease. In an inferior nod to a more difficult time, I decided to take a more difficult path to Carrizo Plain, and found it might have actually been the easier way. Along with two friends aboard a 2006 KTM 950 Adventure S and 2019 KTM 790 Adventure R, I boarded a 2019 Royal Enfield Himalayan for the 1,059 mile trek. While “adventure” is not in the bike’s name, it is in the bike’s simple and effective design. Southern California superslabs, twisty mountain roads, moderately paved and entirely unpaved backroads, and torn up sand washes would put the 410cc single-cylinder machine through its paces over this four day journey.

A Royal Enfield Himalayan at the Carrizo Plain National Monument.

Imagine what the United States was like 300 years ago. It should be relatively easy to do – simply erase all traces of infrastructure from your mind. Although, roaming through the middle of a dense and endlessly expansive megalopolis like Los Angeles, this is harder to picture. Yet a mere two and a half hours north of LA lies the Carrizo Plain National Monument, where you can roll the clock back 300 years, or more, and learn what silence truly sounds like.

Riding a Royal Enfield Himalayan to the Carrizo Plain National Monument.

Chasing down a 1200cc Harley-Davidson in the twisty curves of Highway 33 leaving Ojai, the Enfield proves itself to be a fun rider training machine. Massively limited power by comparison to the rabbiting Harley just ahead, the Enfield’s throttle must remain pinned almost the entire time to keep up, while speeds are regulated by lean angle and tire bite scrubbing things down through turns. Low ride height means pegs scraping are a common occurrence however, so you need to keep those feet back a bit to prevent boots ending up shaved down like a long wingtip brogue.


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Taking a long, scenic detour along Lockwood Valley Road to Frazier Park and then over Pine Mountain, brings us back to Highway 33 a short distance from where Soda Lake Road enters the Carrizo Plain. Extremely little infrastructure exists in the Carrizo Plain. A trip here means bringing everything one might need, for the entire time they plan on visiting. Once veering off Soda Lake Road and into the open lands on either side, the only evidence of human involvement in this land is the rare sign and occasional gate. The “pack it in, pack it out” philosophy is well-respected here, and this environment has not suffered the same fate as many Western deserts have, with shot up televisions and poorly maintained campsite remnants often visible.

KTM 950 Adventure S and KTM 790 Adventure R at the Carrizo Plain National Monument.
Carrizo Plain abandoned tractor

While the chaos of early 2020 saw nearly all public facilities in California and elsewhere closed due to concerns of viral contagion, remote BLM lands remained largely unaffected. For the motorcycle adventure traveler, the “distancing” model fits what is actually standard procedure. A capable adventure bike can easily find more remote, and often more picturesque settings far from established campsites or designated viewpoints. Such was the case as we entered Carrizo Plain. Along a remote stretch of Soda Lake Road, the backside of a small sign caught my eye. Simply reading “Pipeline Road,” it was enough to encourage a departure from the main road through the plain to see what lay in the hills beyond.

Motorcycle camping in the Carrizo Plain National Monument
We found a wild camping option in the foothills with superb view of the valley floor below. For a more refined camping experience, Selby Campground offers water, bathrooms, picnic benches, and fire rings, free of charge.

Spotting a makeshift sign attached to an equally dubious fencepost initially inspired concern of some form of closure, however on closer inspection the “pack it in, pack it out” message was again underscored. Responsible travel being encouraged, is encouraging. We pressed on further into the remoteness. The rutted out fire road became a faint, grassy two track path, and eventually ceased altogether at the edge of a slowly descending valley. Cell Phone service had ceased long before the path had, and we set up camp in the huge emptiness.

Views of massive rolling hills are roughly organized into two distinct mountain ranges – the Calientes and the Temblors. At 5,106 feet, Caliente Mountain is San Luis Obispo County’s highest point, but the Temblor range holds the key to this region’s fame. While peaks in this range average 3,500 feet, and the tallest point is only 4,332 feet at McKittrick Summit, perhaps the most notable and defining feature of the Carrizo Plain lies along the valley floor at the base of these mountains.

Ripping a path more than 800 miles through California all the way from the Gulf of California to San Francisco Bay, the San Andreas Fault is an ominous and clearly visible reminder of the dynamic and chaotic planet we live on. Rather than an unseen earthquake fault which is felt, and heard about on the news, the San Andreas is a massively visible scar created by the North Pacific Continental Plate sliding past the North American Continental Plate on its slow journey northward. Progress of this geological trek is only around 1.5-2.5 inches per year normally, but the occasional tectonic sprint takes place, resulting in passes as much as 21 feet such as during the 1906 earthquake.

San Andreas Fault at the Carrizo Plain
Clear evidence of the San Andreas Fault line can be seen in this aerial photo of Carrizo Plain (Photo by John Wiley)

An unusually wet winter, combined with ideal spring temperatures has resulted in lush, green landscapes teeming with life. Among the wide variety of mammals, birds, and reptiles that populate the Carrizo Plain, the pronghorn antelope is among those which stand out. Often cited as the second fastest land animal on earth, the pronghorn can achieve peak running speeds as high as 55 miles per hour. While the African cheetah takes the win for top speed, the pronghorn can sustain its high speeds for a longer duration than the cheetah. Where cheetah and Thompson’s gazelle dart around the Serengeti, these pronghorn “speed goats” will outrun anything on the Carrizo Plain, likely part of what inspires the area’s nickname of “California’s Serengeti”.

Just when you think you’re getting good at this off-road thing, a group of wild pronghorn antelope shows you how it’s done.
A herd of pronghorn antelope at Carrizo Plain

Towards the northern end of the plain, the normally dry 3,000 acre Soda Lake is among the most unique and distinguishing features of the area. The aforementioned wet winter has transformed the vast expanse of brilliant white mineral deposits into a deep blue, surrounded by an endless carpet of green, highlighted with patches of multicolored wildflowers.

Wildflower bloom at the Carrizo Plain National Monument.
In years when there are heavy rains in the fall, spectacular blooms of colorful wildflowers appear on the Carrizo Plain.

As one of the largest undisturbed alkali wetlands in California, thousands of sandhill cranes flock here. The seasonal waters also support both brine and fairy shrimp. Lacking any natural outfall, this water will eventually evaporate, and the recognizable blanket of brilliant white will again dominate this portion of the plain. In the dry season, you can watch large dust devils dance on Soda Lake.

Soda Lake in Winter in the Carrizo Plain
A dry portion of Soda Lake.
In the dry season you can watch dust devils dance on the fine white powdery surface of Soda Lake.

In stark contrast to the rest of the San Joaquin Valley ecosystem, the Carrizo Plain remains almost entirely undeveloped. Human history in the plain dates back thousands of years, yet attempts at settlement and modernization never quite took hold. Native Americans such as the Chumash, Yokuts, and others hunted and traded here. Painted Rock, on the southwest side of Carrizo Plain, is one of the most significant examples of Native American rock painting in California.

Morteros at the Carrizo Plain
Painted Rock Native American Pictogrpahs.
Evidence of human activity on the Carrizo Plain dates back many thousands of years. Native Americans began leaving pictographs at Painted Rock as far back as 2000 BC (Photo by Michael L. Baird).

In modern times, pioneers and speculators began acquiring parcels and settling in the Carrizo Plain after California achieved statehood in 1850. At first, these early settlers focused primarily on sheep and cattle ranching. In the late 1800’s, dryland grain farming began developing in the plain, and large-scale mechanized farming later came in 1912.

Rolling green hills at the Carrizo Plain

Evidence of these farming efforts remains today, scattered sparsely throughout the plain in the form of old dwellings, abandoned equipment, and collapsing infrastructure. The L.E. Traver ranch is possibly the most complete and notable example. In the 1940’s the Traver family purchased approximately 800 acres and began farming primarily wheat and barley. Examples of the farm implements used are on display just off Soda Lake Road, next to the large block house they constructed. Due to limited and unpredictable rainfall in the area, farms struggled to eke out a living on the land and eventually all efforts were abandoned around the middle of the 20th century.

Tarver Ranch Carrizo Plain
Old wooden harvesters at the Carrizo Plain National Monument.
Old harvesters like these were cumbersome machines to operate, requiring a crew of up to 10 men. Early harvesters were pulled by a team of twenty-six horses or mules.

Vanished indigenous peoples, short-lived industrial farming efforts, and mountain ranges named after the sensation of feeling the earth shake. All these things speak to the volatility and dynamic nature of the Carrizo Plain. Experiencing the thick tranquility this land offers can perhaps hide the ticking geological time bomb which divides the plain in two. 

Riding in the San Andreas Fault.

Standing in the gap created by a disagreement between continental plates is a chasm of reminder, swept under the rug of the desert, well out of sight for the 40 million residents of California. We can build all we like, yet nature can rip the planet in two any moment she pleases. For the time being, the Carrizo Plain remains the largest native grassland still undeveloped in California. Empty and undisturbed, a visit here reveals just how full emptiness can be.

You can get a detailed map and guide to the Carrizo Plain National Monument on the BLM website.

Photos by Jon Beck and Rob Dabney

Author: Jon Beck

Jon Beck is fulfilling a dream of never figuring out what to be when he grows up. Racing mountain bikes, competitive surfing, and touring as a musician are somehow part of what led Jon to travel through over 40 countries so far as an adventure motorcycle photographer, journalist, and guide. From precision riding for cameras in Hollywood, to refilling a fountain pen for travel stories, Jon brings a rare blend of experience to the table. While he seems happiest when lost in a desert someplace, deadlines are met most of the time.

Author: Jon Beck
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13 thoughts on “Carrizo Plain: One Of California’s Often Overlooked ADV Destinations

  1. What an awesome area! Those flowers… God’s painting! KTM 790 Adventure R country! 100 mph stretches anyone?

  2. The carrizo plain is a national monument and recently became an ecological reserve and is now closed to motorized vehicles. ADV pulse should strive to not mislead it’s readers and tell them how great it is to ride in protected or otherwise closed areas.

    • That is false. I ride there all the time. In fact, according to the BLM Carrizo Plain information hotline, the roads inside the park are open. Motorized vehicles can travel on designated routes and no new restrictions have been put in place. The two campsites recently reopened and dispersed camping is also allowed in certain areas. The only thing closed is the visitor center (due to COVID-19).

      • agreed, and tracks aren’t needed as it is a valley with side routes everywhere. Go out and explore, its impossible to get lost

  3. I use the Carrizo Plains as part of my off road route between L.A. proper and San Francisco. The CPs are the migration area of the endangered and nearly extinct California Tule Elk, once totaling in the high thousands and as low as the hundreds, and is also deemed a natural preserve for them. It was a popular hunting ground for wealthy big game hunters until Teddy Roosevelt commissioned it his second government natural reserve.

    It is also a natural weather bridge that routes the building weather systems from converging cold Pacific Ocean currents and the hotter inland desert streams. Any rain will turn the hard pack into a dangerous trail slick ice until the ground is able to slowly sponge off the moisture. A similar slick ice phenomenon experienced in areas like southern Utah and Arizona.