The most abundant winter precipitation to hit California in a decade has flower aficionados budding with optimism about the spring wildflower bloom. Thanks to 2017’s rainy downpours and snowy deluge, flower seeds are germinating and roots are spreading. It’s already go-time for petal-seekers in California’s deserts and inland valleys—like the explosive color along the Fresno County Blossom Trail—and there’s more to come. From late winter through May, the blossoms will span across the coast and foothills, and by June and July, flowers will festoon the state’s highest mountains.
Here’s how to plan your prime flower-viewing this spring, listed in order of appearance. To track the latest on blooms, check updates from the Theodore Payne Foundation Wildflower website or the California State Parks wildflowers page.
Peak season: early March to early April
While winter still reigns in much of the country, bright-hued flowers paint the sand in California’s deserts. Starting in early March, more than 200 flowering plant species will put on a brilliant display at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in eastern San Diego County—and this could be the biggest bloom here in two decades. Walk the 1.5-mile Borrego Palm Canyon Trail from Borrego Palm Canyon Campground to see yellow brittlebush, purple desert lavender, and flaming-red ocotillo. Or trek three miles into Hellhole Canyon to see flowering barrel cactus, lupine, and phacelia, plus cascading water at Maidenhair Falls. Check the park’s Natural History Association site or call its wildflower hotline at 760/767-4684 for updates.
Joshua Tree National Park will also serve up a wealth of wildflowers—and with elevations higher than Anza-Borrego, blooms could last until May. From prime locations such as the Black Rock Canyon area or the Wonderland of Rocks, look for beavertail cacti with magenta pink blossoms so vivid that you can spot them from 50 yards away. Both the iconic Joshua tree and its cousin the Mojave yucca will bear spectacular creamy white flowers.
Peak season: mid-March to mid-April
Sixty miles east of San Luis Obispo, Carrizo Plain National Monument contains the single largest native grasslands remaining in California. In early spring, while tule elk and pronghorns roam, Carrizo should be nearly smothered in fields of tidy tips, owl’s clover, and California poppies. Flower experts flock here in search of rare and endangered species such as San Joaquin woolly-threads (tiny yellow flowers), kern mallow (delicate pink), and California jewelflower, whose wine-colored buds open into white flowers.
Two other nearby delights will include wildflower-rich Shell Creek Road, near Santa Margarita, where orange poppies and blue-purple sky lupine blanket the roadside; and San Luis Obispo’s Montaña de Oro State Park, which blooms with masses of California poppies, sticky monkey flowers, wild radish, and mustard, all along its easy-access Bluff Trail.
Los Angeles County
Peak season: mid-March to early April
Every spring, the hills west of Lancaster burst into a colorful display of California poppies, with their silky orange petals, and Antelope Valley California Poppy State Reserve hosts thousands of visitors who come to see the magic. Eight miles of trails lace the reserve, but most visitors stick to the 2.5-mile South and North Loop, with a quick side trip to Tehachapi Vista Point. For status updates, check the reserve’s site or phone the Poppy Reserve Wildflower Hotline at 661/724-1180.
On the Los Angeles coast, check out Malibu’s Point Mugu State Park in the Santa Monica Mountains. Hike the Chumash Trail uphill from Pacific Coast Highway: in the lower stretches, you’ll see poppies, lupine, and mariposa lilies, while up higher you’ll find the more exotic chocolate lily and blue globe gilia.
Peak season: mid-March through late April
When the South Fork Merced River is rushing with spring snowmelt, the wildflowers and whitewater vistas on the Hite Cove Trail provide a little friendly competition for the famous sites of Yosemite Valley, just 10 miles up the road. Park at Savage’s Trading Post on Highway 140, 20 miles east of Mariposa. A walk of only a mile or two lets you discover a motherlode of flowers, including goldfields, brodiaea, shooting stars, fiesta flowers, fairy lanterns, baby blue eyes, and Indian pinks.
San Francisco Bay Area
Peak season: late April to mid-June
Every year, Point Reyes National Seashore attracts droves of flower lovers to its rugged coastal bluffs and mossy Douglas fir forests. The park’s champion flower walk is the 1.4-mile, bluff-top Chimney Rock Trail, with an overflowing banquet of poppies, owl’s clover, tidy tips, checkerbloom, paintbrush, Douglas iris, and footsteps-of-spring. If you can’t get enough flower power here, drive over to Abbotts Lagoon, where an easy walk rewards you with more golden poppies than you can shake a stick at.
On the San Francisco Peninsula, the premier wildflower trail is at Russian Ridge Preserve. From mid-April to late May, its grasslands explode in a fireworks display of colorful mule’s ears, poppies, lupine, goldfields, Johnny jump-ups, and blue-eyed grass. And on clear days, the views of the Half Moon Bay coast will take your breath away.
Peak season: June and July
Spring typically doesn’t reach the High Sierra until July—and when it does, it arrives in a colorful parade of options (check out our guide to summer wildflower hikes in the Sierra). For an earlier look, hike the Sagehen Creek Trail, near Truckee, as early as June. You’ll spot western peony in the woodlands, thousands of pink shooting stars in the meadows, and—if you catch its roughly weeklong bloom—a carpet of blue camas lilies crowding Sagehen Meadow.
Come July, a good hike this year will be along Carson Pass Trail (east of Kirkwood Ski Area) to Winnemucca Lake. The volcanic soil here produces a vibrant flower tapestry: scarlet gilia, Indian paintbrush, blue flax, and sierra lilies.
Peak season: Starts in mid-July
Snow can linger in Lassen Volcanic National Park far into summer, so the wildflower season comes late too. The park’s 10,457-foot summit trail is the best place for astounding vistas and flower displays, like silverleaf lupine, with its blue-purple blossoms brightening the gray soil. Keep on the lookout for Lassen Peak smelowskia, which grows here and nowhere else in the world. Its white tufts peek out from rocky crevices, giving credence to its common name: alpine false candytuft. Also, look for pussy paws, its flowers resembling furry cat paws (if cats were pink).
Another great petal-peeping hike is along the Mill Creek Falls Trail, starting near Lassen’s southern entrance. Hike the two miles through a massive field of mountain mule’s ears—their sunflower-like flowers gleaming in the light—to reach the 75-foot-high Mill Creek Falls, the park’s highest waterfall.
— Ann Marie Brown
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