TRIP REPORT: Springtime In The Cuyama Valley

September 24, 2012 | Adventures, Trip Reports

by Deek Speredelozzi • photo © John L. Wiley flickr.com/jw4pix •

trip_report_badgeTucked away amid the secret mountain ranges of California’s central southern coast, some miles inland, lies an inconspicuously-placed, and by consequence relatively unknown, river valley of profound natural beauty and dignity, bound on all sides by mountains. Scarcely resembling any of its neighboring lands, nor, in truth, any other part of the state, the dusty and dry Cuyama Valley is one of California’s most overlooked gems.

Only here’s the thing: the Cuyama Valley is not always dusty and dry. In the springtime, the grasses covering the valley floor explode in lush green shades uncountable, its vast fields drinking deep of the waters of the Cuyama River, which, meandering westward through the valley’s lowest troughs, infuse the brief period of spring renewal with a crucial lifeblood to which the valley is denied for most of the year.

On a typical year, the Cuyama River dries up completely by late spring, leaving its namesake valley a dry dustbowl, a region in wait—that is, until another winter comes along to dump its snows and shed its rains, thereby reinvigorating the river’s flow, and birthing a new season of vibrant, albeit fleeting, growth.

The Cuyama Valley sits along the border of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties- west of the great, flat San Joaquin Valley, through which Interstate 5 passes on its cannonball run from Los Angeles up to San Francisco (and points further north); and east of US Highway 101, which runs a more coastal route from Los Angeles up to San Francisco and beyond. The Cuyama Valley runs more or less from southeast to northwest, though actually at an angle somewhere in between that and a due east-west course.

The Carrizo Plain

The valley’s northern boundary abuts the barren and uninhabited Caliente Range, a line of largely- inaccessible dry peaks and ridges formed of seismic uplift, whose southern edge is marked by the Morales Thrust Fault, which parallels the course of the Cuyama River through its namesake valley. The Caliente Range boasts 5,106-foot Caliente Mountain, the highest in San Luis Obispo County; and bordering the range on its northern side is the 50-mile long Carrizo Plain, a 15-mile wide swath of dry salt flats and seasonal alkali pools that, although technically classified as a semi-arid grassland (in fact, the largest single native grassland left in California), more readily evokes the gorgeously parched sublimity of the Mojave Desert, 100 miles further east, than it does any grassland—in California or elsewhere—for the better part of the year.

The centerpiece of the Carrizo Plain is the 4.5-square-mile Soda Lake, a shallow, brackish alkali pool resting in a valley basin with no outlet stream. This absence of an outlet stream has everything to do with why Soda Lake is even there at all, as whatever water does gather there from the fleeting seasonal rains stays there until the sky sucks it back up through evaporation; Nevertheless, on all but the wettest of years, the lake tends to evaporate completely by mid-summer.

On January 17, 2001, as one of his final acts as a sitting U.S. President, Bill Clinton dedicated nearly the entirety of the sprawling Carrizo Plain basin as Carrizo Plain National Monument- at once, with a stroke of his pen, legitimizing the region as more than just the barren wasteland, devoid of any usefulness or “value” (in the American entrepreneurial sense) as which it had been long seen by those familiar with it.

The Carrizo Plain, like the neighboring Temblor and Caliente Ranges, which flank it to the north and south, respectively, trends to the northwest, following the rift of the great San Andreas Fault; and throughout the length of the plain, evidence of the fault’s violent history can be readily observed in the form of numerous surface fractures . Due to the gradual tapering in width of the Caliente Range as it approaches its southeastern extremity, the Carrizo Plain, as it extends southeastward, draws ever closer to the Cuyama Valley, meeting it at last where the latter reaches the San Andreas Fault, near the town of Maricopa, in Kern County.

The Sierra Madre

The southern wall of the Cuyama Valley- and make no mistake, it is a wall—rises up into the mighty Sierra Madre Range (Spanish for “Mother Mountains”), southernmost of California’s Inner South Coast Ranges. The Sierra Madre Range (not to be confused with northern Mexico’s far more expansive range of the same name) is a large and rugged expanse of chapparal-covered ridgelines and summits, entirely unpeopled, with more than enough trees to make up for the Caliente Range’s profound lack thereof, and to which its slopes thus stand in stark contrast, when viewed from the Cuyama Valley. The range tops out at 5,843-foot Peak Mountain, which stands sentinel over the Cuyama Valley. The Sierra Madre extends southward as far as the Sisquoc River, beyond which loom the still higher San Rafael Mountains, which overlook the Santa Ynez River Valley, home of, among other things, Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.

In between the sharp crests of the Sierra Madre and San Rafael Ranges sits the rugged San Rafael Wilderness, an expansive region of steep canyons and wild watercourses through which flow the Sisquoc River and its tributary Manzana Creek . The climate of the San Rafael Wilderness is defined as Mediterranean, though, due to its distance from the coast, the area experiences greater extremes in seasonal temperature than is typical of a Mediterranean climate.

The eastern end of the Cuyama Valley, as stated above, reaches as far as the San Andreas Fault, though the valley bends somewhat further to the southeast, following the course of its namesake river upstream as far as the point where the river spills forth from the Chumash Wilderness, a region of the Los Padres National Forest in northern Ventura County, in which originate its headwaters.

The Cuyama, Sisquoc, and Santa Maria Rivers

At the western end of the Cuyama Valley appears the La Panza Range, a northern extension of the Sierra Madre Range whose southeasternmost extremity wedges itself in between its parent range and the Caliente Range to the north. Here, after straddling the San Luis Obispo/Santa Barbara County line for nearly 40 miles, the Cuyama River just barely manages to squeeze its way through the steep, narrow canyon separating the La Panza Range from the Sierra Madre. West of here, the Cuyama River pours into the Twitchell Reservoir; and a few miles further downstream, after the formidable barrier of the Sierra Madre Range has dwindled into foothills, and then finally petered out altogether, the Cuyama River at last joins its waters with those of the Sisquoc, entering in from the south. From here the river continues on as the Santa Maria River, and flows another 20 or so miles until at last its waters taste the salt of the Pacific Ocean, near the town of Guadalupe, in San Luis Obispo County.

California Highway 166

The Cuyama Valley itself sits at an elevation of between 2,000 and 2,500 feet. Its semi-arid climate and relatively low elevation pave the way for hot, exceedingly dry summers, and cool, wet winters. The valley is pierced down the middle by California Hwy 166, a rolling two-lane highway linking I-5, near Bakersfield in the San Joaquin Valley to the east, with Highway 101 and the coastal communities in and around Santa Maria to the west.

Often times, roads (particularly paved highways) which pass through regions of extreme natural beauty are decried as eyesores, and are, by their mere presence in such areas, said to deface those areas. And in many cases such assertions are wholly justified; but there is something about the tasteful, almost delicate, way that Highway 166 is laid out across the floor of the Cuyama Valley: complementing, rather than striving against, the Cuyama riverbed and its surrounding fields and ridges, and orchards of peach, plum, and apricot, that causes any such claim of aesthetic impropriety to evaporate in the face of the experience of driving the highway’s length.

Seemingly at one with the valley through which it passes, Highway 166 coasts over the gently rolling grasslands of the Cuyama Valley with what feels like an almost intrinsic respect for the beauty of the region, as if the road was, in the deeps of time, laid down concurrently with the river and the mountains, by the very hand of Mother Nature herself, in a well-thought-out effort to infuse the region with some measure of harmony between its remote, inaccessible, and mysterious wilds and its tangible, more easily-appreciable country.

National Forest Roads and Campgrounds

Throughout the Cuyama Valley, several roads branch off of Highway 166 to the south, serving the front-country of the Sierra Madre Range, and trailhead-access to the San Rafael Wilderness. Most of these roads dead-end at the foot of the mountains, for the most part ending at ranches or Los Padres National Forest campgrounds, such as Aliso Canyon Park Campground, and Bates Canyon Campground.

The Sierra Madre Road (aka Forest Road 32S13), a rough dirt track which departs from Highway 166 near the eastern end of the outlet canyon for the Cuyama River, and heads southeast along the Sierra Madre Crest, providing off-road-vehicle access to all of the peaks along the ridgeline as far east as 5,749-foot McPherson Peak, east of which the crest drops off precipitously to the upper Cuyama Valley—far too steeply for any road to serve as a connector to the upper valley from the ridge. Santa Barbara Canyon Road, in the eastern Cuyama Valley, branches southwestward off of Highway 33, which comes up from the city of Ventura to the south, on the coast, and joins with Highway 166 about six miles east of the town of Cuyama, running concurrent with it as far Maricopa, twenty miles further east, where Highway 33 breaks off northwards, serving the central San Joaquin Valley as far north as Tracy, in San Joaquin County.

Santa Barbara Canyon Road dead-ends at the foot of the Sierra Madre’s eastern end, providing trailhead access to the eastern San Rafael Wilderness and the neighboring Dick Smith Wilderness, whose boundaries join one another near the headwaters of the Sisquoc River, which spring to life high up in the Los Padres National Forest, approximately 15 miles south of the towns of Cuyama and New Cuyama.

The Yokut and Chumash

The Cuyama Valley is uninhabited, save for two small towns, Cuyama, and its big brother, New Cuyama, four miles to the west, whose combined population hovers right around 550 people.The original inhabitants of the area were the Yokut Indians, though that term is in truth no more than a construct of the white settlers who would drive them out in the latter half of the 1800s; the people to whom this collective blanket term was applied were actually the constituents of more than 50 distinct tribes, whose native lands consisted of the San Joaquin Valley, from the San Joaquin/Sacramento River delta in the north to the area of present-day Bakersfield in the south, as far east as the Sierra Nevada foothills, and as far west as the Cuyama Valley and the Carrizo Plain.

Estimates suggest that the Yokut people (if we can accept the use of this collective term here for the sake of simplicity) may have existed in populations as high as 70,000 before the introduction of the white man to the area, after which the population of the Yokut was reduced by nearly 95 percent. Today, official estimates put the population of the Yokut descendants at around 2000.

In addition to the Yokut, the Chumash Indians are known to have lived in some numbers in and around the Cuyama Valley, though their primary territory consisted of the central and southern coast regions of California, from Malibu in the south to Morro Bay in the north. Three of the Channel Islands also contain evidence of Chumash settlements. The Cuyama Valley takes its name from the Chumash word for “clams”, prehistoric fossils of which have been found in large numbers in and around the valley.

The History of The Cuyama Valley

The beginning of the end for the native peoples of the Cuyama Valley can be traced to the 1840s, when the government of Mexico, of which the Cuyama Valley (along with much of the present-day western U.S) was a holding at the time, issued a pair of land grants for ranching in the valley. The land now being “officially” privatized, the new settlers had sufficient government backing to largely eradicate the existing native settlements in the valley. For its first hundred years of post-Indian-era history, the Cuyama Valley’s principal industry was agriculture, as the two large ranches established in the 1840s represented the region’s only commerce, aside from supporting businesses, such as gas stations, post offices, and supply stores.

Change came to the Cuyama Valley with the 1949 discovery of oil at the South Cuyama Oil Field, which led to the establishment of the town of New Cuyama by the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), in 1952. A small public airport soon followed, and the Richfield Company built schools and provided utility support for the town. For some years the area flourished as a result of the wealth of oil flowing from the ARCO processing plant; and for a time New Cuyama was regarded as the most important town in eastern Santa Barbara County.

Over the past six decades, the rich stores of petrol beneath the South Cuyama Oil Field have been largely depleted; and today, agriculture has once again replaced oil production as the defining industry of the Cuyama Valley, with only a handful of the oil wells of old still in operation. If you visit the Cuyama Valley today, you’ll find New Cuyama to be your only option for acquiring supplies and goods, and the pickings are pretty slim. The town is served by the C & H Market, an all-purpose general store whose cavernous insides, with its many rows of empty or half-filled shelves, testify to the town’s most robust days being well behind it. Despite the region still being a site of limited oil production, these days there are no full-time gas stations in the Cuyama Valley. The nearest gas stations are in Santa Maria, to the west, and Maricopa, to the east.

On September 3, 2012, during a construction project just east of New Cuyama, a backhoe dug into the ground and ruptured a natural gas pipeline, causing a major gas leak. As a result, Highway 166 has been closed until further notice.

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