Carrizo Plains

This was a solo “scouting” trip, so post written in first person by Brent C.

I spent a nice couple of nights at Carrizo Plains. It is still very much “winter season” there, but things are greening up nicely.  I had to go in from the north off the 58 from San Luis Obispo since the 166 is still closed in multiple places, which added about 45 minutes to my travel time.  Got there around 8pm Friday night and set up camp in ~40 degree weather and got a hearty dinner going…. (Danish sausages from Solvang)

I elected to stay at Selby Camp rather than attempt some of my more remote “disbursed” spots because I wasn’t sure about how muddy things would be (more on that below)

Woke up on Saturday morning to a brisk 38º but no wind at all.  Went for a pre-dawn walk and got to see the sunrise from the top of a ridge.

The hillsides are starting to green up, and there are signs of wildflower plants, like the lupine, starting to emerge

Visited a couple of my favorite spots and saw that the brine shrimp are already hatching from the rains in a couple of spots where they only emerge every few years.

Soda Lake has a lot of water in it!  I can’t remember ever seeing it this full…

Did some scouting in the Jeep on the Eastern (Elkhorn) side of the valley and came across a big badger about 80 yards from me.   He did not care AT ALL about me!  I wish I’d had a camera and telephoto lens – he was a big boy!

One thing about Carrizo Plain – the mud here can be TREACHEROUS.   It’s one of the few places that scares me when it starts raining.   I have been caught several times in the back country here in a downpour and immediately headed back to the main road, BARELY making it out.  And if you get stuck out here in some spots no one is going to find you and it will be a 10+ mile walk back to find another vehicle.     

There are two main roads that cross the plain – Simmler and Panorama (both just dirt roads).  Both of them are submerged during heavy rains and the superfine clay is incredibly hard in the summer months, but has a legendary ability to swallow vehicles when wet.  It’s the kind of stuff that looks like it has dried out, but then you venture onto it a few feet, break through the crust and are immediately stuck.

After exploring the far side of the plain I decided to see if I could save an hour on my trip back to camp by cutting across Panorama Rd.   I headed down and got to about the middle when I saw a group of vehicles about 150 yards off in the distance.  This time of year the area is popular with hunters from Bakersfield and central California, and I figured I’d go see if I could help if they were stuck, since I had all my recovery gear (including traction boards).

I put the Jeep in 4H, locked the rear axle, and turned off the traction control (I’d already aired down to about 18 psi).   I continued onward at about 20 mph as the road became more and more deeply rutted and more and more wet.  On either side of the road is the typical ground cover you find in the desert – low weeds and clumps of rabbit brush.

Within about 20 yards, I felt the Jeep bog down HARD – I immediately knew I was in trouble, as the killer when driving in mud is stopping – you stop and the vehicle settles into the mud and develops strong suction that is almost impossible to break.  To get more horsepower I depressed the clutch, revving the engine to near redline and feathered it in and out enough to force a few feet of progress, but not allowing the engine to stall.  I HAD to keep moving – stopping would mean being stuck!   I could not stop and reverse because I knew I’d instantly be sucked into the mud.  Intermittently revving the engine to 60000 rpms and fanning the clutch, I managed to pull a wide u-turn, cutting into the fresh ground on either side of the road and munching through the rabbit bush.    I could smell burning clutch, see steam rising from the wet mud splattering the exhaust system, and smell the burning rabbit brush on the catalytic converter as I desperately tried to avoid stalling the engine and keeping momentum.     Being in mud like that feels like a giant is holding on to you – you’re fighting to overcome immense forces.   The “fresh” ground on either side of the road was even worse than the main road, so it was a tense battle for a minute or so until I got turned around.

I finally managed to make it back to terra firma and literally jumped out of the Jeep to calm my nerves and also to wave a “sorry, can’t help you” wave to the poor souls stuck in the muck.   It reminded me of one of those terrible stories you hear where one person is in trouble and everyone that goes in to help befalls the same fate.   I considered myself lucky for excaping without any damage other than a few year’s less life on my clutch….  lol

I went the long way around back to camp (north of the Soda Lake) and set about scraping the alkaline mud off the fenders and undercarriage as best as I could with a stick.  I was probably carrying 500 lbs of mud!

The rest of the afternoon was uneventful with some relaxing at camp and soaking up some of the winter sunshine, and early dinner and a nice camp fire with a good book and a thick down jacket.  

Sunday morning I woke to a cold and foggy morning with a 15mph gusty wind that told me weather was coming….  When the sun came up, it was obvious that something was brewing…

I decided to start packing things up before any rain started, so I skipped my morning hike and folded everything up, hoping for a little sunshine to dry things out…

On my drive out I stopped at a couple of spots to have a last look at the beauty of Carrizo Plain and some of the vestiges of life here in earlier years…