Come springtime, get ready for an eye-popping show—staged by Mother Nature at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve—in the far northeast corner of L.A. County. In the remote hills west of Lancaster, in a protected area noted as a perfect microclimate for poppies, you can experience a Technicolor display of California poppies, the state’s official flower, with countless bright orange petals unfurling in the sunlight.
Though poppies in the reserve bloom every spring, best blooms are influenced by a combination of factors: sun, clouds, heat, rain, and even wind. “The bloom time changes every year,” says state park interpreter Jean Rhyne. “Generally it happens early in April, but it can take place any time between mid-March and early May.”
For best viewing, time your visit for a sunny midmorning, if you can. “Midmorning is usually best because it has warmed up enough for poppies to open, but the afternoon winds haven’t kicked in yet,” explains Rhyne. “If it’s too cold or windy, the poppies close up.” Also, take care not to damage foliage while you take it in (the Antelope Valley in particular has suffered from over-tourism in recent years), and keep in mind the National Park Service’s leave-no-trace best practices.
Eight miles of trails lace the reserve. Most visitors stick to the 3.3-mile South and North Loop trails with a quick side trip to the Tehachapi Vista Point, but the best displays aren’t always there. Rhyne advises stopping in at the visitor center (it usually opens in early March) to get the latest updates on where the most flowers are blooming. If the poppies aren’t showing off when you visit, switch to Plan B and drive seven miles west from the reserve to Arthur B. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park. “It’s a native Joshua tree and juniper woodland, so it has different flowers blooming,” Rhyne says. “It’s also more protected from the wind.”
For status updates, check the reserve’s Facebook page, or call the Poppy Reserve Wildflower Hotline (661-724-1180); it’s updated weekly. And when it’s go time, don’t procrastinate. In 2015, Antelope Valley’s poppies blossomed with gusto in early March, but two weeks later, a record-breaking heat wave shriveled them and the show was over. Free guided walks are offered on most days; large groups should reserve in advance. (Call 661-946-6092.)
For more local fun, the town of Lancaster gets into the spirit in mid-April with an annual California Poppy Festival. Enjoy live music, food purveyors, a classic car show, arts and crafts, kids’ activities, and more.