Tule fog shrouded the grassland floor like a dewy blanket, a dense, moist haze that stretched for 25 miles or more. From the west, I studied its density hovering above a herd of at least 200 tule elk. Yet the wispy overcast weather hovered well below the upper reaches of the Temblor Range on the east side of the Carrizo Plain National Monument.
Located on the east side of the Carrizo Plain, the desolate Temblors rise above the Panorama Hills and San Andreas Fault, running parallel with each of these natural wonders. Temblor is a Spanish word for tremor or earthquake, which California is obviously well known for, especially along the great scar that is the San Andreas Fault. Jutting in a northwest-southeasterly direction, the Temblors average roughly 3,500 feet above sea level, and its highest summit is McKittrick Peak at 4,381 feet, located in the center of the range.
The tule fog (pronounced too-lee) that typically hovers above the Carrizo Plain might reach 2,500 feet in elevation and appears after significant storms. The phenomenon is named after the tule grass wetlands of California’s Central Valley. It usually arrives in winter between November and March but is experienced throughout the Central Valley of California.
It is a type of radiation fog, caused by the combination of increased humidity following a recent rain and rapid cooling temps that occur during longer winter nights. It is common between mountain ranges where little wind occurs, accompanied by layered, moist air from the Pacific Ocean and cool, crisp and clear star-filled skies. The two mountain ranges that border the Carrizo Plain, The Temblors and the Caliente Mountains, lie within the Coastal and Transverse ranges, allowing for this atmospheric natural wonder to fill in overnight, adding to the diversity of the teeming grasslands.
While observing the browsing tule elk herd as they meandered eastward toward the Temblors, that tule fog in turn acted like a ghostly vapor. The morning sun really highlighted 200 herbivores as they grazed unencumbered in front of the tule fog.
Within an hour though, they had vanished, the tule fog swallowing up every elk. From afar, it looked peaceful as they sauntered off into the abyss, but in actuality, there was a lot going on in the atmosphere hanging above the grasslands.
Tule fog condenses when there is a high relative humidity that follows a heavy rain, something that occurs infrequently on the Carrizo Plain. During wet years, the grasslands might get 10 inches across the semi-arid grasslands. The nights are longer in the winter months, which allows an extended period of ground cooling, and thereby a pronounced temperature inversion at a low altitude. And because there isn’t a lot of wind during the winter months, it can’t dislodge the tule fog. Warmer air from above pressing down from atop the Temblors and Calientes traps the cold air creating an immobile fog. Out on the Carrizo Plain, tule fog typically burns off by late morning or early afternoon.
Tule fog in California’s Central Valley has a notorious reputation, responsible for massive car accidents on busy highways. Many of these chain-reaction pileups can have visibility that goes from 600 feet to nil quite rapidly.
However, out on the Carrizo Plain tule fog works to a landscape photographer’s advantage. During the Super Bloom of 2019, I awoke before sunrise to low-lying tule fog and ominous storm clouds hovering above, but there was a massive gap between the two weather patterns. First light of a new day had pushed its way between the fog and the clouds. Deep purple hues offset the blanket of fog and clouds. A two-page spread of that morning appears on page 66 in the “Reflections” section of my new book: “Carrizo Plain, Where the Mountains Meet the Grasslands.”
As soon as I saw what was unfolding before me, I drove off in a hurry for Simmler Road, an alkali track which runs between Soda Lake and several concealed vernal pools. Shadows can be a challenge with landscape photography, and I knew diffused light would reign supreme across the sweeping carpets of tickseed coreopsis, purple phacelia, Japanese hyacinth, tidy tips and larkspur, and no shadows to contend with.
When I found what I wanted, I went to work marveling at the diversity of native flora popping with colors so fleeting that within two weeks they would be gone until the next monumental bloom. Standing there in silence with no one around and an abundance of color, I wanted the moment to last much longer. After all, there’s no telling when the next Super Bloom might occur.