Located almost dead center between four major California cities, Carrizo Plain National Monument is an otherworldly escape into nature.
Peaceful, wide-open grasslands bisect twin mountain ranges ripped apart by the violence of the San Andreas Fault. Oceans of orange, yellow, and purple wildflowers blanket hills, attracting thousands of visitors from all over the region. While dozens of species found nowhere else in California live in relative safety, protected by the park’s status as a National Monument.
Carrizo Plain is an oasis for both the casual and experienced camper alike.
Naturally, it’s a prime choice for our very first camp spotlight! So in this comprehensive guide, we’re covering absolutely everything there is to know about camping or visiting Carrizo Plain National Monument.
Let’s get started!
Table of Contents
Click on any of the links below to jump to the desired section!
- Carrizo Plain Is Managed by Federal, State, and Nonprofit Groups
- Carrizo Plain Is Located in Southeastern San Luis Obispo County, California
- The Area’s Best Known for Its Wildflower Blooms
- But It’s Also the Site of Painted Rock
- Terrain: Carrizo Plain Is the Largest Remaining Grassland In California
- It’s Mostly Quiet and Good for Stargazing…
- Camping at Carrizo Plain National Monument 101
- Carrizo Plain Is Always Open…
- There’s No Park Entrance Fee
- There Are 2 Campgrounds, but Dispersed Camping Is Also Allowed…
- How to Get to Carrizo Plain National Monument
- Carrizo Plain National Monument Climate and Weather
- Notable Carrizo Plain Restrictions
- Other Dangers Carrizo Plain National Monument Dangers
- When Is the Best Time for Camping at Carrizo Plain National Monument?
- Map of Carrizo Plain National Monument
- Notable Locations at Carrizo Plain
- Carrizo Plain Flora and Fauna
- Carrizo Plain National Monument: FAQs
There’s a lot to know about Carrizo Plain, so we’ve organized this guide into several sections to make digesting its contents a little easier!
Below, you’ll find basic information followed by:
- Tips for camping at Carrizo Plain
- Highway access
- General climate info
- Restrictions and potential dangers
- Suggestions on the best time of year to visit
- A map highlighting notable locations (like Soda Lake)
- Carrizo Plain wildlife
- And a quick FAQs section!
Carrizo Plain Is Managed by Federal, State, and Nonprofit Groups
Carrizo Plain is jointly maintained by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and The Nature Conservancy, a reputable nonprofit organization dedicated to (surprise!) conservation.
For everyday questions, the BLM is the best entity to contact.
Carrizo Plain Is Located in Southeastern San Luis Obispo County, California
Carrizo Plain National Monument is about 70 miles southeast of Downtown San Luis Obispo, 70 miles west of Bakersfield, 120 miles north of Santa Barbara, and 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
The Area’s Best Known for Its Wildflower Blooms
Most people in Southern and Central California have heard about Carrizo Plains’ wildflower blooms, which usually happen each spring. Thousands, if not tens of thousands of people travel from all over to see them.
But It’s Also the Site of Painted Rock
Carrizo Plain is home to the Painted Rock archeological site. This location is believed to be at least 3,000 years old and holds cultural significance for local Native American tribes. You can learn about the site’s history at the nearby Goodwin Education Center.
Note: taking pictures of Painted Rock for commercial use is illegal.
Terrain: Carrizo Plain Is the Largest Remaining Grassland In California
Carrizo Plain is one of the few grasslands left in California.
Sitting between the Caliente Mountains (which border Santa Barbara County) and the Temblor Range (which border Kern County), the valley is home to wicked hot summers and relatively cold, wet winters.
The otherwise rocky or grassy terrain tends to get muddy in colder months and it’s not uncommon for the dirt roads to become impassable. But don’t worry, if you’re planning on sticking to the main road, most vehicles shouldn’t have problems.
It’s Mostly Quiet and Good for Stargazing (Relatively Speaking)
Outside of the spring season, Carrizo Plain is fairly quiet.
The wide open conditions are great for dispersed camping (where allowed), and even if a few dozen groups are on the plain at any one time, it really doesn’t feel crowded. Last time we went (before the fire restrictions were enacted; see below), distant campfires were a common fixture on the horizon—but we never felt like another group impacted our trip.
Bonus: the relative lack of light pollution also makes for decent stargazing on clear nights (at least compared to the surrounding cities).
Camping at Carrizo Plain National Monument 101
So, what’s there to know about camping in Carrizo Plain?
Carrizo Plain Is Always Open (There Are No Park Hours)
None of the supervising groups enforce “park hours” at Carrizo Plain: it’s always open. But, the visitors center is only open from 9:00AM to 4:00PM each day (except for Mondays).
There’s No Park Entrance Fee
That’s right! You don’t have to pay for a pass to visit or camp at Carrizo Plain. You will need a campfire permit, though; but these are also free to obtain (see Fire Restrictions below).
There Are 2 Campgrounds, but Dispersed Camping Is Also Allowed (for the Most Part)
If you prefer the comfort of a traditional campground, Carrizo Plain has two.
- Shelby Campground has 13 preset sites with fire pits, horse corals, picnic tables, and even a wheelchair vault toilet. The site is close to several trails, including the Caliente Mt. Ridge trail.
- KCL Campground has 12 present sites, including 2 that are ADA compliant. This site is within walking distance of the Goodwin Education Center.
Garbage services, electricity, and running water are not available anywhere on the monument.
Dispersed Camping at Carrizo Plain
If you’re looking for more of an off-the-rails experience, you can camp almost anywhere on BLM-managed land. There are three big exceptions, though:
- Sites that are within 200 yards of a water source
- Sites near Painted Rock.
- And third, camping on private property is also off-limits (unless it’s your private property, duh).
For the most part, it’s easy to tell what’s private and what’s public by the signs or fences. If you’re not sure if the land is public or private, here’s a good tip: if you had to hop a fence or break a lock, you were trespassing.
You Can Bring Your Dog
Dogs are allowed at Carrizo Plain so long as they’re kept on a leash. Carrizo Plain’s ecosystem is threatened and fragile, so it’s important that every measure is taken to preserve it.
Bonus: if you’re looking for a sick new harness, collar, or leash for your pup, use can get 20% off by using code RENCAMP20 at Packleashes.com.
Public Restrooms Are Scarce
The visitor’s center has a public restroom, as do some of the private historical sites. However, it’s not exactly clear if these other restrooms are open to the public.
So, you’ll have to get—ahem—creative, otherwise.
You’ll Need to Bring Your Own Food and Drink
Food and drink aren’t available anywhere on Carrizo Plain. Be sure to stock up on supplies before you arrive.
A good rule to follow: 1 gallon of water per person, per day (and more in summer).
Be Sure to Fuel Up Before You Arrive at Carrizo Plain
There are zero gas stations anywhere in Carrizo Plain. Plan accordingly, and if you think there’s even a chance you could run out of fuel before your return home, fill up a spare gas canister.
Here are the nearest towns with fuel:
- Taft is about 40 miles from the center of Carrizo Plain if you’re traveling south along Soda Lake Road.
- Santa Margarita is about 60 miles away if you’re traveling north.
Note: we’re currently unsure of where the closest charging stations are for electric vehicles.
Cell Reception Is Spotty, Though It Seems to Depend on the Carrier
Last time we visited Carrizo Plain, the Sprint/T-Mobile users in our group had near-perfect signal the entire trip. Verizon users had spotty signal throughout, but serviceable signal with elevation.
No one in our group used AT&T or another carrier.
It’s possible that new towers have improved cell reception in the area since our last visit in January 2021.
Bring Maps and Communication Devices
Even if you expect to have full cell service, electronic maps can lose power—so bring a physical map. Seriously.
We laminated a printout of a BLM PDF map of Carrizo Plain and it proved invaluable when the sun was so bright that we had trouble seeing our phone screens!
If your electronics die (or break) and you don’t have a physical copy, you’re map-less. Now, Carrizo Plain isn’t that big—a savvy camper should be able to find their way, but why take the chance?
On the other hand, electronic maps are great! In particular, the interactive maps offered by the Gaia App on iOS and Google phones has been our go-to for the past few years (it’s definitely one of the best camping apps).
And Don’t Forget Essential Supplies (Binoculars Are Helpful Too)
Carrizo Plain is a wide-open space with relatively rocky terrain. Summers are hot. Winters are cold and wet. Expect windy conditions.
As such, make sure you bring weather-appropriate clothing and shelter.
A tent with quality insulation and good rain protection is great to have in general, but ideal for Carrizo Plain. And since it’s likely to be windy on the plains, make sure that A) your tent won’t get ripped up by the wind, and B) you have the equipment or means to secure your tent.
If you’re camping in winter, be absolutely sure that your sleeping bag (or setup) is rated for 30℉ or colder. Wear dry clothing before sleeping.
Pro camping tip: a sleeping bag’s rating usually indicates survivability, not comfort. If your sleeping bag is rated for 40℉, there’s a very good chance you’re going to feel cold even in 50℉ weather.
Finally, binoculars or scopes (don’t point rifles at people!) are nice to have, too—especially for observing Carrizo Plain’s abundant wildlife and scenery!
Bonus: if you’re looking for a good fixed blade to complement your camping gear, check out our spotlight of the classic USMC KA-BAR knife! Just don’t expect to use it for everyday carry (what is everyday carry, anyways?)!
Sun Protection Is a Must
Carrizo Plain doesn’t offer much in terms of natural shelter, so it may be wise to bring some sort of sun protection. Tents are an obvious first choice, but easy-ups aren’t a bad call either (just make sure you secure them well).
Oh, and use sunscreen! We’re big on using ocean- and people-safe mineral sunscreens like this Pure & Simple option from Coppertone (note: if you know a better mineral option, please let us know in the comments or on social media!).
How to Get to Carrizo Plain National Monument
Carrizo Plain is relatively accessible from all surrounding cities, including San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Bakersfield, and Los Angeles.
Soda Lake Road traverses the entirety of Carrizo Plain, so once you’re on it, it’s hard to get lost.
Gateway Communities & Nearest Highway Access: The Two Closest Towns are Santa Margarita and Taft, California
If you’re visiting Carrizo Plain from the south, you’ll enter via State Road 33/166. Taft, California is the closest town (about 40 miles from the visitors center) along this route and offers all your basic amenities: fuel, grocery stores, hotels, etc.
If you’re coming from the north, you’ll enter Carrizo Plain via State Road 58, which crosses through Santa Margarita. Here you can also find fuel, food, and basic supplies.
The Road Conditions Are Rigorous (and Hazardous During Adverse Weather)
Soda Lake Road is normally traversable all year long. However, expect adverse (but not necessarily impassible) conditions if it’s been rainy any time over the last 1–2 weeks.
Carrizo Plain Mostly Has Dirt Roads so It’s Important to Bring the Right Vehicle
Nearly all the other roads in Carrizo Plain are dirt roads, not asphalt. These paths are only occasionally maintained, and are nearly impossible to cross without a rugged vehicle if they’re wet.
If you’re going to one of the official campgrounds, most vehicles should be fine. But, if you’re looking elsewhere, an off-road capable vehicle is the safe play.
Carrizo Plain National Monument Climate and Weather
In summer, Carrizo Plain is very dry and regularly hits 90℉ (32.2℃). Hyperthermia (AKA heat stroke) is a very real danger, so be sure to bring plenty of water and shade.
During the winter months, the low temperatures hover around 40℉ (4.4℃), on average. Consequently, be on the lookout for signs of hypothermia and pack plenty of warm clothing, a good sleeping bag, and so on.
Pro camping tip: sleeping bag ratings only tell you what temperature they’ll keep you alive, not the temperatures that you’ll be comfortable. We add 10–20 degrees to the rating to figure out the coldest temperature the bag is good for.
Notable Carrizo Plain Restrictions
If you’re planning a trip to Carrizo Plain, it’s wise to be aware of potential restrictions that could affect your visit.
Fire Restrictions Have Been in Effect Since May 2021 (but You Can Use Gas Stoves)
California wildfires are devastating. To protect Carrizo Plain, fire restrictions are in effect until otherwise noted by the proper authorities. Considering how serious this issue is becoming, we don’t expect restrictions to be lifted anytime soon.
That said, you can bring portable stoves so long as you get a (free) California Campfire permit from either the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire offices, or online here.
The entire process is quick and straightforward.
Only Street-Legal Vehicles Are Allowed
Because of the delicate nature of Carrizo Plain’s ecosystem, literal offroading isn’t allowed. Additionally, all vehicles must have a DMV plate.
However, dirt roads are not regularly maintained and still offer a good off-road experience if you’re itching for it. Just be sure to bring a vehicle that can handle the hazardous conditions.
There Are Currently No COVID-19 Restrictions
Public buildings at Carrizo Plain had previously been closed due to COVID-19; however, all facilities are currently operating under normal hours. It’s possible that this could change in the future.
Other Dangers Carrizo Plain National Monument Dangers
Carrizo Plain is a safe place to camp and visit so long as you remain vigilant against common dangers in the wild.
Does Carrizo Plain Have Bears?
Bears are a very rare occurrence at Carrizo Plain, but bear sightings in other parts of San Luis Obispo county have been on the rise. Out of an abundance of caution, it’s wise to stow all food and anything scented (even something small like chap stick) in a bear-proof container or your vehicle. These aren’t fool-proof though, so be vigilant.
That said, the chances of you running into a bear at Carrizo Plain are so low.
Does Carrizo Plain Have Mountain Lions?
Mountain lions have been spotted at Carrizo Plain in the past, but there has never been a documented mountain lion attack in SLO county.
Mountain lions typically avoid humans, but if you happen to encounter one, back away very slowly without turning your back to it. Maintain eye contact and don’t trip one of your buddies as a sacrifice! It’s rude.
Anyway, like bear encounters, you’re unlikely to meet a mountain lion in Carrizo Plain.
Crime: Carrizo Plain Is Considered Safe
Statistically speaking, crime is very rare at Carrizo Plain. But according to CrimeGrade, crime in neighboring Kern County is relatively high.
When Is the Best Time for Camping at Carrizo Plain National Monument?
Let’s break it down by the season!
Spring Is Carrizo Plain’s Busiest Time of Year (Normally)
First, you can absolutely camp at Carrizo Plain during Spring, but this time of year generally brings in more traffic because of the wildflower blooms.
If you don’t mind small crowds (or allergies, ugh), expect mild, comfortable temperatures and moderate precipitation. Nights may be relatively cold, so bring the appropriate gear.
Again, Camping in Summer Can Be Dangerous Because of the Heat
Like we said earlier, Carrizo Plain gets hot during the summer.
Bring plenty of extra water (at least 1 gallon per person, per day) this time of year. Watch everyone in your group for signs of heat exhaustion.
If you want a good way to keep your drinks cold, check out our Hydro Flask cooler cup reviews!
Bonus: a portable Ryobi fan can help keep you cool for hours or days depending on how many batteries you have (check out our full Ryobi portable fan review, if you’re curious). And if you want to learn more pro camping tips, check out our post on debunking terrible camping hacks (Part I)!
So: Fall and Winter Are Our Favorite Times to Visit Carrizo Plain
Our favorite time to visit Carrizo Plain is during winter because it’s super quiet, beautiful (in a Fallout or Mad Max kind of way), and the weather’s agreeable, if not a little nippy at night (lows of 40℉, on average).
Expect similar similar conditions, if not slightly warmer temperatures in fall.
Map of Carrizo Plain National Monument
Here’s a general view of Carrizo Plain.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management also offers an interactive map of Carrizo Plain National Monument, with notable locations such as designated campsites and restrooms marked.
Alternatively, you can (and should) download their PDF map of Carrizo Plain.
Notable Locations at Carrizo Plain
Carrizo Plain offers a good mix of natural and manmade sites. Here they are!
Soda Lake (Overview & Boardwalk)
Soda Lake is one of Carrizo Plain’s most notable features and one of the largest alkali wetlands left in California. It’s generally visible from the north entrance of the monument (from Soda Lake Road).
During the winter, water pools in the basin, supporting a variety of wildlife such as tiny shrimps and not-as-tiny cranes. When the weather warms, water in the lake evaporates leaving behind white sulfate and carbonate deposits, hence Soda Lake.
It probably leaves the shrimps behind, too.
Anyway…you can follow a trail that shadows the “shores” of the lake. The trail culminates at an overlook point on the western side.
Painted Rock is an archeological and historical site located behind the Goodwin Education Center off Soda Lake Road. It’s roughly at the midway point between the north and south entrances of the monument.
The site has held cultural significance for local Native American tribes for at least 3,000–4,000 years.
If you visit, don’t be a jerk! Don’t snap photos for commercial purposes, follow all guidelines issued by the Goodwin Education Center, and leave the area as undisturbed as possible.
Goodwin Education Center (Carrizo Plain Visitors Center)
The Goodwin Education Center is a state facility that offers visitors information about local wildlife, the San Andreas Fault, and of course, Painted Rock.
As of May 2022, the center is open Thursday through Sunday from 9:00AM to 4:00PM.
The Address: Goodwin Education Center Address: 17495 Soda Lake Road, California Valley, CA 93453
The San Andreas Fault Is Visible
The San Andreas Fault is actually visible, particularly at dawn and dusk when the sun is low in the sky. The faultline lies beneath the Temblor Mountain range, and generally runs parallel between Elkhorn Road and Soda Lake Road.
Carrizo Plain Flora and Fauna
Carrizo Plain is home to at least a dozen endangered species. Here are a few of the most notable!
Endangered Species of Carrizo Plain National Monument
Carrizo Plain’s Wildflower Blooms Are Also Famous!
Carrizo Plain National Monument: FAQs
Before we wrap up, here are a few answers to Carrizo Plain FAQs.
When Should You Go to Carrizo Plain?
It really depends on what you want to do. For camping, we highly recommend visiting sometime in fall or winter because the weather’s milder (though cold at night) and you don’t have to worry about crowds.
If you want to see the wildflower blooms, March or April are typically the best months to go. Of course, Carrizo Plain is great to visit all year long (just be mindful of the heat in summer).
When Is Carrizo Plain in Bloom?
Like we said, wildflower blooms at Carrizo Plain National Monument occur sometime in March or April, though each year is a little bit different depending on how wet the preceding winter was.
The Theodore Payne Foundation keeps records of wildflower blooms in Central and Southern California.
How Often Do the Flowers Bloom at Carrizo Plain?
The wildflowers bloom once a year.
Why Is Carrizo Plain a National Monument?
Carrizo Plain was declared a National Monument on Jan. 17, 2001, by President Bill Clinton to:
- Protect a variety of endangered species
- Protect the land from agricultural conversion and industrial exploration (e.g., looking for oil, minerals)
- And to preserve its history as a culturally significant location
Can You Camp Anywhere in Carrizo Plain?
No, there are splotches of private property throughout Carrizo Plain. Camping on someone else’s property is literally trespassing. Additionally, areas like Painted Rock are off limits for obvious reasons.
However, you can camp on public land so long as you are at least 200 yards (about 180m) from water sources (and assuming there are no signs that say otherwise).
Can You Hunt in Carrizo Plain?
Hunting is allowed at Carrizo Plain under specific conditions. Check out the California Department of Fish and Wildlife page on Carrizo Plain for up-to-date information.
Is Carrizo Plain Dog Friendly? Can You Bring Other Pets?
You can bring dogs to Carrizo Plain provided you are able to keep them under control at all times. Other pets are most likely not allowed.
Can You Drive on Soda Lake?
For the love of God do not drive on Soda Lake: A) you’ll probably get stuck, and B) you’ll tear up the land.
Are There RV Hookups in Carrizo Plain?
RVs are allowed at Carrizo Plain; however, there are no RV hookups.
How Much Time Do You Need to Explore Carrizo Plain?
We could stay for days, but it depends on what you’re visiting for! A day trip is generally enough to see all the hotspots, though.
Is Horseback Riding Allowed at Carrizo Plain?
Horseback riding is allowed on dirt roads and some trails.
Are There Any Threats to Carrizo Plain?
Carrizo Plain has been the subject of several legal fights between environmental organizations and oil/mineral companies.
The Nature Conservancy plays an active role in defending Carrizo Plain as a nonprofit organization. You can learn how The Nature Conservancy helps Carrizo Plain here.
Additionally, Friends of the Carrizo Plain and Carrizo Plain Conservancy help maintain the land and protect it from various threats, both natural and manmade.
We hope this guide proved useful, and if you happen to visit Carrizo Plain sometime in the near future, let us know how it went! And don’t forget to check out our camping gear guides and everyday carry reviews!
Think we missed anything or got something wrong? Be sure to let us know in the comments or on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram!
Featured photo credit: David Fulmer
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