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Caliente Mountain
Naturalizing at Carrizo Plain

16-17 April 2005

By: Ginny Heringer


On Saturday, April 16, a group of about twenty hikers gathered at the Goodwin Educational Center in the Carrizo Plain natural Monument ready to begin a driving tour with a BLM guide. After record winter rains, we were hoping for great wildflowers and the monument had plenty of them: driving into the park, we passed fields of fiddleneck, lupine, and owl's clover, with meadowlarks on almost every fence post.

Our first stop was the Soda Lake Overlook where we had a rare view of the lake with water reflecting the Temblor Range, surrounded by a rim of white soda. We learned the difference between the similar-looking coreopsis and goldfields and saw the ball-shaped flower heads of chia and a number of rare white delphiniums. Next we went to the edge of the lake and discovered the danger of sinking into the soda and the mud underneath. The guide mentioned that monument visitors occasionally walk into the Education Center with muddy legs and no shoes.

Then we drove south to an area recently visited by a group of "plein air" artists who sell their paintings for thousands of dollars. The area was lush with poppies, lupines, and goldfields and we saw a living painting free of charge. After plenty of time to take photos, we continued on to the monument's unique destination: Painted Rock, a horseshoe shaped sandstone outcropping that was and still is a place of special significance for Chumash Indians, one of the most important pictograph sites in the country. The stylized paintings are in three colors, red from hematite, black from wood charcoal, and white from shale or gypsum, and represent cultural and religious beliefs that are not yet understood.

At this time of the year, Painted Rock is closed to the public because of bird nesting activity, except for this guided tour once a week. To avoid disturbing the birds, we walked silently while the guide pointed out the features of interest. You can imagine our surprise when a large barn owl suddenly came out of a hole in the rock, circled the small area a couple of times just over our heads, and flew out of the rock enclosure! Then another shock - a rattlesnake warned us to stay away, one of three rattlesnakes we saw in the area. When we walked around the outside of the rock, we were relieved to see the barn owl fly back into the rock enclosure and hopefully back to its nest. Along the way we spotted more flowers - red maids, a red-purple vetch, and locoweed. When the tour ended, some of us went to see the San Andreas Fault at Wallace Creek, while others returned to the California Valley Motel for showers and dinner, and others set up camp at Selby Campground.

We met again on Sunday morning for the second highlight of the weekend, a 17-mile round-trip hike along the Caliente Ridge to the peak. It was a long hike, but we took time to look at the repeated pattern of synclines and anticlines pointed out by our geologist Ron Zappen and at more flowers - baby blue-eyes, cream cups, yellow salsify, Dudley's clarkia, and best of all, chocolate lilies. We were also excited by several sightings of horned lizards and scallop-like bivalve fossils embedded in several rocks jutting from the ridgeline. We reached the peak, topped with the remains of a wooden structure used in World War II by observers watching for Japanese planes. We had a leisurely summit lunch and congratulated our leader George Wysup for his sixth completion of the Hundred Peaks list - that's actually about 1650 peaks! The real celebration took place after we walked the 8 1/2 miles back to our cars when we toasted George's accomplishment and a wonderful weekend of camaraderie with cold bubbly drinks and lots of hugs. As we drove out the south end of the park, we were delighted with the last sight the monument has to offer: three pronghorn antelope close to the road.

A list finish, another peak for those of us who are counting, and four completions of the natural science requirement for the "I" rating, plus all those fabulous flowers - a great weekend for all. Thanks to my co-leaders, Tom Hill, George Wysup, Sherry Ross, Marlen Mertz, and Ron Zappen!

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