If spring wildflowers were people, they’d be a carefree lot, free spirits who don’t set their alarm clocks and never check email. They’d toss their colorful heads with a mischievous catch-me-if-you-can dare, living by the seats of their pants. If they had pants. But they don’t. They’re flowers, born to be wild and au so naturel.
From coast to mountains to desert, capricious California wildflowers only emerge when they feel like it, often from mid-February to Mother’s Day — maybe, maybe not. Occasionally, if conditions are just right with the perfect mix of rain, sun, temperature and wind, these impulsive beauties get together for wild, splashy parties, as with last year’s rare, spectacular “superbloom” in Death Valley, which made national news.
In such desert regions, the flowers can be extra fickle, but also extra fabulous, even in years with less abundant flora. Bright swaths of color amid arid backdrops are a special treat and well worth a visit to places like Death Valley, Antelope Valley and Amboy Crater.
Be advised: Whichever desert delight you choose, don’t be as carefree as the flowers. Plan ahead. You’re in the desert, so be sure you know where you’re going. Check weather conditions before you head out. Winds and temperatures change suddenly, so wear layers, hats, sunscreen and good walking/hiking shoes. Carry twice the amount of water you think you’ll need — even if it’s not super hot, the dry air can quickly cause dehydration. Did we mention you’re in the desert?
And yes, while we all want to frolic through poppy fields like the gang in “Wizard of Oz” as Emerald City looms into view, don’t do it. If you crush the flowers, you’ll fall asleep until it snows … no, just kidding! You will, however, damage the seeds for next year’s blooms and get the hairy eyeball from passing rangers.
DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK
The 3.4-million-acre Death Valley park is home to some of the most magnificent wildflowers in the country. And while the intensity and density of the crops vary, it’s just a bloomin’ miracle they can grow in this harsh environment at all. Last year, the valley was awash in a sea of gold, purple, pink and white. Park officials are not expecting the same bounty this year, but rather a “normal” year, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at. Unless you’re allergic, that is.
“The park is amazing anyway and there’s always a reason to come to Death Valley,” says park spokeswoman Abby Wines. This year, she says, you might expect to see the most blooms below 3,000 feet from mid-February to mid-March. You might see some golden evening primrose, Bigelow monkeyflower or desert five-spot.
IF YOU GO:
Getting there: The main road transecting Death Valley National Park from east to west is Highway 190. On the east in Nevada, U.S. Route 95 parallels the park from north to south with connecting highways at Scotty’s Junction (State Route 267), Beatty (State Route 374), and Lathrop Wells (State Route 373).
Park info: 760-786-3200; www.nps.gov
Where to stay: Hotel capacity within the park is limited, so book in advance. Furnace Creek Resort (www.furnacecreekresort.com) includes first-class accommodations at the historic Inn at Furnace Creek, plus family-friendly stays at the Ranch at Furnace Creek; 800-236-7916. For other Death Valley lodging and camping options, go to www.nps.gov.
ANTELOPE VALLEY CALIFORNIA POPPY RESERVE
The Antelope Valley in the western Mojave Desert is a high desert grassland habitat where you’ll find, well, poppies. But also owl’s clover, lupine, goldfield, cream cups and coreopsis. The spring bloom typically runs mid-February through May, but this year rangers are expecting mid-March through April and maybe into May. “It’s a little too early to predict. Right now, we just have baby seedlings out there,” says park interpreter Jean Rhyne. “We’ve had so many years of drought, there’s not a lot of moisture built up in the soil. But if it keeps coming regularly, we could have a pretty good year.”
The park boasts eight miles of trails through gentle rolling hills, and there’s a paved section for wheelchair access. An interpretive center, open from March 1 through Mother’s Day, offers wildflower and wildlife exhibits.
IF YOU GO:
Getting there: The Antelope Valley reserve entrance at 15101 Lancaster Road, is 15 miles from the center of Lancaster, a city about an hour north of Los Angeles. From Highway 14, take the Avenue I exit and head west. From Interstate 5, take Highway 138 east and turn right on 170th Street West. Make a left at the end onto Lancaster Road.
Where to stay: Lancaster has plenty of hotels and motels, from Holiday Inn Express and Oxford Inn & Suites, to a Motel 6 and Hampton Inn. Visit the recently revitalized historic downtown district of Lancaster with restaurants, breweries and museums. (Details: www.cityoflancasterca.org)
Park info: 661-724-1180; www.parks.ca.gov
Bonus: Your park entrance receipt will get you same-day visits to other nearby parks, such as Arthur B. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park or Saddleback Butte State Park.
AMBOY CRATER NATIONAL NATURAL LANDMARK
Just off Historic Route 66 near the tiny town of Amboy (which touts itself as “The ghost town that ain’t dead yet!”), there’s a 250-foot high volcanic cinder cone crater that was formed through eruptions about 6,000 years ago, which is pretty cool in itself. (The crater area was even used to test Mars rovers!) But in spring, the rugged terrain is often softened by desert-sand verbena and desert sunflowers. You can see the blooms from the road, but it’s even better if you head to the Bureau of Land Management’s Needles Field Office day-use site and embark on one of two hiking trails – one easy, one pretty rugged. Allow a good three hours for hiking time. Or go a mere 250 feet from the parking lot to the canopied scenic overview point.
IF YOU GO:
Getting there: Amboy Crater is in the eastern Mojave Desert between Twentynine Palms, Calif., and Laughlin, Nev. Take Highway 62 to Twentynine Palms. Turn left on Adobe Road. Go three miles, turn right on Amboy Road. Take Amboy Road to Route 66 and turn left. Turn left onto the dirt road and follow it to the parking area.
Where to stay: In the town of Amboy, you may see the 1950s retro road sign for Roy’s Motel and Café, but it’s not open as a motel right now. All you can do is get gas, some soda and chips and take pictures of the cool sign. But there are plenty of options in Needles, Laughlin and Twentynine Palms.
Park info: 760-326-7000; www.blm.gov/ca/needles. Be advised, the park website is currently under repair. If it’s not available, download this PDF file for info.