Carrizo Plain is a wilderness area in the middle of nowhere between Kern county oilfields and Paso Robles. At first glance one wonders why this is a special place, but it has a lot going on. In particular, the spring wildflower displays are legendary. Our last visit, in 2010, was an amazing experience of exploration and photography.
A few months ago we planned a visit with friends over Easter weekend. Unfortunately, this year’s wildflower displays were sub-par and 99% dried up by the time Easter weekend rolled around. That doesn’t stop us from getting together, though. Plus, the poor flower display gave us the excuse to explore the other things that Carrizo has to offer!
On Good Friday we drove down and checked out the dismal flower conditions. A bit of wandering around Soda Lake stretched our legs before we met up with friends at our dispersed campsite.
We split into a few groups on Saturday. The majority of us went to climb Caliente Mountain, the San Luis Obispo county highpoint. David and Thor went to explore some more around the dry Soda Lake down on the plain.
An hour long drive that slowly deteriorated to 4WD single-track led us to the Caliente trailhead along the ridge. We were surprised to see a small passenger car already parked there – I wouldn’t have wanted to drive that up there! There is room for several cars at a pullout with a great view of Soda Lake, and a cutoff trail that leads to the main old road that runs over the ridge.
The trail runs south along the ridge all the way to to range highpoint, Caliente Mountain. It’s a long hike, about 8.9 miles one way. The trail rolls over bumps, so there is a fair amount of up and down along both directions, about 2500 ft in total (see GPS track below). You think you see the peak ahead, but there is still a long way to go!
The first half follows a wide old dirt road which eventually ends at an old homestead of a collapsed trailer, corral, and rotten picnic table in the shade (I wouldn’t recommend sitting on it). From here, the trail deteriorates into a single track to the summit. Just below the summit some interesting white rocks make the terrain a bit more interesting.
On the summit, you’ll find the ruins of an old WWII cabin, once an outpost to watch for incoming aircraft sent to bomb the oilfields to the east. Views of Carrizo and the San Andreas fault drop off to the east and the Cuyama Valley to the west. We were there on a hazy day so the more distant views weren’t in sight.
The long hike wasn’t particularly difficult – the terrain is easy, route finding is simple, and lots of interesting plants and wildlife (butterflies, horny toads, caterpillars!) keep you interested. Still, it’s 18 miles. If you do this hike, be prepared for a long day with little to no shade. The range is high enough to get snow in wet years. The road from Selby Campground to the trailhead is steep and rough and would be impassible in wet conditions. There were several (dry) washouts we had to negotiate. The road does not pass through to 166 on the west – it must be approached from the east.
Back at camp we met up with the group and found out Thor had learned how to roll in the mud. The Easter Bunny even found us out there in the middle of nowhere!
Caliente Mountain Map and GPS Track