Just 2 1/2 hours from Los Angeles, it feels like another world, bouncing along an old jeep road in the remote Temblor Range.
"The rainbow that these hills were for the last month is pretty much gone," remarks my pal Michael Lee Jackson, a professional photographer and amateur explorer, as we drive.
It's his seventh trip to the Carrizo Plain National Monument since mid-March. That was the start of the "super bloom" that transformed Southern California's deserts and prairies into stunning mosaics of yellows, oranges, reds, purples and blues.
Jackson loves documenting the changes. "Other than the shapes of the hills," he says, "it doesn't look like it's the same place at all, it looks like it's between paint jobs."
By now, the frenzied crowds toting selfie sticks trying to capture this quick burst of beauty for their Instagram feeds have thinned out. But there are still some purples and whites — the lupines, the hillside daisies. And on the floor of the massive plain itself, a huge carpet of yellow, hundreds of acres in size.
We're happy to have the place mostly to ourselves to explore.
The protected monument, designated by President Bill Clinton in 2001, is massive — some 40 miles long and 15 miles wide — daunting even. Standing on the floor of the plain, taking it all in, it's like standing in an inland sea. To the left, lusher mountains closer to the Pacific Ocean. To the right, desert hills almost burnt brown, cut by the San Andreas Fault toward their base.
There are few amenities such as signs or marked trails.
As the "super bloom" has started to fade, Jackson is training his lens on the old, decaying ranch houses with their collapsed roofs. There are Depression-era pickups and plows just abandoned in the fields, relics of homesteaders who tried to scratch out a living in a punishingly hot and dry environment.
"Life out here in these places has always been really hard; the elements are so extreme," he says. "People have this idyllic image of what it's like to have a 'little house on the prairie.' The answer is brutal."
Even this early in the year, the afternoon sun already feels brutal. In a few weeks, the mercury will be in the hundreds. All these flowers that sprang up from the rainier than normal winter will wilt and become fuel for summer wildfires.
At one of the few marked trailheads, Wallace Creek, we reapply sunscreen. Hikers are topping off their water bottles. A family in a minivan looks a little unprepared — we warn them to take more water than they think they'll need and to watch out for rattlesnakes. They're out now. We'd already seen two.
Asked where the best place is to see the super bloom, veteran visitor Jackson can't say. There's really no good answer.
"People want a quick panacea for finding the most beautiful stuff," Jackson says later. "But a place like this is different every day."
Jackson has been trekking out here for almost a decade. After another long climb, we've finally reached one of his favorite photography spots, a pullout and makeshift campsite perched on the rim of a steep canyon high in the Temblor Range.
There are still some lingering fields of yellow across from and beneath us.
"I was here before it bloomed, here after," he says, his shutter snapping. "And I can tell a bigger story about this place now."
What's that story?
It's about nature's impermanence, he replies, about nature's constantly evolving artwork. It's a story that most people will never see, once the super bloom fades to brown.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
In Southern California, this year's super bloom has transformed the deserts and prairies into stunning mosaics of yellows, oranges, reds and blues. It's also drawn massive crowds toting selfie sticks, trying to capture this quick burst of beauty for their social media feeds. NPR's Kirk Siegler sent this postcard from the tail end of the bloom at the remote Carrizo Plain National Monument.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Just 2 1/2 hours northwest of Los Angeles, I'm in another world, bouncing along an old jeep road in the remote Temblor Range with my pal Michael Jackson - no relation. He is a professional photographer and amateur explorer.
MICHAEL JACKSON: The rainbow that these hills were for the last month is pretty much gone. I still find them beautiful, even when they're stark.
SIEGLER: It's Michael's seventh trip to the Carrizo Plain since mid-March, when the bloom first started. He loves documenting the changes.
JACKSON: Other than the shapes of the hills, it doesn't look like the same place at all. It's like it's between paint jobs.
SIEGLER: There are still some purples, the lupines, the hillside daisies and, on the floor of the plain itself, a huge carpet of yellow, hundreds of acres. Down here, the plain is massive - daunting, even - 40 miles long, 15 wide and ringed by mountains, with the San Andreas Fault cutting through it all.
JACKSON: If you go up on that ridgeline of that mountain and the light is right, it looks incredible - same from up in these mountains.
SIEGLER: Carrizo Plain has been protected federal land since 2001, but there are few amenities - even signs or marked trails. So in this little field of fading purple, you can see the Instagram masses made their own trampled trails.
JACKSON: People find their own way. But it's a shame to see it so cut up. And I think it takes the flowers a while to recover. As you can see, they're just gone from some of these areas, as if...
SIEGLER: Crowds have mostly thinned out now too, along with the bloom. So Michael is back to training his lens on the old decaying ranch houses, with their collapsed roofs, the Depression-era pickups and plows just abandoned in the fields.
JACKSON: I think life out here and in these places has always been really hard. The elements are all so extreme. You know that from all your time in North Dakota...
SIEGLER: Right, right.
JACKSON: ...And Montana. People have this idyllic image of what it's like up there, to have a little house on the prairie. The answer is brutal. (Laughter).
SIEGLER: Beautiful - but out here, the afternoon sun is already brutal. In a few weeks, the temps will be in the hundreds and all the flowers scorched - fuel for summer range fires.
Here's the map. You guys can have...
UNIDENTIFIED HIKER: Oh, I didn't look at that.
SIEGLER: At a trailhead, hikers are reapplying sunscreen and topping off water bottles. We notice a family in a minivan that looks a little unprepared. Michael seems to be the expert out here. Everyone is asking him for tips.
JACKSON: And if you do go for that walk, bring a lot of water. It's hotter than you think.
UNIDENTIFIED HIKER: OK, I see.
SIEGLER: Oh, and by the way, we've seen two rattlers today.
JACKSON: Be careful of the rattlesnakes. You got your kids with you. And it's hot enough. They're out now.
SIEGLER: The woman asks where the best place is to still see the super bloom. There's really no good answer.
JACKSON: People want a quick panacea for finding the most beautiful stuff. But a place like this is different every day.
SIEGLER: We've driven up to the rim of a steep canyon.
JACKSON: This is where I took my favorite photographs this year.
SIEGLER: There are still a few fields of yellow across from and beneath us.
JACKSON: I was here before it bloomed, here after. And I can tell a bigger story about this place now.
SIEGLER: That bigger story is about nature's impermanence, he says. It's artwork, constantly evolving, even though most people won't see it out here once the super bloom fades to brown. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, at the Carrizo Plain National Monument. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.