According to the Nature Conservancy, which helped acquire and helps manage the land, Carrizo Plain National Monument is the largest native grassland remaining in California, a remnant of the Central California grasslands of 300-plus years ago. The conservancy notes that Carrizo Plain has “spectacular panoramic landscapes, a diversity of wildlife comparable to Africa’s Serengeti, and the highest concentration of threatened and endangered wildlife in California.”
Carrizo Plain is one of my favorite places to visit in the spring, when the wildflowers there can be exquisite, depending on the previous winter conditions. I have visited during a few spectacular wildflower displays over the past 20 years. Recently, I visited Carrizo Plain in the spring of 2019, a great year, and then again this spring, which was not quite as spectacular but still an amazing sight.
In addition to Carrizo Plain itself, there can also be very beautiful wildflowers en route to the plain from Highway 101, especially along Highway 58 from Atascadero and particularly at the junction of Highway 58 and Shell Creek Road. At that location this March there were swaths of baby blue eyes, goldfields, cream cups, tidy-tips, California poppies, and various species of lupine. The flowers can be in such abundance that your brain almost can’t comprehend what it is seeing.
Wildflower Viewing Etiquette
It is important that wildflower viewers don’t trample the flowers, which would prevent them from setting seed for following years. In my experience, most people are quite respectful of the flowers, although it is quite tempting to walk out into the fields.
Along Highway 58
There are several places along Highway 58, particularly as you approach Shell Creek Road, that have expanses of wildflowers. The land at Shell Creek Road is privately owned, but the owners graciously allow visitors to view the wildflowers. In both 2019 and 2023, there were crowds of wildflower watchers parked along the road as well as in a designated parking area just for this activity. In both years, the flowers were amazing, although I think 2019 was slightly more prolific than this year.
Carrizo Plain National Monument
This spring there were plenty of wildflowers, and the hills were painted with yellow when I was there in early spring. I was too early for some of the later-blooming flowers that would add swaths of pink and purple to the hills, but the views were still breathtaking. And there were lots of visitors to see the beauty.
The photos below are from 2019, which was a great year for wildflowers at Carrizo Plain.
Carrizo Plain National Monument, located east of San Luis Obispo, is managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management. From the website:
Three hundred years ago, California’s Central Valley was vast grassland where antelope and elk grazed and wildflowers swept the spring landscape. Today, amid urban and agriculture development, a remnant remains in the Carrizo Plain National Monument.
…The plain is home to diverse communities of wildlife and plant species including several listed as threatened or endangered and is an area culturally important to Native Americans.
To the northeast and southwest of the plain are mountains, formed in part by the San Andreas fault, which runs along the northeast side of the plain at the base of the Elkhorn Scarp, a visible and dramatic part of the fault. The section of the San Andreas Fault in the Carrizo Plain is the oldest section along the entire fault zone and is responsible for the distinctive features of the plain.
Here are some resources for learning more about the Carrizo Plain.
The San Luis Obispo Chapter of CNPS offers a “wildflower bundle” composed of two books on wildflowers, one for San Luis Obispo County and one specifically for the Carrizo Plain.
- Wildflowers of San Luis Obispo County, Second edition, edited by David J. Keil, Ph.D.
- Wildflowers of the Carrizo Plain, California Native Plant Society, San Luis Obispo Chapter.
- Carrizo Plain National Monument (BLM)
- Friends of the Carrizo Plain
- Carrizo Plain Conservancy
- The Nature Conservancy: Carrizo Plain National Monument
—Robin Mitchell, Recording Secretary, CNPS East Bay Chapter