By Sara Hall | Contributor
SPRING 2023 ISSUE
BEST BLOOMING WILDFLOWERS IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
Photos courtesy of © California State Parks, all rights reserved, Irvine Ranch Conservancy, and OC Parks
Considering the recent drought, the wet winter that Southern California experienced this year was a welcome change — especially for residents and visitors looking for wildflowers.
The potential for a “super bloom” in 2023 has local flower fans excited, but it’s still too early to tell if it will live up to the name. Even if the local blossoms don’t reach full-blown super bloom level, experts are anticipating an above-average bloom as flowers have been popping up across the region since January.
In anticipation of a flowery season, we’ve got your guide to the best locations for seeing blooms across Southern California, plus top tips for responsible recreation.
HOW TO FIND WILDFLOWERS
For an easy way to stay up to date on what locals are seeing in natural areas, check out the Facebook group California Wildflower Report, where members post photos and details of flowers found across the state. The California Department of Parks and Recreation also has a “Wildflower Bloom” page for the 2023 season that is continually updated.
As of mid-February, California’s desert state parks are cautiously optimistic in expecting a “good” to “better than average” wildflower bloom this spring. Recent weather and temperature shifts may help or hinder the expansive wildflower spread.
You can also call into a free wildflower hotline, managed by the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers & Native Plants. Starting March 3, hear weekly recorded wildflower reports narrated by Emmy Award-winning actor Joe Spano by dialing 818-768-1802, extension 7. All locations are on easily accessible public lands and range from urban to wild. New reports are released every Friday from through May.
For desert-specific blooms, a great resource to check is desertusa.com. Readers send in reports with location information and photos throughout the wildflower season for California as well as deserts in other states.
There are also a number of local events and programs for those who might want some guidance outdoors. In Orange County, the Irvine Ranch Conservancy offers activities including a Beautiful Botany course, as well as free wildflower field guides on its website letsgooutside.org. All the activities have some sort of interpretive component where the lead volunteer or docent provides information about the land, explains Irvine Ranch Conservancy communications manager Scott Graves. Other organizations offering local programs include OC Parks (ocparks.com/events) and the Laguna Canyon Foundation (lagunacanyon.org), which native plant hikes led by volunteer naturalists.
WHAT YOU MIGHT SEE
Near Southern California, you’ll likely find a variety of colors, shapes and sizes depending on the environment. In the drier regions, expect to see desert dandelions and lilies, desert sand verbena, and colorful blooms on prickly pear and cholla cacti.
Scott says Orange County visitors are likely to see arroyo lupine and the California poppy, which is blooming across Irvine Ranch landmarks. Other flowers that might be spotted include red maids, fiddleneck, blue dicks, coastal paintbrush, wild cucumber, popcorn flower and golden violets.
Laguna Canyon Foundation officials note that around the coastal areas, visitors may also see school bells, splendid mariposa lily, chapparal sweet pea, Catalina mariposa lily, buckwheat flowers and shooting stars.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
No matter how tempting it might be to skip through the flower fields, pluck a blossom or take a photo resting on a bed of blooms — don’t do it. Park and land officials emphasize how important it is for visitors to recreate responsibly.
“The most important thing people can do to is stay on the trail,” Scott says. “Going off-trail can damage native plants and wildlife. It is fine to get up close with your phone or camera, as long as you are staying on the trail.”
Remaining on the designated trail means no shortcutting, no trampling vegetation, and definitely no sitting or lying on the fragile flowers. To get eye-catching images of yourself “in” the flowers without stepping on the beautiful blossoms, try using a longer lens to make the background appear closer.
“If the state is lucky to be adorned with wildflower blooms this spring, we want to make sure that everyone has a positive experience when exploring them,” says California Department of Parks and Recreation Director Armando Quintero. “California State Parks welcomes all to enjoy these unpredictable, rare occurrences but asks visitors to ‘Don’t Doom the Bloom’ by staying on designated trails and taking only photos, not flowers.”
“Nature is meant to be enjoyed, not tampered with, and taking items from the park can impact the natural habitat,” agrees Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park supervising ranger Candi Hubert. “Leaving flowers alone ensures others can enjoy them as much as you did.”
In the interest of safety and conservation, visitors are also asked to understand the area they plan on visiting, check the weather, respect the landscapes and know their body limitations, Armando adds.
The best time to see wildflowers blooming in Southern California is mid-February to mid-May. But conditions change quickly, so check the location’s website and wildflower reports regularly. For example, some trails get closed due to heavy rain, so check before heading out to ensure you have the latest information and are aware of the regulations.
Not adhering to these regulations can force officials to take more dramatic action, which happened in Lake Elsinore this February with the closure of Walker Canyon trails, access street and nearby parking areas. As explained in the press release, it’s a proactive measure to ensure the safety of residents, visitors and the environment. It comes as no surprise after thousands of people flocked to Walker Canyon over the course of a few months in spring 2019. As the super bloom spread over 1,600 acres of hillsides, it also spread over social media. And as an example of what not to do, some spectators ignored rangers and signage and walked off the established trail, sat and stood on the flowers, and left trash on the ground.
FLOWERY FINDS IN OC WILDERNESS
At Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in Foothill Ranch, hikers can see wildflowers along the Borrego Canyon Trail to Red Rock Canyon. The colorful sandstone canyon has one of the most interesting landscapes in the region, with more similarities to Arizona or Utah than typical Orange County geography.
For those up for a more strenuous hike, Candi says that patches of poppies can be seen at higher points in the park, like the top of Dreaded Hill, Water Tank and Vulture View Roads. There, flowers are growing on south-facing slopes for viewing at a distance. She also reminded visitors to pack plenty of water and wear sturdy footwear and sun protection, as viewing wildflowers at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park requires a good deal of hiking.
Another great local spot to find wildflowers is Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. With more than 40 miles of hiking trails throughout the 7,000-acre park, visitors have plenty to explore while searching for blossoming vegetation.
BLOSSOMING TRAIL SYSTEMS
If you’re looking for a challenging hike or an interesting trail with wildflower opportunities, there are several local options for hiking enthusiasts.
Chino Hills State Park is well-known for its flowering hills and trails that are home to California poppies, wild mustard, canterbury and school bells, arroyo lupine, and more. The best wildflower viewing experiences are on Bane Ridge Trail, but flowers can be found throughout the large network of trails, including the Telegraph Canyon, Sycamore and Aliso Canyon trails.
Watch your footing as it is also rattlesnake season.
Another great option for hikers on the hunt for wildflowers is Santiago Oaks Regional Park. Try out Santiago Creek, Barham Ridge and Weir Canyon trails for some flowery outdoor fun. You’ll likely see poppies, arroyo lupine, wild mustard, fiddleneck, and more.
FLOWERS IN THE DESERT
The Mojave and Sonoran deserts border Southern California, and it’s a special treat when wildflowers start blooming in the arid environment. Nature lovers can visit a state or national park for the best opportunities.
The dry landscape of California’s largest state park, Anza-Borrego, comes to life for a short period of time each spring. And if the early bloom in December is any indication of what is to come, this year’s displays could be phenomenal, officials wrote on the website. Visitors can see remaining sand verbena and desert sunflowers along the east side of Henderson Canyon Road in the northern end of the park and sand verbena at June Wash along State Route 2 in the southern end of the park. There’s also a wildflower hotline that provides up-to-the minute information at 760-767-4684 and a regular bloom report on the Anza Borrego Foundation website, borregowildflowers.com.
Just north of Anza-Borrego SP is Joshua Tree National Park featuring 1,200 square miles of impressive desert landscape.
There you’ll find mariposa and desert lilies, Mojave poppies, canterbury bells, desert dandelions, and more. Wildflowers may begin blooming in the lower elevations of the Pinto Basin and along the park’s south boundary in February and at higher elevations in March and April. Desert regions above 5,000 feet may have plants blooming as late as June.
Finding flowers blooming in the desert is tricky and the conditions need to be just right, so be sure to check the park’s websites and social media before heading out at parks.ca.gov/?page_id=638 and nps.gov/jotr.
COLORFUL BLOOMS IN THE CITY
For nature lovers who want to get outdoors without venturing too far from the city, there are several trails hidden in urban Orange County that feature wildflowers. Scott recommends people visit one of Irvine Ranch Conservancy’s self-guided access areas — try Bommer Meadow and Nature Loop trails at Bommer Canyon in Irvine, or Bobcat Trail in Buck Gully Reserve in Newport Beach.
Bommer Canyon is a hidden gem, with greenery and wild mustard covering the hills in spring. Kids will love the meandering trail in the canyon, home to one of the region’s last working cattle camps.
At Buck Gully, the 254-acre reserve is small, but packs a punch. The single trail follows a creek in a wooded area, tucked away between busy neighborhoods.
On the outskirts of a town is the Azusa River Wilderness Park. Situated at the gateway to the San Gabriel Mountains, a gentle trail follows the San Gabriel River along the canyon. In spring, you might see sunflowers, golden yarrow, scarlet larkspur, yucca and globe gilia.
There’s no shortage of flowering coastal environments in Southern California. Locally, check out Crystal Cove State Park or Dana Point Headlands; at both locations, trails along the beach, canyon or bluffs should have wildflowers, including bush sunflowers. Find lupines and wild mustard at Crystal Cove, or California buckwheat, prostrate spine flower and seaside redmaids in Dana Point.
Further north up the coastline, Malibu is also a popular spot for wildflower viewing. Nature lovers can visit Malibu Bluffs Park Open Space, Malibu Creek State Park, Point Mugu State Park or Point Dume for the best opportunities. Expect to see tickseed, bush flowers, California poppies, sand verbenas and evening primrose.
If you’re feeling up to a boat ride, search for wildflowers at Channel Islands National Park, which is home to more than 800 plant species. According to park officials, each island is floristically unique due to a complex interplay of factors, including distance from the mainland and other islands, size of the island, local climate, maximum elevation, and topographic diversity.
On the islands, you can find yellow tickseed, three varieties of paintbrush (including the rare island paintbrush and the even rarer soft-leaved paintbrush), tree sunflowers, white mallow, and island gilia (another rare and fragile flower). Some of the wildflowers are only found on certain islands, so be sure to do your research before heading out.
You can also see wildflowers on Catalina Island (not part of the national park) by booking a bus or Jeep tour of the inland wildlands or hiking along the challenging Trans-Catalina Trail. The island is home to bush sunflowers, poppies, hyacinth, lupine, paintbrush flowers and more.
WORTH THE ROAD TRIP
If you have the time, there are several incredible spots for wildflowers within driving distance.
Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is an intense mosaic of colors and scents during the wildflower season. The reserve has 8 miles of trails, including a paved section for wheelchair access. The dominant flower blanketing the hills is the California poppy, but there are also forget-me-nots and fiddlenecks sprinkled into the mix. It also happens to be the most consistent poppy-bearing land in the state.
Just a few hours further north is Carrizo Plain National Monument in the central valley, the largest remaining native grassland in California. The Bureau of Land Management governs the area, which is arguably the best kept wildflower secret in the state. Carpeting the valley floor are California goldfields, wild scorpionweed and fiddlenecks.
Whether you’re looking for an easy walk or challenging trek in the hills, beach or desert, you’re bound to have some flower fun this spring. Just keep best practices for viewing in mind and you’ll be set to explore all the wildflowers that Southern California’s top parks and open spaces have to offer.