Spring heralds an explosion of color as California hillsides, mountains, valleys and deserts come to life after a short winter's nap. A variety of climates and terrain keeps California wildflowers blooming throughout the year, but at no other time is the petaled pageantry this prolific. Wet winters almost without fail mean an eye-popping wildflower season. But this year's excessively dry winter and early warm temps means fewer wildflowers and a shorter season.
Wildflower names like scarlet monkey-flower, Indian paint brush, Western cranesbill and hummingbird sage stir exotic images. These are but a few of the hundreds of wildflower species found in California.
Everywhere the landscape is transformed into a palette of color. Fields of blue cornflowers, lupine and baby-blue eyes rival any Spring sky. Hills and dales are sun-splashed with the yellows and oranges of California Poppies, wild mustard and goldfields. The High Desert is a Technicolor showing of desert candles, Mariposa lilies and white and pink primroses. In the foothills, tiny "redbuds" clinging to leafless branches are some of the earliest signs of Spring. Later, at the higher elevations, dogwood blossoms lace the trees.
Regardless of when visitors plan to take a walk on the wild(flower) side, they should keep in mind several helpful tips:
*It's against the law to pick wildflowers in California. They are pleasures for the eye only.
* It's best to stick to specified trails so as not to damage fragile wildflowers and plants.
* Some wildflowers close up at night -- especially in the desert -- and need an hour or so of morning warmth to open up.
* Both wildflowers and cactus flowers depend on rain. A quick call to any of the areas listed or to local visitor bureaus can confirm that the flowering has begun.
Following is a partial list of the many wildflower viewing areas in Northern and Southern California.
NORTHERN CALIFORNIA WILDFLOWERS
Jepson Prairie Preserve, Solano County (530/758-5093)
The time to visit Jepson is late February through late April. Violas and owl's clover are among the wildflowers lending sun-color to the countryside. The tiny blue downingia can be found here, too. Wildflower Tours led by docents are free, but must be scheduled in advance. This year's less than stellar rainfalls have taken a toll on the usually vibrant prairie. Late rains may not be enough to save the wildflower season and birth of fairy shrimp in Olcott Lake. Tours have been cancelled.
Feather River Canyon, Plumas County (800/326-2247) Cascading waterfalls and wildflowers in the spring highlight the canyon's natural beauty - especially showy from mid-March through June with a constantly changing display of wildflower color. Early color may be seen in the yellows of the delicate waterfall buttercups and the reds of redbud shrub followed by the delicate white dogwood blossoms. Later wildflower colors may be seen in the yellow bush monkey flower hanging from the rock walls and the blues of the shrubby silver lupine.
Chico's Bidwell Park, Butte County (530/891-4671)
Blossom-filled wildflower walks range from easy strolls to climbing over rougher terrain. The Yahl Trail from Big Chico Creek to Brown's Hole, for instance, gradually stretches uphill for some two and a half miles while the round-trip on the North Rim Trail covers about nine miles of varying grades. Spring brings out lupines, poppies, delphiniums, buttercups and Western Redbuds.
Point Reyes National Seashore, Marin County (415/464-5100, ext. 2)
During March, April and early May, for many people, the sea views from Chimney Rock, near the lighthouse, take second-place to the sight of Douglas iris, violets, goldfields, lupines, poppies, baby blue-eyes and more. Each month brings a different batch of wildflower blooms.
San Bruno Mountain State and County Parks, San Mateo County (650/363-4020)
The Summit Loop--a three-mile walk that gains a bit in elevation--is the place to find yarrow, Wright's paintbrush, sun cups, seaside daisies, hummingbird sage, goldfields and others. The best wildflower-viewing times are in March and April.
South Yuba State Park, Nevada County (530/432-2546)
The volunteer-built Independence Trail is one of the few nature trails in the U.S. to have wheelchair access. From late March to early June, a spectacular array of wildflowers -- California Indian pink, delphinium, California pipevine, mock orange, iris, pink phlox, white fairy lantern, yellow cat's ear -- are visible here. More good wildflower viewing -- though not wheelchair accessible -- is along the Sierra Gateway Trail. This trail is about 15 road miles from Independence Trail, but only eight miles or so down the South Yuba River. Wildflower bloom here begins in late February and runs into April.
Sierra National Forest, Mariposa County (559/297-0706)
From El Portal, a mile below Yosemite National Park, the Hite Cove Trail traverses the South Fork of the Merced River. The trail -- about eight miles in all -- leads past 100 or so species of wildflowers. In March, April and early May, the ground is carpeted with baby blue-eyes, lupines, California poppies, mariposa lilies and other wildflower blossoms.
Kern County (800/500-KERN)
If your schedule doesn't allow for hiking, Kern County offers driving views of California wildflowers. In Kern River Canyon along Hwy. 178, lupine, blue dicks and popcorn flowers will delight you. On Hwy. 223 at Hwy. 58, be sure to stop for the poppies and owl's clover. In the Glennville-Woody area, you will be treated to fields of wild mustard and yellow thistle. For more information, contact: Kern County Board of Trade, 2101 Oak Street, Bakersfield, CA 93302
WILDFLOWER FESTIVALS & EVENTS
March: Squaw Valley Herb Garden, Fresno County (559/332-2909 or 800/579-8043)
Tours of wildflowers, herbs & native plants feature guided walk, identification of local wildflowers, native plants and cultivated herbs, storytelling, history, recipes, remedies, demonstrations and refreshments. By appointment. Squaw Valley Herb Gardens are located at 31785 E. Kings Canyon Road, Squaw Valley, CA 93675.
March: Blossom Day Festival, Sanger (559/875-4575)
Car show, a 10k run and two-mile walk, and a street fair with 50 arts and crafts booths, live music, and food booths with funnel cakes and Mexican specialties in surroundings that are expected to include the annual spring flowers in bloom.
April: Mather Vernal Pool Flower Walks, Rancho Cordova (916/737-WILD)
Two-hour tour to explore this magic carpet of flowers. These unique wildflowers bloom only for a brief period in the spring. Sponsored by the Sacramento Chapter of the California Native Plants Society.
April: Bufferlands Birds & Blooms Tour, Sacramento (916/875-9174)
California poppies, lupine, owl's clover, and baby blue-eyes grow around the uplands and wetlands edges. Thousoundsa of waterfowl and other wetland birds winter at the Fishhead Lake wetlands. Meeting location is weather dependent.
April: Heron Festival & Wildflower Brunch, Kelseyville (800/525-3743)
Treat yourself to a scrumptious brunch outdoors under the trees with birds singing overhead! The Heron Festival and Wildflower Brunch combine a wide range of individual and family activities for everyone who loves nature and wants to learn more about it. All activities are FREE, except the pontoon boat tours and the Wildflower Brunch.
April: Western Railway Museum, Suisun City (707/374-2978)
The Scenic Limited takes visitors on a six-mile round-trip ride on the , south from Highway 12. The trip lasts about an hour and passengers catch views of the native wildflowers that cover the rolling hills and fields.
May: The AVIA Wildflower Triathlons Festival, Bradley (805/472-3211 or 800/310-2313) View scenic wildflowers in their natural setting; triathlon competitions; photographic exhibits, arts and crafts, food and entertainment. For more information, contact: Monterey County Parks-Lake San Antonio, P.O. Box 2620, Bradley, CA 93426.
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA WILDFLOWERS
During wildflower blooming season (from March through May), visitors to southern California can take advantage of the 24-hour Theodore Payne Wildflowers Foundation hotline in Sun Valley, (818/768-3533). The hotline offers weekly updates on wildflower status in the Antelope Valley, Santa Monica Mountains, Angeles National Forest, Joshua Tree National Monument, and Anza Borrego Desert State Park.
Figueroa Mountain Recreation Area, Santa Barbara County (805/925-9538.)
Located near the town of Los Olivos is La Jolla Spring. March and April are the best months to see phacelias, mariposa lilies, lupine, delphiniums and a bouquet of other wildflower blooms. As a result of a major wildfire last fall, a spectacular wildflower season is expected this year.
Point Mugu State Park, Ventura County (818/880-0363)
In February and March, along the Ray Miller Trail, dainty shooting stars are out in multitude together with larkspur, sage and rattleweed. Other trails good for glimpses of spring color include La Jolla Valley Trail and Mugu Peak Trail.
Antelope Valley State Poppy Reserve, Los Angeles County (661/724-1180)
Just 15 miles west of Lancaster, visitors will be amazed by 1,700-acres of California poppies and wildflowers. April, May and June are generally the best months; travelers are advised to confirm the flowering.
Topanga State Park, Los Angeles County (818/768-3533)
Located in the Santa Monica Mountains, this park abounds in widlflower blossoms. Canyon sunflowers, poppies, sage, lilies, Chinese houses and foxglove blooms come out early and can last well into the summer. A good starting place is the four-mile Musch Ranch Trail.
Joshua Tree National Monument, Riverside County (760/367-5500)
Wildflowers begin to blossom in Pinto Basin. Beavertail, chollo and pincushion cacti bloom from late April until June. Evening primroses, desert dandelions, lupines, goldfields, desert stars, Mojave asters and various other wildflowers also dot this desert landscape. Starting near the Cottonwood Visitor Center, the four-mile Lost Palms Oasis Trail offers one of the better walks.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, San Diego County (760/767-5311)
In February and March, the desert terrain is brightened by red, pink, yellow and orange cacti flowers. Borrego Palm Canyon Trail (three palm-studded miles round-trip to Palm Canyon oasis) is a popular place to see cactus blossoms this time of year. More than 600 species of wildflowers are on view, including fireweed, desert lavender, white forget-me-nots, indigo bush and California fuchsias.
Torrey Pines State Reserve, San Diego County (858/755-2063)
This oceanfront terrain is covered with sand verbena, brittlebush, sun cups, wild snapdragons, California poppies, monkey flowers, shooting stars, phacelia, rockroses, golden yarrow and blue delphiniums. A well-labeled native garden center outside the adobe visitor center provides a more formal viewing experience.
WILDFLOWER FESTIVALS & EVENTS
April: Orange Cove Blossom Festival, Orange Cove (559/626-5179)
Parade, vendors, and pageant to crown the Orange Blossom Queen.
April: Theodore Payne Native Garden Tour, Los Angeles (818/768-1802)
Thirty-nine Los Angeles-area home landscapes are showcased on the self-guided tour. At least 50% of the plants in each garden are California natives, and some of the region’s most creative homeowners and garden designers will be represented.
April: California Poppy Festival, Lancaster (661/723-6075)
The California Poppy Festival kicks off spring in the Antelope Valley with a glorious array of celebrated performers, unrivaled events, and mouth-watering delicacies designed to delight, enchant, and amuse people of all ages.
May: Wildflower Show, Julian (760/765-1857)
Desert to high mountain flowers are on display at Town Hall, includes flowers High Mountain, Desert, Oak and Pine Forest, Chaparral, and High Desert.
Although they aren't wildflowers, the earliest blossom frenzy of the season is along the Fresno County Blossom Trail. Off Highway 99 just east of Fresno, a 67-mile-long flowering fantasy showcases the nut and stone fruit orchards of Fresno County. In February, pale pink almond blossoms are some of the first performers in this floral extravaganza. The breathtaking spectacle continues with the blooming of apricots, plums, peaches, nectarines and apples. The final curtain call is April through May when citrus blossoms perfume the air. For more information, contact: Fresno County Office of Tourism, 2220 Tulare Street, 8th Floor, Fresno, CA 93721; 559/262-4271.
More Wildflower Resources: BeachCalifornia.com, Plumas County, California State Parks, National Forests, Wildflower Hotline, California Wildflower Hotsheet, California Academy of Sciences, Nature Alley Wildflower Express, and BLM.