Lessons from the Carrizo Plain

Last week I paid my first visit to the Carrizo Plain since 2005. David K. Lynch’s superb Field Guide to the San Andreas Fault says, “Nowhere in California is the San Andreas Fault more dramatically expressed than in the Carrizo Plain, a closed depression between the Temblor Range to the east and the Caliente Range to the west. Water drains in and evaporates leaving the glistening, usually dry Soda Lake. . . . There is little ground cover and the unobstructed views reveal countless tectonic features in all their glory.” That was true in 2005, when I came through in October and didn’t meet another soul. Not true last week — it was the peak of the wildflower season, Soda Lake was a by-god lake, and hundreds of car-driving, selfie-taking visitors were scattered across this wide, remote national monument. (For this post I’m offering some 1000-pixel images, just because.)

Topographically, the Plain is a basin with closed drainage, where all streams, such as they are, lead to Soda Lake. Geologically, the Plain is a sedimentary basin that until just a few million years ago was part of the Great Valley. Then the tectonic plates shifted slightly, the San Andreas fault was squeezed, and on its east side the rocks folded up to form the Temblor Range. Later the whole Plain was raised almost 2000 feet.

Coastal California has been going through rearrangements like this for some time, and Oakland’s younger rocks like the Claremont Shale probably formed in a basin the same way, one that was off the coast. North of the Plain, roadcuts in the Bitterwater Valley expose the kind of rocks being made in the Carrizo basin. They’ve been tilted nearly vertical by forces across the fault, just as their cousins in Oakland have been tilted by squeezing across the Hayward fault.

A place stuck between the Temblor and Caliente Ranges sounds kind of inhospitable, and even though the landscape resembled a gigantic Holi festival, a brisk and parching wind blew the whole time I was there. The Carrizo flowers are as tough as they are beautiful.

You like those purple Phacelias? Here’s a billion of them.

This is the view downvalley toward the San Emigdio Mountains, with the Caliente Range on the right. On the left, the peaks of the Temblor Range are nearly hidden by the lower range of the Elkhorn Hills, which are a large pressure ridge directly along the San Andreas fault. That’s where I drove next.

The most famous, geo-tourist-trappy place in the Elkhorn Hills is at their north end, where the fault has forced Wallace Creek to jog hard to the right. I didn’t go there last week, but this is how it looked from Elkhorn Road in the barren fall of 2005. The creek comes toward you on the right side, turns left behind the frontmost ridge, and cuts through that ridge on the left side. You’re standing on the Pacific plate, moving left about an inch and a quarter per year, and on the other side of that first low ridge is the North America plate.

I’ve shown you the same kind of stream displacement in Oakland, caused by the Hayward fault.

Anyway, down at the south end of the Elkhorn Hills the entire slope is warped by motion on the fault, and the spring vegetation helps bring out the distortion. Every little stream is curled to the left, like grass in a stiff wind. The expression of the tectonics in the landscape is so strong, just looking at this photo makes me clench my teeth. In person, in 3D, it’s even more uncanny.

The great earthquake of 9 January 1857 was centered near here. The ground cracked for some 200 miles. Shaking was felt the entire length of California and into Nevada. In the Carrizo Plain, the ground shifted about 30 feet. After that, the unnamed mountains to the east started being called the Temblor Range, and the San Emigdio Mountains also got their name, honoring the patron saint of earthquakes, at that time.

Ramón Arrowsmith, now at Arizona State University, has studied this region for decades. His 1995 Ph.D. dissertation includes a thorough backgrounder of the sciency side of this mighty, lovely land. But everything he’s doing in California is interesting.

2 Responses to “Lessons from the Carrizo Plain”

  1. Ramon Arrowsmith Says:

    thanks for the reference to our work!
    I love the Carrizo Plain in flower.
    Here are a couple more Carrizo Plain on my blog:
    http://activetectonics.blogspot.com/2017/06/some-new-san-andreas-fault-tour-videos.html
    http://activetectonics.blogspot.com/2011/08/wallace-creek-new-radiocarbon-results.html
    https://activetectonics.blogspot.com/2013/09/exploring-topographic-response-to.html

  2. Frako Loden Says:

    Beautiful photos, wise words. I did not know there was a patron saint of earthquakes! Thanks, Andrew.

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