California’s state name is traditionally attributed to the rush of 49ers who came panning for treasure. But there are those who insist that the nickname—the Golden State—has just as much to do with the California poppy, the delicate yellow-orange state flower that carpets the state each spring from Arcata in the north to San Diego in the south.
Peak season for any given area can vary somewhat from year to year, based on rainfall amount and temperatures. And drought can suppress the wildflower blooms, so it pays to check links to get the most updated information. But under the right conditions, wildflowers can be found nearly year-round in California, if you know where and when to look.
Peak Season: December-July
Death Valley National Park: Without a doubt, the holy grail of California wildflower events is the Mojave Desert “superbloom,” most famously at Death Valley–an event that occurs only every 10 to 15 years (the last two were in 2016 and 2005). Joshua Tree National Park, also in the Mojave, is also a “must-see” during a superbloom.
It takes a specific confluence of conditions to create a superbloom: It starts with significant rainfall in September or October, which rinses a bloom-inhibiting chemical from the seeds. But then, there must be successive rains, at least once a month, for the flowers to take hold. Desert wildflowers at lower elevations—including the valley floor at Death Valley—will begin to appear in early winter, peaking in late February to mid-March, with the blooms climbing up to higher elevations, with campgrounds above 5,000 feet seeing flowers into June and July.
“The most impressive are the blooms at low elevation, because of the contrast between rocks and the flowers,” says Abby Wine, a spokesperson at the park. “By far most the most numerous during a superbloom is the desert gold, which looks like a gold daisy, so there will be big fields of yellow.” Other flowers include the fragile white “gravel ghost” and purple phacelia.
Even if conditions haven’t resulted in a superbloom, you’re still likely to see scattered wildflowers in both parks around the same time frame.
Anza-Borrego State Park: The largest state park in California (600,000 acres), about 85 miles northeast of San Diego in the Colorado desert, comes alive during wildflower season with desert marigold, desert lily, sand verbena, desert sunflower, apricot mallow, desert five-spot, Orcutt’s woody aster, and blooming cacti.
Channel Islands National Park: The five islands that make up this park 25 miles off the Santa Barbara coastline enjoy a breadth of wildflower offerings, and each is unique. On Anacapa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel islands, yellow coreopsis can begin blooming in January, usually lasting through March. The rare, butter-yellow soft-leaved Indian paintbrush is endemic to the Channel Islands, but only found these days on Santa Rosa Island. San Miguel also is home to lupine and poppies, while Anacapa features vibrant red paintbrush and island morning glory. Santa Barbara Island also blossoms with lavender chicory and pale-yellow cream cups.
Figueroa Mountain Recreation Area: In late March, the flanks of this summit (about 50 miles northwest of Santa Barbara) and nearby Grass Mountain begin bursting with wild hyacinth, shooting stars, buttercups, milkmaids, Johnny-jump-ups, chocolate lilies, scarlet Indian paintbrush, goldfields, purple fiesta flowers, popcorn flowers, and poppies.
Peak Season: Mid-March to Late April/May
Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve: At this nearly 1,800-acre reserve 75 miles north of Los Angeles, the rolling hills blanketed in poppies can seem to go on forever, usually beginning in April and sometimes lasting into early May. Although poppies are the showstopper here, keep your eye out for other wildflowers, such as desert pincushion, blue dicks, California aster, and blue lupine.
Pinnacles National Park: This relatively small national park about 80 miles south of San Jose typically starts seeing wildflowers in March and is showiest in May, when more than three-quarters of the park’s flowers are in bloom. Depending on rainfall and temperature, the first-comers include milkmaids, shooting stars, and Indian warriors, followed by California poppies, bush poppies, fiesta flowers, monkey flowers, baby blue eyes, and bush lupine, and finally the heat-loving clarkias, orchids, penstemon, and roses.
Mount Diablo State Park: The park surrounding this 3,849-foot peak about 40 miles east of San Francisco usually see blooms beginning in early March, sometimes lasting into May. Choose from a variety of hiking trails to see blue skullcap, Fendler’s meadow-rue, sanicula, Johnny-jump-ups, bush lupine, monkey flowers, globe lilies, California poppies, bird’s eyes, and wallflowers.
North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve: This wide-open, 3,200-acre mesa near Oroville is a favorite stop for wildflower lovers from late March to mid-May, where you can wander among lupine, foothill triteleia, Sierra primroses, blue dicks, purple owl’s clover, and, of course, poppies.
Peak Season: Late April to June/July
Eastern Sierra: Northern California's spring blooms begin to show up in Mono County as early as late May, hitting their peak in late June through July. Tioga Pass in Yosemite, Bridgeport Valley, McGee Creek, and Parker Bench, among other areas, are home to every hue in the color wheel, including orange tiger lilies, yellow mule’s ears, golden mustard, scarlet gilia, blue lupine, purple wild iris, and rosy desert peach, just to name a few.
Lake Tahoe: Once the snow melts on the mountains surrounding the lake, the valleys and slopes come alive with a myriad of colors, from white phlox and Mariposa lily, to yellow plantain buttercup, blue lupine, bright-red snow plant, orange paintbrush, and lacy pussypaws.
Lassen Volcano National Park: The timing of Mount Lassen’s snowmelt will vary from year to year depending on the temperatures and amount of snow, but it can stick around well into summer, so that the lower elevations won’t see blooms until late May to early July–and at higher elevations, wildflowers go well into August and September. Earlier in the season, look for mountain mule’s ear, pussypaws, snow plant, and western wallflower, followed by corn lily and lupine.