You don't have to travel all the way to East Africa to go on safari. Grab your binoculars and camera and scan the 50-mile-long Carrizo Plain National Monument for its array of wildlife. Carrizo Plain, about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles and known as California's Serengeti, is the largest single native grassland remaining in the Golden State. It's home to the highest concentration of endangered species in California. Drive slowly on Soda Lake Road and search for herds of pronghorn antelope and Tule elk. The real challenge will be spotting rarer critters such as the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, San Joaquin kit fox, San Joaquin antelope ground squirrel and giant kangaroo rat. Don't ignore old fence posts either, favorite perches for raptors such as ferruginous and red-tailed hawks, prairie falcons and American kestrels. The tab: rental car $150, $100 for meals, $2 for a map of the Carrizo Plain, from the Guy L. Goodwin Education Center in the monument [(805) 475-2131, http://www.blm.gov/ca/bakersfield/goodwin.html]. It's open from the beginning of December to the end of May].
There are no facilities in a 50-mile radius of the national monument, so visitors must bring their own provisions, tent and sleeping bag. But this is car camping at its best. There are two free campgrounds, the KCL Campground in the southern part of the monument and Selby Campground in the north. Each site offers stunning views of the Carrizo Plain while a serenade by yelping coyotes, melodious western meadowlarks and Belding savanna sparrows fills nearby canyons.
Bring your own food. It always tastes better when camping. I'm persnickety about food, so we stocked up in Carpinteria at the Farmers Market, 3-6:30 p.m. Thursdays; 800 block of Linden Avenue, (805) 962- 5354, http://www.carpinteria.com , and Pacific Health Foods, 944 Linden Ave., (805) 684-2115, http://www.pacifichealthfood.com
Soda Lake lies in the northern part of the Carrizo Plain, and it's one of the largest alkali wetlands in natural condition in California. A raised boardwalk with interpretive signs on the west shore leads visitors on a tour of the lake that includes its geological origins and the 200 bird species that migrate there during wet winters. When it's dry, it's a cracked salt pan interrupted only by afternoon dust devils. On the other side of the boardwalk and across Soda Lake Road is an overlook offering stupendous views of Soda Lake and the surrounding grasslands.
The lesson learned
After a few days combing the Carrizo Plain, my wife and I discovered the wildlife was more visible during the morning and late afternoon, when temperatures were cooler. Wildlife was more apt to be moving around looking for food and water, then bedding down during the heat of the day.