The official Bureau of Land Management website calls the Carrizo Plain National Monument "one of the best kept secrets in California." It used to be that even during a great bloom year you'd only pass a few other cars. But in recent years multiple major news outlets have covered the area's tendency to superbloom. While it is slightly buffered by its out-of-the-wayness, the secret is out.
The first time I visited Carrizo Plain National Monument was in August 2015. I can't tell you much about that first trip, only that it felt wonderfully quiet and lonesome. It was hot and dry and brown. The plain itself is a long expanse of grassland, edged by modest, sloping ridges. It's remote, and most of the year it feels desolate.
Back then, I road-tripped more often. I was young, broke, and always eager to escape the 600-square-foot two-bedroom in Los Angeles that I shared with a roommate with whom I frequently didn't get along. Gas felt cheap, even by California standards. So I left, as regularly as I could. It was my first year in The Golden State, and I was as awestruck by the mountains on the horizon then as I still am now (I hail from Minnesota, where no natural landmark is ever visible from a distance). I have since returned to Carrizo many times; I once even totaled my car there––though that's a story for another time.
Passing strangers as I drove through the plain this year, I couldn't help but feel a little sad that it was busier than I had previously known it. I found myself asking, "What happens when we return to the places we thought we alone loved, only to find them filled with others?"
Change is, of course, constant. There is no such thing as a return to the same place you've been. A new coat of paint, a building demolished and replaced, a felled tree, a wildflower bloom, a flurry of influencers. Something will always be different. Which is to say: despite its certainty, I am constantly working on making my peace with change.
"I like watching the way people interact in parks. I think of it like street photography, but in nature."
I like watching the way people interact with their surroundings in parks. I think of it like street photography, but in nature. While Carrizo Plain was more crowded than I've ever seen, I turned to finding pleasure in my newfound company. I largely stuck to the popular main roads, so I was bound to see more visitors. (Total your car in a park, and you might find yourself forever worried about things going awry again, and that might prevent you from braving some of the lesser-traveled dirt roads, and you might later discover that someone else took the very same model of sedan you drive on those lesser-traveled dirt roads and it was completely and totally fine. Change is unavoidable––so are coulda, woulda, shouldas.)
But the park is huge. There are more people, but they still only just pepper the landscape in their sun hats. Those with adventure cars (or gumption) appear as pinpricks on the rough, dirt roads, kicking up dust in the distance.
Carrizo Plain is gorgeous, superbloom or no. I visited twice during this year's bloom, once at peak, and once slightly past. The contrast was nice to see. Flowers faded, and trails through the fields grew more prominent. A botanist friend of mine recently told me that he doesn't get as upset as his peers about people flocking to and trampling through wildflowers. At least they're interacting with nature, he says. It was an oddly refreshing sentiment. I thought of this as I watched other visitors. My first visit was more crowded than my second, despite both being on weekdays. Word about the bloom's peak—and decline—travels quickly.
Who would I be to gatekeep Carrizo Plain? I'm sure in August it would be just as desolate as it was on my first visit, and I'm sure the next bloom will be just as crowded as this one. I can sigh over days past when it felt like I had the whole park to myself, but it wouldn't do me much good. I'm constantly working on making my peace with change. At least in a landscape as peaceful as Carrizo Plain, even with more people around, it's easier to do just that.