Saturday, December 10, 2016


The Pinnacles, Carrizo Plain,
Central Coast Range Tour

Were they situated anywhere else in the world, California’s Coast Range would be considered both sublime and spectacular.  Mountain peaks rise over 7,000 feet and valleys ranging from verdant green to desert gold lace the north-south expanse.  Fortunately – or unfortunately – the Coast Range is a distant cousin of California’s higher and more majestic Sierra, thus often overlooked by travelers, birders, hikers, motorcycle enthusiasts and/or general adventure seekers. 

Having settled for a time in the Russian River Valley, exploration of the north-of-the-bay Coast Range has been a delight.  From the rugged Pacific coastline to the heights of Snow Mountain, roads, both paved and graded gravel have led me to the place names of cattle camps, logging sites, hot springs and way stations.  Mostly now abandoned.  Always, there is something new to discover or wonder about.  Always there is the romantic thought: What might it have been like to settle in the middle of this beautiful nowhere? Followed by: Where was the nearest grocery store?  Of course, there wasn’t a nearest grocery store.  Folks settling in these vacant and distant reaches in the late 1800s were on their own, farming, grazing and scratching out a life in a landscape where the average soul would simply wither.

Recently, an opportunity to explore the south-of-the-bay Coast Range presented itself.  The excuse was to follow the San Andreas Fault crisscrossing from the North American Plate to the Pacific Plate.  What I discovered was a delightful more-of-the-same.

Pinnacles National Park:  Perhaps as remote a National Park as any in the system, Pinnacles is a mere 20 miles off US 101 but a world away from it’s traffic, noise, commerce and general hubbub.  Centered on a unique geologic formation, this tiny park – until recently a national monument – is accessed by CA 146 from Soledad or CA 146 from CA 33, but 146 does not go through. 

My simplified understanding of California’s mountain geography developed in college where I learned that the Sierra is a tilted fault block, the Coast Ranges are essentially folded and all the volcanic stuff was in the Cascade Range roughly north of the Feather River.  Reality – brought about through travel – exposes a new truth: volcanic activity happens almost anywhere along the Pacific’s Ring of Fire.  Including the Pinnacles.

There is a small system of trails that link both stubs of CA 146.  In between, the 23 million-year-old remnants of volcanic activity have created weathered domes and, where seismic activity has broken things loose, caves than can, seasonally, be explored on foot.  Climbers climb, spelunkers spelunk, hikers investigate woodland canyons and campers camp under the watchful eyes of circling red tailed hawks; always on the lookout for rare and endangered red-legged frogs.

The Pinnacles deserved far more than the three hours we could commit to our visit.

Parkfield:  The San Andreas is strike-slip fault marking a six hundred mile stretch of the collision zone between the North American and Pacific tectonic plates.  A strike-slip fault is one where the activity moves laterally or horizontally rather than up and down.  Fence lines that were once straight, roadways that are cracked and now misaligned and bridges with bends in their steel railing all evidence strike-slip faults.

While, in general, the North American Plate is riding over the Pacific Plate, for reasons that escape my level of understanding, the land mass over the Pacific Plate is slipping northward while that over the North American Plate moves south.  Should this continue for another billion and a half years, the Giants and Dodgers will again be cross-town rivals and won’t that be great!

Parkfield is among the more seismically active spots on the west coast.  The USGS maintains a manned station to monitor activity along the fault.  And the little village makes the most of its rockin’ and rollin’ heritage inviting visitors to “be here when it happens.”

It didn’t happen while we were there, and the rustic little café happened to be closed at lunchtime, so we moved on, crossing over to the Pacific Plate, knowing we’d need to schedule a return to Parkfield if we truly wanted to get in on the action. 

Carrizo Plain National Monument:  The San Andreas Fault forms the eastern edge of the Carrizo Plain at the foot of the aptly named Temblor Range.  The partly paved – partly graded Soda Lake Road bisects the monument from northwest to southeast.  Accessing from Seven Mile Road off CA 58, the initial view is of dry ranchland and sage very reminiscent of the parched areas of Nevada east of Reno and Carson City. 

South on Soda Lake Road, we pass the entry point and the agricultural nature gives way to a dry plain that in March is carpeted with wildflowers.  December, however?  Not so much.   

The further into the monument we travel, the more it felt like we were somehow reversing time.  At the north end of the monument rests the road’s namesake lake, a low point where winter’s scarce rainfall collects and settles.  No outlet.  During the long, hot dry season, the water disappears leaving the largest alkali lakebed in all of California.

To the west, a promontory known as Painted Rock preserves petroglyphs from the area’s earliest inhabitants, the Chumash and Yokuts, among others.  For much of the year, permits are required to make the half-mile trek from parking to pre-history.  It seems that early in the 20th century, vandals had their way with these antiquities, and the rest of us must pay the price.

Further on, the visitor’s center provides insight into the plants and animals native to the plain.  Nearby, weathering farm implements from a hardscrabble era ending fifty years ago are displayed in a long rusty line against a backdrop of hills that seem older than time.

The closer you look, the Carrizo Plain management team suggests, the more you see.  At one point, my exploratory buddy took a phone call: there is cell service – no potable water – but cell service.  I hopped out of the big 4-Runner to simply hike down the middle of Soda Lake Road.  Within a few hundred yards, I was taken by the grand nothingness of it all – and all the little details otherwise missed by simply driving through. 

Here, the silence is so deep that, at sunrise or any other time of day, you can hear your own heartbeat just standing still. 

The whole thing – the horizon, the desolation, the history – was captivating.  I found myself thinking: What would it be like to settle in the middle of this beautiful nowhere?  Then: I wonder where the nearest grocery store is.

Enamored by this too-short visit to California’s Central Coast Range, I vow to return to spend more time exploring.  Although I’m concerned that there may never be enough time to fully grasp the vastness, remoteness and simple grandeur of this land so routinely overlooked by others.

© 2016
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. What wonderful places to explore. So close to us in Oregon yet so far away it seems. I always enjoy reading of your travels.

    1. I am frequently astonished by how much there is "out there" to see and learn about. As I said in a earlier post, a successful adventure is one where the question asked is answered but you end up with more questions in the end (or something like that.)