“The valley of the San Joaquin is the floweriest piece of world I ever walked, one vast level, even flower-bed, a sheet of flowers, a smooth sea ruffled a little by the tree fringing of the river and here and there of smaller cross streams from the mountains.” — John Muir
“The Great Central Plain of California, during the months of March, April, and May, was one smooth, continuous bed of honey-bloom, so marvelously rich that, in walking from one end of it to the other, a distance of more than 400 miles, your foot would press about a hundred flowers at every step.” — John Muir
The once-vast flower beds of California’s Central Valley that Muir described were paved over and plowed under a long time ago. Yet there is a small corner of California that, in a good year, still resembles Muir’s descriptions: the Carrizo Plain.
This remote, dry valley lies west of Bakersfield, separated from the San Joaquin Valley by the Temblor Range. There was never much development in the Carrizo Plain, and most of it remained ranch land until 1988, when the BLM, California Department of Fish and Game, and the Nature Conservancy joined together to purchase an 82,000 acre parcel of land, with the intent of preserving the plain’s unique ecosystem. This area became the Carrizo Plain Natural Area in 1996, and subsequently President Clinton established Carrizo Plain National Monument in 2001. The monument now encompasses 250,000 acres.
Most of the year the Carrizo Plain is a hot, brown, parched grassland, with hardly a tree in sight. But in spring, after above-average winter rains, it can have some of the best wildflower displays in California. Claudia and I camped there last week with our friend Robert Eckhardt, and we marveled at the vast fields of flowers. We found acres and acres of tidytips, phacelia, hillside daisies, fiddlenecks, and goldfields, growing together in dense mats, uninterrupted by shrubs or even a blade of grass. We had to tiptoe carefully to avoid crushing, in Muir’s words, “a hundred flowers at every step.” We also saw vast tracts of deep-yellow coreopsis, and in the middle of the monument we found a large, purple lake of valley phacelia.
We saw pronghorn antelope and tule elk, both reintroduced to this area. A herd of seven pronghorn came by soon after I made the photograph at the top of this post, snorting at our presence. One night, driving back from a hike into the Temblor Range, we saw three San Joaquin kit foxes (an endangered species), along with countless kangaroo rats (probably the endangered giant kangaroo rat). It truly seemed as if we’d stepped back in time, and were seeing what the Central Valley looked like 200 years ago.
Of course we went there to photograph flowers, and had a great time doing so. We found an endless array of potential subjects, and although we camped there for four nights, it seems as if we barely explored all the possibilities.
One of our favorite subjects was the tidytips. These daisy-like flowers, with yellow centers and white tips, have to be among the world’s most cheerful-looking flowers. We found extensive mats of tidytips, sometimes in pure stands, sometimes mixed with phacelia, hillside daisies, or fiddlenecks.
In photography it always helps to know your subjects. In landscape photography, the better you know an area, its potential subjects and viewpoints, and its weather patterns, the better your odds of being in the right place at the right time. When photographing wildlife, the more you know about an animal’s habits and behavior, the better you’ll be able to anticipate where to find your subjects, and what they might do next.
We don’t think of flowers as having behavior, but they do move. Many people know that California poppies only open in sunlight, and evening primroses only open at night. Did you also know that many daisy-like flowers turn to follow the sun throughout the day? This was true of the tidytips, hillside daisies, and coreopsis in the Carrizo Plain. In fact the tidytips anticipate the sunrise, and turn to face east before the sun comes up – as you can see in the photograph at the top of this post.
That was actually my second attempt at photographing sunrise from this area. The first time the temperature was lower, and all the flowers were drooped over and coated with frost. They eventually perked up when warmed by the sun, but I didn’t get my sunrise photo that day.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time in the Carrizo Plain. For a few days we were immersed in a flower-filled paradise, a beautiful remnant of what much of California once looked like. You’ll find some more of my photographs below. We also made a couple of hikes up into the Temblor Range, which was, perhaps, even more spectacular than the valley below. I’ll post some photos of the Temblors soon.
— Michael Frye
P.S. We didn’t see many clouds, so aside from a few sunrise or sunset images I concentrated on photographing more intimate scenes. Most of these were captured with telephoto lenses, and it often challenging to get everything in focus, so I used focus-stacking for many of the images. I’ve included extended captions to explain how these photographs were made.
P.P.S. If you want to photograph flowers in the Carrizo Plain, keep in mind that these photos were made a week ago (or more) so things have changed. Flowers don’t last long! That said, there may be new species blooming that we didn’t see. Also, I’ve seen online reports that many flowers have been trampled. This probably only applies to some of the more popular, easily-reached spots, and the flower beds of the Carrizo are vast, so I’m sure there are still unspoiled areas. But please minimize your own impact and avoid trampling the flowers, so that others may enjoy them, and the flowers can reproduce and bloom again. (This applies to any wildflower area, not just the Carrizo Plain.)
Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.