Every few years, typically between early March and late June, California’s pretty poppies and ethereal desert lilies sprout in unison from once-chapped ground that transforms into a habitable home for dormant seeds. The region produced some of its most magnificent wildflower season spectacles in 2016, 2017, and 2019—and we’re always on the lookout for more springtime wildflower explosions in the Golden State.
A super bloom is a rare and well-timed act of nature that causes short bouts of wildflower blooms all at once in a particular area. “Seeds stored in the desert sands for 5, 10, or even 30 years respond to wetter-than-average conditions creating carpets of yellow, white and purple flowers,” says Cameron Barrows, associate research ecologist at the University of California, Riverside. “The cause is a combination of the timing and amount of rain. The conditions are just right across much of California and the West.”
Once the brown-eyed primrose, little gold poppies, and desert sunflowers start blooming and reach their peak—typically between April and May, pending altitude and climate changes—you’re going to want to catch the surreal season. Be sure to #LeaveItBetter and consider these tips to make sure your California super bloom trip is as stress-free as it should be.
Here’s the thing about wildflowers: they’re gorgeous. Here’s the thing about crowds: they’re not. California wildflower blooms are known to receive an enormous amount of attention and attract over a million visitors to natural areas such as Lake Elsinore, the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, Death Valley National Park, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and the Carrizo Plain National Monument.
Day trips from the cities (usually San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego) can be tiring undertakings and the best photos are taken at sunset or sunrise, so we recommend an overnight stay to see the sprawling blankets of flowers. Book your campsite in advance so you can get some super sleep, too. Borrego Palm Canyon Campground is a great public spot in Anza-Borrego State Park, but for more private and last-minute options, choose a Hipcamp stay like Rideout Hideout Carrizo Plain or Cuyama Badlands.
When you’re one of the first visitors of the day at a spot like Anza-Borrego, you’ll be able to roll through the dusty, one-lane roads with no problem before big crowds arrive from the town of Borrego Springs by noon. Here, head off of Henderson Road to spot pockets of blooms such as the sun yellow Parish’s poppy (Eschscholzia parishii), the tall purple Arizona lupine (Lupinus arizonicus), and the soft dune evening primrose (Oenothera deltoides). Heading out in the morning also means more flowers to see—many species close up in the afternoon swelter.
It might seem all too irresistible to venture off designated trails and make your own beeline onto the hillsides to the poppy fields, but you’d likely be doing more harm than good.
No one wants to see flowers trampled or ripped up, and that’s unfortunately what happens when people head off-trail to sit for photo ops among the blooms. And with increased numbers of visitors swarming, super blooms can put a strain on rural areas with limited facilities. Be mindful of locals and the natural habitat where you’re spending time. We strongly recommend adhering to Leave No Trace and Leave it Better principles so that both you and Mother Nature both stay safe and cared for.
Flowers aren’t just pretty: They’re good for you, too. “Science shows that not only do flowers make us happier, but they also have strong positive effects on our emotional well-being,” said Jeannette Haviland-Jones, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University who has studied the impact of blooms on people for well over a decade, to the New York Post.
Also, just getting outside our fluorescent-lit dwellings and hitting the trails can do wonders for your health. A brisk walk through the flower fields can help increase your white blood cell counts, decrease cortisol levels, and aid in balancing the brain’s bevy of enzymatic function. What’s not to like about that?
Another lovely part of a super bloom is taking in the soft scent emitting from flowers like California poppies, desert dandelions, and sand verbena (Abronia villosa), a plant made of small clusters of tiny purple flowers. Hikers should take a moment to lounge around in the sand on the side of the road—perhaps near a creek—to be calmed by the cool ambrosial breeze. Wherever you end up flower chasing, try to treat yourself to an isolated part of the park to find uncovered beauty.
With the huge influx of outdoor enthusiasts seen in areas with spring wildflowers, GPS and cellular connections are typically pretty bad. Park rangers have suggested going analog during such times, embracing old-fashioned paper maps, compasses, and maybe even walkie talkies to get around and stay in touch with your group. Traffic will undoubtedly be heavier than usual as well, and parking lots tend to hit capacity in record time. To get around this, give yourself time to make arrangements, stay flexible, and maybe even use your wildflower odyssey as an excuse to digitally disconnect.
Speaking of flexibility, wildflower hunters will need to come to terms with the fact that blooms can be gone in a flash.
Stay current on floral happenings with a variety of wildflower report resources. Although social media influencers have been controversial during recent super blooms, we recommend checking out Instagram in addition to the resources below for up-to-date community reports on where to find flowers.
With any trip to the desert, bring plenty of water and your biggest hat. Expect little to no cell phone coverage but lots of people! And you likely don’t need reminding, but you’ll want to pack your camera to capture the phenomenon. And be sure to share a few photos or video shots of your own! If you stay at a Hipcamp during wildflower season, tag us @hipcamp, and we just might give you a shoutout.
The orange poppies are expected to cover the reserve’s rolling Mojave Desert hills from early spring through mid-April. Antelope Valley lies an hour and a half from Los Angeles, on the west side of Lancaster.
A two-hour drive from San Diego, Anza-Borrego typically reports large amounts of wildflowers thanks to its higher elevations above the desert basin.
This California desert hot spot near Palm Springs is home to hundreds of wildflower species, usually found on the east side of the park.
This area rose to floral fame with its stellar poppy field super bloom in 2019. Rainfall has been light and we’re still waiting for blooms like in years past, but Walker Canyon is a beautiful trail to follow regardless.
On the desert floor, Death Valley’s lower elevations lend themselves to early wildflower sightings, with blooms taking place from mid-February until early April. Look out for the mariposa lily, desert paintbrush, and monkey flowers along Badwater Road.
View nature’s fireworks in Central California’s San Luis Obispo County, where hillside daisy and phacelia blooms tend to migrate into the Central Valley. The Blue Sky Center is a great overnight stay, just about an hour away.
Mt. Tam rarely experiences super blooms due to its climate and geography, but many flowers do pop up on occasion., including the exquisite calypso orchid. Make a weekend of it outside San Francisco—try to secure a cabin by the sea at the Steep Ravine Cabins and Campground.
This NorCal lake in the Sierra foothills saw the spotlight last year when lupine flowers exploded across areas usually under water. This was a rare sight for 2021, but we’ve got our eyes peeled for more lupine appearances.
Looking for inspo in an off-year? Witness the flower power of the 2019 California super bloom with this trip report from Hipcamp Photographer Ezekiel Gonzalez. Tour the south entrance of Joshua Tree National Park, then explore The Desert Pensione Hipcamp and see what you could spot on your next wildflower camping trip.
Location: Joshua Tree National Park
Hipcamp: The Desert Pensione Joshua Tree, CA
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