Abandoned car along Highway 58. | Credit: Chuck Graham

At times, nature can be so unpredictable and ephemeral. Being in the right spot to enjoy its splendor is a guessing game. However, when it comes to the Carrizo Plain, a unique, dramatic landscape was already in the bag. Those grasslands just required a little weather.

Tule elk traverse the foothills of the Caliente Mountains. | Credit: Chuck Graham

One of the more short-lived weather events across the Carrizo Plain is snow. Usually, a couple times each winter a light dusting of snow falls on the Caliente Mountains and Temblor Range. Storm clouds hang heavy over those rolling mountaintops, and by early to mid-morning the snow reveals itself. It’s then followed by tule fog: a cold, dense, wet blanket that hovers, hanging low below the mountains, but just above the plain. By the afternoon snow and fog is a memory across the grassland biome.

During this last recent bout of burly winter weather from February 23-25, I drove out to photograph winter’s fury on the Carrizo Plain. I almost didn’t recognize the typically stark landscape. Seventeen years of photographing these stunning grasslands, and I’ve never seen snow blanket this incredible habitat.

What usually is a 2.5-3-hour drive from the coast, became a 5-hour slog in snow and ice. I ignored a couple of road closures, and saw why they were in place. There were cars abandoned along the way, but as I plowed eastward, fishtailing along the route, I suddenly found myself driving out of the La Panza Range, and marveled at the scene along Soda Lake Road.

Sunrise along Highway 58. | Credit: Chuck Graham

Property owners living on the plain are enduring flooding. The fortunate ones are living on “grassland islands” surrounded in water and that gooey, nearly impenetrable alkali mud. Walking out toward a herd of tule elk and a flock of migratory American avocets, I almost lost my trail shoes and sandals on each attempt. I came out of my footwear both times, nearly swallowed up by the mud.

At times the Carrizo Plain appeared like the Arctic tundra, cold and harsh, but utterly breathtaking. Dark-eyed juncos, Savannah sparrows, and horned larks probed the crunchy snow for seedlings. Through my binoculars I watched a pronghorn antelope reveling, prancing in the snow.

By noon the snow nearly vanished from the grasslands. Late afternoon shadows retreated into the mountains toward sunset. However, the Calientes and the Temblors hang onto their snow a bit longer, elevations ranging from 3,700 – 5,100 feet.

I was hanging on as well, soaking in a rare winter moment on the Carrizo Plain National Monument.


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