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Where to See California Wildflowers, Even Without a Super Bloom

By Deb Hopewell

Mar 5, 2021

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A 90-minute drive from Los Angeles, the 1,800-acre Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve offers a vibrant springtime escape from the city.

Photo by Shutterstock

A 90-minute drive from Los Angeles, the 1,800-acre Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve offers a vibrant springtime escape from the city.

A dry winter means another super bloom is unlikely, but that doesn’t mean you can’t catch Golden State blooms from Southern California to Northern California and places in between in 2021.

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California’s nickname is traditionally attributed to the rush of 49ers who came panning for treasure. But there are those who insist that the name—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, so it pays to check links to get the most updated information. While drought can suppress the wildflower blooms, significant rain in the state over the past few years resulted in spectacular super blooms in both 2017 and 2019. 

But will there be another super bloom in the state in 2021? For one to occur, it takes a specific confluence of conditions: 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.

So far, it appears that this winter has been too dry for that to happen again (the United States Drought Monitor shows “abnormally dry” to “moderate drought” conditions across much of California this year). 

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any wildflowers to see throughout the state in 2021. Here’s where and when to find wildflowers in California’s national parks and state parks this spring—and beyond—super bloom or not.

California Desert Wildflower Blooms

The best time to see California’s wildflowers is during a “super bloom” in Death Valley National Park—but it only happens every 10 to 15 years.

Death Valley National Park

Peak Season: February-July

Without a doubt, the holy grail of California wildflower events is the Mojave Desert “super bloom,” most famously at Death Valley–an event that occurs only every 10 to 15 years (the last two were in 2016 and 2005). 

Desert wildflowers at lower elevations—including the valley floor at Death Valley—will begin to appear in mid-February and last until mid-April. At higher elevations, areas above 5,000 feet, visitors will typically see 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 super bloom 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.

Death Valley National Park did not receive enough early season rains to produce a super bloom in 2020, and it looks like the same is true for 2021. The park has already updated its website to say it is not expecting a super bloom this year, but visitors can still expect to see a variety of wildflowers throughout the park.

Anza-Borrego State Park

Peak Season: Mid-February to mid-May

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.

On March 2, 2021, the park released an update saying there hasn’t been enough rain to bring on a super bloom in the park this year. But you can still find annual wildflowers throughout the park—try looking along the canyon trails, the park advises.

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve

Peak Season: Mid-March to late April/May

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, beginning in mid-March and sometimes lasting through early May. On March 2, 2021, the reserve announced that a season with “endless expanses of flowers” is unlikely this year, but that “there is always the chance for a ‘Miracle March’ to deliver drought-busting rain, so the fate of this year’s poppy bloom is not yet sealed.” Although poppies are the showstopper here, keep your eye out for other wildflowers, such as desert pincushion, blue dicks, California aster, and blue lupine. 

Central Coast Wildflower Blooms

Ice plants and coreopsis bloom on the Channel lslands off the Central California coast.

Channel Islands National Park

Peak Season: Mid-February to mid-May

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

Peak Season: Mid-February to mid-May

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.

Pinnacles National Park

Peak Season: Mid-March to late April/May

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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.

Northern California Wildflower Blooms

Wild blue lupine blooms around Lake Tahoe in the late spring.

Mount Diablo State Park

Peak Season: Mid-March to late April/May

The state 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. Throughout the season, volunteer “Flower Finders” update a Google Drive document with blooms they’ve seen on the mountain.

North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve

Peak Season: Mid-March to late April/May

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.

Lake Tahoe

Peak Season: Late April to June/July

Once the snow melts on the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe, 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.

Eastern Sierra

Peak Season: Late May to June/July

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, to name a few.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Peak Season: Late May to June/July

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.

This article originally appeared online on April 24, 2018; it was updated on March 5, 2021, to include current information.

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