To harvest forever the dreams of the San Joaquin
In the last month, I further indulged my love affair with the San Joaquin Valley with a couple of outings into the hills surrounding the south end of this remarkable place. The San Joaquin Valley is perhaps the most altered landscape in California. Historically, the center of the southern San Joaquin universe was Tulare Lake, the second largest lake in the Western United States. Its watershed was cloaked in vast arid grasslands, riparian forest, the wild Kern River and a unique desert ecosystem that extended north to latitudes shared by the Elkhorn Slough. On this landscape roamed vast herds of tule elk, pronghorn antelope and flocks of waterfowl that would darken the skies. The surrounding hills host an impressive array of habitats as the Mojave Desert, Southern Sierra Nevada, Coast Range and San Joaquin Valley overlap in endless combinations of floristic associations.
There is a family connection to this place. In 1824, during the “Purisima Rebellion,” Native Americans at the Santa Inez, Santa Barbara and Purisima missions violently rebelled against their oppressors. Mexico had gained control of California a few years earlier and support for the missions had been curtailed. Conditions became unbearable for both the Spanish colonists and the “neophytes,” and violence erupted at these three sites. During the fray, a soldier with the surname Feliz was killed. His assailants quickly fled over the coast range to the east, and hid in the vast tulares of Buenavista Lake. An expedition of 85 men set out from Mission San Fernando and staged their incursion into the tulares at a small settlement called San Emigdio. The suspects were caught and brought to justice.
San Emigdio Canyon spills into the southwest corner of the San Joaquin Valley and historically drained into Buenavista Lake. There is public access through San Emigdio Canyon to a 93,000 acre private wildlife reserve called “Wind Wolves Preserve.” Years ago, I was involved in an elk relocation operation at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge that included the capture of several animals destined for the Wind Wolves Preserve. This was my first time visiting their Preserve. There is a spectacular entrance a few miles north of the highway that goes between Interstate 5 and the town of Maricopa. This is empty country.
This road gives access to the Administrative Hacienda, several picnic areas, a campground, and the San Emigdio Canyon trail. The Preserve conducts education programs, guided tours, and manages a volunteer program. Regardless of these developments, this is still a wild place, as indicated by their signage.
Learn more about the Preserve at their website.
The “canyon” in this area is a valley with a flat terrace between two steep hillsides. This dry terrace is cut by an jagged arroyo filled in places with stands of Fremont Cottonwood. The trail alternates between low profile grasslands on the flat terrace and the shady riparian forest. The creek flows alternately below the surface and above ground. In the wetter areas riparian forest dominates while the dry areas are dominated by Great Basin sagebrush and rabbitbrush.
Evidence of Native American habitation can be found in several places.
It’s easy to imagine inhabitants of this canyon looking north into the endless Valley with Buenavista Lake in the near distance.
To the east of this area, in the southeast corner of the San Joaquin Valleys lies the Tejon Ranch. This 200,000 acres ranch is the largest in California. I have driven by it my entire adult life. What a thrill to get a chance to tour this beautiful area. I joined a small group of folks conducting a herp survey of the Tejon Ranch. We met in Lebec and carpooled to Tejon Canyon. This valley had scattered large Valley Oaks, looking deep green despite the drought conditions evident on the surrounding hills.
As we traveled up canyon, the Valley Oaks gave way to Blue Oaks with Sycamore and Cottonwoods along Tejon Creek.
This was an area where we found several Gilbert Skinks and Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes.
Continuing up slope, we encountered Black Oak and open meadows.
The ridge top had scattered sagebrush and spruce. Quite different from where we started and starkly contrasting with the vegetation on the desert side of these mountains.
As we topped the crest and headed down into the Antelope Valley, the vegetation changed dramatically. This was the high desert and patches of Joshua Tree appeared amongst the dry grasslands.
Finally, we looped back to Lebec and our loop through the enormous Tejon Ranch was over. Both of these properties were absolutely spectacular. Both conduct tours of these lands that the public can participate in. If you have interest in seeing some of the lesser known parts of California, take some time to visit the Southern San Joaquin Valley and get a glimpse of old California.
“They say the Sierra melts with the rain
To race through the valley like blood through the vein
Turning the lowland from golden to green
To harvest forever the dreams of the San Joaquin”
– Randy Sharp