Knowing how fickle the seasons can be in Southern California – one year too wet, the next two years too dry, then a sudden downpour – you can never totally count on there being a good wildflower season in any given year.
But you can’t discount the possibility of a floral explosion, either.
When the rains align and soak the ground just enough to germinate some seeds and give life to our natives, it’s more than just pretty. It’s downright super – and that sends Southern Californians out to cross our county lines and hike trails both new and familiar.
Even if you don’t know which flowers are busting out all over just by looking at them, here are six of the best places to witness the super bloom while it’s in effect.
The same “Leave No Trace” principles apply to all of them: Don’t pick the flowers, stay on the official trails, leave your drones at home, and keep your dogs on a leash except in designated off-leash areas.
1. Borrego Springs, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
The rest of the year, California’s largest state park is a well-kept secret. But during wildflower season, it’s one of the best places in Southern California to reliably see a good burst of color – and that means tourists from around the world descend upon the tiny town of Borrego Springs, population 3,429. That may place Anza-Borrego State Park at the top of your list… or the bottom of it.
During a super bloom season, expect the visitor’s center and the easiest trails (like the Borrego Palm Canyon trail and Hellhole Canyon) to be crowded, with little-to-no parking and even traffic backups. Print your maps from California State Parks and Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association before you leave home to save time. And with a little patience, you’ll see some blooming red ocotillo, blossoming cacti (including barrel cactus and hedgehog cactus), apricot mallow, California bluebells, and Bigelow’s monkeyflower.
Drive pretty much anywhere around town and you’ll spot carpets of wildflowers in yellow and pink and blue, right off the side of the road. But the great thing about this sizeable state park is that you can pretty easily – and quickly – get off the beaten path. In the “Galleta Meadows” open-air sculpture garden, you’ll find plenty of wildflowers surrounding the larger-than-life creatures crafted by metal sculptor Ricardo Breceda. And if your car has 4WD, you can explore the backcountry and be treated to evening primrose and maybe even the rare desert five-spot. Keep your eyes open for desert lilies as well.
2. Walker Canyon, Lake Elsinore
We Californians have this thing about poppies – our state flower since 1903 and a mainstay of our state’s landscape in the spring. Lake Elsinore is one of the best places to see carpets of them cover the hillsides. But the secret is out, and that means that even the unofficial wildflower viewing spots (like by the Lake Avenue exit off the 15 Freeway) can get become congested by traffic and clogged with cameras.
The most reliable spot in Lake Elsinore to peep our poppies is Walker Canyon. Managed by the Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority, this nature reserve is unstaffed with zero facilities – though during peak season, you may find a port-a-potty or two and a couple of ice cream trucks. When traffic gets too jammed, local police will be out in full force to direct drivers onto and off of the freeway exits by the Walker Canyon entrance.
Park along Walker Canyon Road and walk up the main dirt trail that’s essentially a continuation of Lake Street. The higher you go, the more you’ll be able to leave the crowds behind, and the more the wildflower offerings will diversify beyond orange poppies and into purple chia sage and California bluebells. The trail eventually turns into Highcliff Road, as you approach the Lake Mathews Estelle Mountain Reserve, which the WRCRCA jointly owns and manages with Metropolitan Water District, California Department of Fish & Wildlife, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. As an alternate route, you can head farther south down Walker Canyon Road and take the lesser-known trail at Hill Top Drive – its flowers can be just as abundant, with far less foot traffic.
3. Diamond Valley Lake, Hemet
One super bloom destination that’s not open any other time of year is Riverside County’s Wildflower Trail at Diamond Valley Lake. The footpath usually opens up in early March (Wednesdays through Sundays only), giving you plenty of time to keep your eyes on the wildflower report and schedule your peak visit accordingly – usually sometime before late April. If past seasons are any indication, you’ll get poppies and bluebells, as well as blue lupine, Indian paintbrush, forget-me-nots, owl’s clover, rancher’s fiddlenecks, tidy tips, red maids, and more surrounding this 4.5-mile-long manmade lake.
Part of the Southwestern Riverside County Multi-Species Reserve – which Metropolitan Water District created in 1992 and covers 9,000 acres – the wildflower trail is a 1.3-mile loop and just one of three trail options along the north shore of the lake (which is really a water reservoir). As the Diamond Valley Lake Marina controls access to the Wildflower – and charges for both parking and trail use – it tends to deter the more casual and careless wildflower observer. Your entrance fee will get you a mapand a wildflower guide, but keep your eyes on the trail – rattlesnakes are known to hang out here.
You can also skip the trail and rent a boat to view the wildflowers from the surface of the lake – and to catch some fish while you’re at it. The lake is stocked with bass, trout, catfish, and more, and the marina offers a variety of boat rentals all year long.
4. Chino Hills State Park, Chino Hills
Located 10 miles northwest of the city of Corona, between the Santa Ana Mountains and the Whittier Hills, Chino Hills State Park offers more than 14,000 acres of open space with a variety of habitats and even microclimates. Its population of native plants is incredibly diverse – and its wildflower blooms can range from California poppies and silver lupine to the endangered Matilija (or “fried egg”) poppy, which only grows in California. The park’s Native Plant Trail offers easy access, while historically the Bane Ridge Trail has been a good spot for wildflower abundance.
You’ll be sharing the trails with other hikers, runners, mountain bikers, and even equestrians and their horses, so observe posted signs and yield when appropriate. The trails may close if they become too waterlogged, so check the park’s Facebook page for the most up-to-date closure information. Paved roads and the Discovery Center will remain open during regular park hours.
Because Chino Hills State Park is staffed, your entrance fee gets you a personal guide to the super bloom when it hits – either through wildflower hikes led through the trails or at the Discovery Center in the westernmost area of the park, off Carbon Canyon Road in Brea. Rangers can point you in the right direction for where certain flower blooms are peaking at any given day and time.
5. Lancaster, Antelope Valley
The Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve in Lancaster has had impressive displays in years past – super bloom or no super bloom. And this state natural reserve is what most people think of in terms of wildflowers in the Antelope Valley – but it’s by no means your only option. Some years, a more breathtaking explosion of color can be found alongside many different nearby roads – including Lancaster Road (outside of the park), Avenue I, and near the intersection of Munz Ranch Road and Elizabeth Lake Road. Look for giant poppies the size of your palm – and not just orange poppies, but also yellow poppies, sunflowers, lacy Phacelia, purple chia sage, purple and blue lupine and more.
Poppies need full sun – so plan on arriving a couple of hours after sunrise and no later than a couple of hours before sunset. From the south, start by driving up San Francisquito Canyon Road to Elizabeth Lake and Lake Hughes, where you’ll start to see orange pops of color on the distant mountaintops and the occasional outcropping along the side of the road.
Father east in Lancaster, you can also head to Saddleback Butte State Park for a less traveled trek. Starts off at the Day Use Area, where you can pay your park admission fee (also valid at the nearby Antelope Valley Indian Museum State Historic Park). From there, take the Little Butte Trail and you’ll start seeing the first signs of yellow – fiddlenecks, sunflowers, daisies, and more. During a super bloom year, they’ll quickly turn into blankets of desert wildflowers that shine brightly in stark contrast to the blue sky above and the snow-capped mountains in the distance.
6. Carrizo Plain National Monument, San Luis Obispo County
While the wildflowers start to dwindle farther south, you can venture north to the Central Valley – namely, at the Carrizo Plain National Monument and the Temblor Range of mountains. Every year, park attendance is the highest during the wildflower peak, usually in April – but the wildflowers don’t predictably deliver every year, especially in the semi-arid grassland of the valley floor. When the wildflowers do show up, though – as they did in 2017 – hold onto your hat! You’ll be craning your neck to take in the large swaths of yellow and purple that blanket the hillsides and mountaintops that overlook the San Andreas Fault. Most of the purple is Phacelia, with some occasional lupine. The yellow is a combination of hillside daisies, California goldfields, and fiddlenecks.
If you’re coming from Bakersfield (the nearest city), head west along the Blue Star Memorial Highway past vacant ranches and defunct oil fields and get ready to be blinded. You’re free to pull off to the side of Seven Mile Road and Soda Lake Road and park wherever you like – just leave enough room for two-way traffic to pass through. And stay on marked roads that you’ll find on the map. No off-roading!
There are no “official” wildflower hiking trails at Carrizo Plain other than the short (but steep) 500-foot walk up to Overlook Hill and the Soda Lake trail and boardwalk, which are less than a mile round-trip. If the season continues to be wet, the seasonal, alkali lake may actually be filled with water, which is quite a sight to behold.