There's bad news and good news for California wildflower fans this year. Bad news first: There won't be a superbloom this spring. The good news? Every bloom you see will be super.
Following a relatively dry autumn and winter, don’t expect to see a repeat of the spectacular "flower mageddons" that occurred in 2017 and 2019, which were fueled by drenching rainstorms. Statewide precipitation levels are much lower than average, and the critical flower-producing month of February was especially dry. But Mother Nature came through in mid-March with game-changing wet days and cool temperatures, setting the stage for late-season flowers.
We asked California wildflower experts to weigh in on where flower-seekers should go in the next few weeks.
As a reminder for all flower viewing this year: Tread carefully among the colorful splendor and follow the California Responsible Travel Code any time you’re enjoying the outdoors. "Wildflowers are sensitive to human traffic," says naturalist and wildflower photographer Lisa Berry. "When they get trampled, it can take years for plant life to recover." Stay on established trails, don't ever pick wildflowers, and no matter how much you want that close-up, don't step on vulnerable plant life.
To see the best of the blooms in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Berry recommends visiting during peak season from late March to early May.
Near Oroville, she suggests flower fans head to North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve. "Table Mountain can be covered in goldfields and sky lupine, with vibrant patches of pink and magenta bitter root decorating volcanic slabs, white meadowfoam lining the streams, and purple owl’s clover brushing the grasses," she says.
Berry also recommends Buttermilk Bend Trail in South Yuba River State Park near Penn Valley. The easy path runs 2.4 miles alongside the granite-lined pools of the South Yuba River, and interpretive signs identify the flowers. Berry says to look for fairy lanterns, live forever, redbud, and the elusive Dutchman’s pipe, a vine with a distinctive saxophone-like flower.
If you’re game for a longer hike, head to the Stevens Trail near Colfax, which travels 4.5 miles one-way to the banks of the North Fork of the American River. "My favorite lupine, harlequin lupine, can be seen on the Stevens Trail," Berry says. Along with the pink-and-yellow lupine, she says you'll also see bush poppy, Chinese houses, bush monkeyflower, and slopes covered in tufted poppy.
A little later in the spring, Berry goes flower-hunting north of Truckee. "Plumas County and the Sierraville area have wonderful meadows and hillsides to explore," she says. "Blue camas emerges early in the meadows." After the camas flowers are finished, others make their appearance: prairie smoke, mariposa lily, and Hooker’s balsamroot.
For the best petal-peeping, timing is everything. "Once the summer temps hit, the window for catching the peak bloom will soon close," Berry says.
Visitors headed to Southern California's deserts may have to work a little harder to find blossoms this spring, but they're out there. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park officials posted this message on their website: "Our rainfall total is less than two inches since last April, so things are very dry, even for the desert. While we don't expect annual wildflowers in showy abundance, you can almost always find something in bloom if you look hard enough."
Botanist Susan Feldtman of the Desert Land Alliance says that with a little effort, serious flower fans can find blooms in Anza-Borrego.
"You have to get out of your car and hike in the shady, protected canyons," she says. "It's a treasure hunt to find the color, but there are nice blooms in Rainbow Canyon, Hornblende Canyon, and Borrego Palm Canyon." Hikers should look for purple phacelia, desert apricot, red Indian paintbrush, and the stunning white-and-pink flowers of fishhook cactus.
For the latest updates, call Anza-Borrego's wildflower hotline at 760-767-4684. A recorded message details where to find flowers and what to expect. You can also visit the wildflower page of the Anza-Borrego Natural History Association website.
Feldtman says that in Palm Springs, the cactus in the Indian Canyons are showing off flashy colors right now. "California barrel cactus don't mind a light rain year. They're getting their crowns of yellow flowers right now, and the bright magenta flowers on beavertail cactus are starting to open up," she says.
You can also find barrel cactus in bloom along the North Lykken Trail in downtown Palm Springs, Feldtman says.
Other popular Southern California flower destinations are not faring as well this season. The livestream "Poppy Cam" at Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve shows golden brown grasses and no poppies. Rangers at Carrizo Plain National Monument report that the hills are turning green, but there are few flowers. Death Valley National Park reports no flowers blooming on the desert floor or in the lower foothill regions. However, once the snow melts on Telescope Peak—most likely in May—hikers will likely find red wavyleaf desert paintbrush and blue-purple lupine blooming in Arcane Meadows, two miles up the trail.
Wildflowers can be fickle, and even small changes in the weather can affect the bloom for better or worse, so check for updates before heading out. The single best source for Southern California wildflowers is the Theodore Payne Foundation website and recorded hotline (818-768-1802), which offers updated reports every Friday.