6½” of precipitation followed by above average temperatures have created a super bloom in the mountains and high desert plateaus. Flowers have not been this plentiful or colorful in at least a decade, if not longer. This has sent hundreds of thousands of flower peepers scavenging for the latest hotspot of floral activity. Two of the best viewing locations are the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park – two hours northeast of San Diego – and the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve – two hours north of Los Angeles.
Hoping to catch what some describe as a ‘once in a lifetime’ event, I made the trek through the Green Valley to the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve. The reserve is an 1800 acre swath of high desert protected by the state of California in the 1960s as this once ubiquitous plant disappeared from the landscape. The California Poppy was named California’s state flower in 1903, but even then the giant fields of California golden sunlight were being plowed under for farmland or paved over as rural areas became metropolitan. The reserve is now the last spot in California to view a mass bloom of these four-petal, burning-orange flowers.
The trip to the reserve is a bit tricky in itself with many twists and turns along a mostly rural highway through the Santa Polena Mountains, but there is a substantial reward in driving through the Green Valley. As the name implies, the valley is incredibly lush and vibrantly green, a result no doubt of this winter’s extensive rainfall. The change in landscape is dramatic as you exit the valley and leave the mountains behind.
Once at the reserve, you may have to sit in line for a short time to enter the park. There are so many cars bringing visitors that the park’s staff can get a bit overwhelmed. Weekdays are by far the best time to visit as weekend guests can quickly fill the park to capacity.
Once in the park, there is a small visitor center with maps, dioramas, an audio-visual presentation about the ecology of the reserve and a collection of floral paintings created by Jane S. Pinheiro whose conservation efforts spearheaded the formation of the reserve. The park includes 7 miles of dirt trails winding through the fields and to the tops of several small hills for sweeping vistas across the valley and a wheelchair accessible paved section of trail. Visitors are required to stay on the trails and not venture out into the fields to protect the delicate ecology of this last remaining open field of poppies.
While the poppies may be the most colorful specimen on display – and the biggest draw – they aren’t the only flowering plant in the reserve. Other botanic perennials include the purple Owl’s Clover, the yellow twisting Fiddleneck, and the lavender Lacy Phacelia. There are nearly two dozen different varieties of wildflowers carpeting the desert along with Joshua Trees, Rabbit Bush and other types of desert plant life.
15101 Lancaster Rd, Lancaster, CA 93536
For Google Maps directions, click here.
There is a $10 per vehicle entry fee, or you may park along the highway fronting the park and walk in at no charge. Just be sure to enter at the main gate; entering along the fence line and crossing the fields will result in a citation and a hefty fine. The trip to the reserve takes about 1.5 hours from the San Fernando Valley and 2 hours from the Los Angeles Basin. Due to the twisting, turning nature of the road, a GPS device or printed out directions are necessary. A particularly useful bit of information - one I found out the hard way - is that once you head north of Santa Clarita into the Santa Polena Mountains, the only one place to stop for refreshments, gas or an ATM is in the small town of Green Valley, about 30 minutes south of the reserve.
This year’s bloom is the best in nearly a dozen years, but it won’t last long. Peak bloom is happening now and should wind down by mid-April with most of the bloom having faded completely by the end of the month. So pack your car and check out this ‘once in a lifetime’ display when nature paints the desert.