Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Soda Lake (California)

Temblor Range rises over Soda Lake
1 mile round trip, no elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Decent unpaved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

Soda Lake is a seasonal, endorheic, alkali lake with spectacular wildflower displays each spring at the heart of Carrizo Plain National Monument in California's Coast Ranges. This short hike is one of the very few established trails in Carrizo Plain National Monument and leads from the park's main road to a stretch of boardwalk along the lakeshore. Visitors in winter and spring are likely to find water in Soda Lake but this body of water dries up completely during most summers. Similarly, the greenery of the Plain, the Temblor Range, and the Caliente Range in spring fades to browned grass by May each year. Carrizo Plain remains an undervisited and beautiful landscape; while few casual visitors come to this national monument, Soda Lake is probably the most frequented trail in the park. Experienced hikers visiting Carrizo Plain are highly recommened to explore off-trail destinations like the Temblor Range, but casual visitors can get a taste of this wonderous landscape on this short hike to Soda Lake.

While there are almost no paved roads in Carrizo Plain National Monument, the trail to Soda Lake is reached by the few paved miles of road in the park. Despite being part way between the two largest metropolises of the West Coast and just over an hour off I-5, Carrizo Plain National Monument is one of the least known and visited federally preserved parks in the state of California. Established during the Clinton Era under the Antiquities Act and overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, this national monument preserves a dry grassland- at 5 inches of annual precipitation, a desert, really- sandwiched between the Caliente and Temblor Ranges. Despite being just miles from San Luis Obispo and the ocean, rainfall in the Carrizo Plain never reaches the sea, instead flowing into the endorheic Soda Lake at the heart of the plain. This great grassland today is a last refuge for many species which in the past wandered the Central Valley and other parts of coastal Central California; this is the only land wild and big enough for them to call home now.

To reach the trailhead for Soda Lake from I-5, I exited onto Highway 58 heading west and followed it past Buttonwillow and McKittrick and across the Temblor Range. Coming out onto Carrizo Plain on the western side of the Temblor Range, I immediately took the left turn for Seven Mile Road, an unpaved road that I followed to the southwest across the floor of Carrizo Plain. I followed Seven Mile Road for just under 7 miles until it ended at a T-intersection with the paved Soda Lake Road; here, I turned left and followed Soda Lake Road south into Carrizo Plain National Monument for two miles. Immediately after passing a turnoff on the right for the Soda Lake Overlook, I turned into an unmarked pulloff on the left side of the road where a clear path lead towards Soda Lake in the distance: this was the trailhead. There was no signage and no toilet at this trailhead but the trail to Soda Lake was obvious.

From the trailhead, a straight and clear path cut across the saltbrush plain towards the lakeshore. The trail was completely flat as I walked across this wild and remarkable landscape. During my late March trip, the floor of the plain was carpeted with blooming yellow daisies and the slopes of the Caliente and Temblor Ranges in the distance were streaked with yellow blooming flowers. This was an absolutely extraordinary wildflower display and one that I recommend everyone to come experience.

Caliente Range and Carrizo Plain wildflowers
After following the flat, wide trail for a third of a mile, I arrived at the shores of Soda Lake. In March, the lake was still full of water, but summer visitors are likely to encounter a dried-up lakebed here. The lake is refreshed each year by winter rains but shrinks during the summer dry season. As the lakeshore retreats, sparkling alkali flats emerge, laden with salt and minerals washed down from the surrounding mountains. Summer visitors will see a vast field of salt rather than any body of water here.

Glistening alkali flats along the shore of Soda Lake
The trail continued on a boardwalk that followed the lakeshore to the south for 1/6 of a mile. This boardwalk provided views of the surrounding fields of wildflowers and across the glistening surface of Soda Lake to the flower-coated slopes of the Temblor Range. While both the Temblor Range and the Caliente Range are parts of the California Coast Ranges, they're of geologically distant origins: the plain itself is split by the San Andreas Fault and the Temblor Range lies on the Northern American Plate while the Caliente Range is part of the Pacific Plate.

Temblor Range and Soda Lake
This is one of the few formal trails within Carrizo Plain National Monument. However, there's far more to experience in this wild and largely untouched landscape. Soda Lake Overlook- a set of two hills rising directly above the trailhead of the Soda Lake Trail- was accessible by a short drive and uphill walk and provided a sweeping view over Soda Lake and the great, flat, flower-filled plain.

Soda Lake and Carrizo Plain
After finishing my hike and checking out nearby Soda Lake Overlook, I continued south on Soda Lake Road along the western side of Carrizo Plain; this is the main road of the park, although it does become unpaved shortly after leaving Soda Lake. I encountered some incredible flower fields on my way down Soda Lake Road and found many beautiful off-trail views in the foothills of the Caliente Range. It's not useful to provide specific directions for exploring Carrizo Plain and its impressive wildflower blooms: visitors should just plan around the wildflowers and schedule a day or more to drive and wander through the region's trailless wilds.

Carrizo Plain
Wildflowers blooming at Carrizo Plain

No comments:

Post a Comment