With the above average rains it is gearing up to be a great year for southern California wildflowers. I am an avid wildflower explorer and try to visit all the best sites at least once per year. As part of my research I decided to put together a simple guide to the best sites as well as books and other resources for identifying California wildflowers. Happy wildflowering, maybe I’ll see you out there in the field!
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Guides to Southern California Wildflowers
Book up before heading into the field. A well laid-out field guide is a must to identifying the southern California wildflowers you encounter on your trip. General California flower field guides only cover the most common flowers. Your best bet is to get a smaller regional guide to your area. They are much more comprehensive and will save you time searching as only the flowers in that specific area are included.
My favorite Books
A Field Guide to the Plants of the San Emigdio Mountains Region of California by Pam DeVries. An excellent little book with great photos and detailed descriptions of this unique botanical area.
Mojave Desert Wildflowers by Jon Mark Stewart is a great book for exploring the eastern desert regions of California including northern Joshua Tree National Park.
Wildflowers of the Santa Monica Mountains by Milt McAuley is the best local reference to the wildflowers of this region.
Wildflowers of the Sierra Nevada and the Central Valley by Laird Blackwell. Laird is a professor at Sierra Nevada College and has been teaching wildflower classes for over 25 years, check out his other local field guides here.
Sierra Nevada Wildflowers by Elizabeth L. Horn is a highly informative book with great illustrations that you can pick up on Amazon for a few dollars.
Death Valley Wildflowers by roxana S. Ferris and Jeanne R. Janish. This is an older book that has only illustrations and no photos. It is still a great guide to the unique desert wildflowers found in Death Valley.
eGuides and Apps
Desert Wildflowers Field Guide. Jim Bremmer of DesertUSA has put together a helpful Kindle Edition wildflower field guide. Focusing on Mojave desert species this book will help you identify flowers by color, name, and region.
Santa Monica Mountains Wildflower Tool. Available as a website or an offline app. Download this handy guide before heading into the park. Available with IOS and Android in a Beta version.
Cal-Flora is a nonprofit organization devoted to education related to California’s native and non-native vegetation. While not as useful as a field guide the Calflora website is a great guide for information and photos.
USDA Plants Guide is a great resource to learn more about the plants of your region. Information including maps, plant lists, photos and links to more in depth information.
The Jepson Manual Online. If you are a hard-core wildflowerer look into the Comprehensive California Herbarium Jepson Guide. This beastly 8 lb tomb is expensive and doesn’t make a great field guide. However their online tools and dichotomous keys are great if you want to get into the technical details of keying out wildflowers.
Desert USA Wildflower Updates. This website posts updates on wildflower blooms in specific regions as well as compiling other sources of information. This is your best tool for learning what is blooming, always check it before heading out into the field.
Theodore Payne Foundation. Posted in pdf format each Friday during the wildflower season.
Flickr. If you want to find the really good spots try exploring the photo map on Flickr which contains thousands of geotagged photos. Click “Search the map” at the bottom, type “wildflowers” and scroll around and look for clusters of tagged locations. Be sure to refresh the search when you zoom in or move to a new location. Why waste your time driving around when you can go directly to where the best spots are? There might even be one in your backyard!
Places to Find Southern California Wildflowers
San Joaquin Valley
Bena road was the historic route between Tehachapi and Bakersfield before highway 58 was built in the 1960’s. The south facing slope visible on the north side of 58 has some amazing early to mid-season wildflower shows. Depending on the time of year the best places to explore are along Beal road, Caliente Creek road and the Caliente-Bodfish Road that connects Caliente to Lake Isabella.
The Caliente region is located on highway 58 about 20 miles east of Bakersfield. It is accessable from highway 58 by taking the Towerline road exit, the 223 exit or Bealville road exit. While you’re here you will also want to take a trip down highway 223 that connects Caliente with Arvin, it is an especially scenic drive covered in native California wildflowers.
Tejon ranch was established in 1843 as a Mexican land grant. It contains over 270,000 acres and is the largest private land holding in California. Tejon Ranch is located in the Tehachapi Mountains and represents important habitat for a multitude of rare and endangered species. It is also a key migratory corridor between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Transverse Mountain ranges.
Tejon Ranch represents a convergence of several major ecological regions ranging from the Central Valley, the Sierra Nevada and east to the Mojave Desert. Two of the best areas for viewing southern California wildflowers are Comanche Point in the north and the southern side of the ranch in the foothills of the Antelope Valley.
The Tejon Ranch Conservancy hosts hour-long guided wildflower hikes in the Antelope Valley side of the ranch from mid-march through mid-April. This is an opportunity to see pristine desert habitat as well as several rare species of California wildflowers. Click here for the calendar of events.
Comanche Point on Tejon Ranch is noted for supporting a number of rare and special status species. Accessibility is only available through a guided tour. It is located in the foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains south of Arvin. If you have an opportunity be on the lookout for the rare Comanche point layia (Layia leucopappa) that bloom from March through April. To access Tejon Ranch and Comanche Point contact the Kern California Native Plant Society or Tejon Ranch Conservancy, who occasionally host trips to these areas.
Wind Wolves Preserve
Located along the southern foothills of the San Joaquin Valley the 93,000 acre Wind Wolves Preserve is a must visit site for viewing California wildflowers.
Several options are available for viewing wildflowers at Wind Wolves. The easily accessible wildflower loop trail is located near the entrance to the preserve. More hiking trails are located at the picnic area including the relatively flat 7.8 mile San Emigdio Canyon Trail and the more hilly Tule Elk Trail. The more adventurous can bike or hike the much longer El Camino Viejo trail. Download the trail map here.
Fields of lupines and bluedicks are visible in the lower areas around the Wildflower Loop and near the Visitors Center. If you hike further into the park be on the lookout for phacelia, gilia, and California poppies.
Carrizo Plains Area
There are great little hiding places to view California wildflowers if you know where to look. Cottonwood canyon is one of these places. It is located about 14 miles west of New Cuyama on highway 166. Turn south off 166 and drive about 2 miles down the road and be ready for some amazing roadside views of goldfields and lupine.
Bitter Creek NWR
This hidden gem is closed to the public but contains a wealth of amazing wildflowers. This is also one of the few places in the world you can see wild flying California condors.
You can only access the refuge through a guided tour with staff. Spring wildflower hikes are occasionally offered by the refuge or organized through their Friends Group.
Bitter Creek is known to host some rare and endangered native California wildflowers. These include Kern mallow (Eremalche parryi spp. Kernensis) , Adobe Yampah (Perideridia pringlei) and possibly the endangered California Jewelflower (Cualanthus californica) and San Joaquin Woolythready (Monolopia congdonii).
Klipstein Canyon is a scenic (albeit bumpy) drive starting from highway 33 just south of the town of Maricopa. It is another secret road for viewing California wildflowers that goes from nowhere to nowhere in particular. The canyon travels the through flat valley floor and transitions into rolling hills, rangeland, and mixed scrub oak woodland habitat. It finally bisects Bitter Creek NWR before ending on Hudson Ranch Road. Expect to find Fiesta flower (Pholistoma membranaceum), Brewer’s butterweed (Senecio breweri), Rubber rabbit brush, Phacelia, Fiddleneck, Lupines and California poppies.
The hidden gem of San Luis Obispo county. The Carrizo Plains is the home of the San Andreas fault and some of the most amazing wildflower shows in the world. Most of the year the Carrizo Plains is a large, open, protected area with little color outside of golden hills and the painted caves. During wet years however the Carrizo Plains explodes into a rainbow of California wildflowers and paints the valley floor and hillsides with color. While possible to do in a day, the Carrizo plains is so large you should consider taking a tent and making a weekend of it.
You can explore the Carrizo Plains from the main Soda Lake road or the parallel Elkhorn road in the foothills of the Temblor range. Highway 58 usually sports some stunning wildflower shows during the mid-season. For a fun day-hike head to the Goodwin Education Center and take a guided tour to the Painted Rock petroglyphs. Tours are limited and you must make a reservation before you visit.
Explore California wildflowers on the BLM flickr page here
Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve
Antelope Valley was named after the pronghorn antelope that once roamed here. It is located in south east Kern county near the towns of Lancaster and Palmdale. Take a drive through an area that feels like what California might have looked like in the 1800’s while getting views of some of the best preserved poppy fields in the state.
Check the status of the wildflower show on the Park’s page before you visit or call the Poppy Preserve hotline at (661) 768-3533. Download the trail map here.
On the way take a detour to drive the 12 mile stretch on Lancaster road between the Poppy Preserve and highway 138. If the park is blooming this drive will also have some amazing displays of California poppies, Filaree, Coeolsis and Lupines.
Fairmont buttes is an volcanic outcropping located in the Antelope Valley west of Lancaster and another great location to view California wildflowers, especially poppies. The butte is the big hill northwest of the Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve and you can see it as you hike the nature trails. To access the butte you have to exit the park and drive west on Lancaster Road. There are two access points, one on Lancaster Rd, the other on 170th St. Both roads are named 160th St. W. for some reason.
The Gorman Hills are easily accessible from Highway 5 near Frazier Park. Many of the best shows are going to be right along Gorman Post road. From the highway exit 202 and head for the Post road headed toward Quail Lake. You can drive a loop around Quail lake and end up on highway 138 which will take you back to the 138 or continue east towards the Poppy Preserve near Lancaster.
Because of the elevation the Gorman Hills will bloom a little later than the California wildflowers in the Central Valley and Antelope Valley. Expect to find California poppies, Bentham lupine (Lupinus benthamii) and Blue bluehead gilias (Gilia capitate).
Another must-visit destination to view California wildflowers while in the Antelope Valley is the Saddleback Buttes State Park. The buttes are a great example of native Joshua Tree woodlands perched atop a granite mountaintop.
Anza Borrego Desert State Park
Anza Borrego is the largest state park in California with over 600 thousand acres and five hundred miles of dirt roads, and lucky for us, tons of places to spot California wildflowers!
Some of the best places in the park to view wildflowers are in Indian Valley, along County Road S-2 to Mountain Palm Springs. For an easily accessible location that doesn’t require 4WD take a trip through Coyote Canyon.
For a great wildflower bloom report check out the page put together by the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association here.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park will still be a great viewing location even though predictions for a superbloom like 2016 experienced aren’t likely.
The park is huge so you will want to check the park website for a recent bloom report before heading out so you know where to start looking. The visitor guide for the park with information, road conditions and maps is available to download here.
Some of the best views are available around the Furnace Creek Visitors Center. Head north of the visitors center towards Scotty’s Castle on highway 190 for some good shows of Desert gold (Geraea canescens). The Beatty Cutoff Road north of Furnace Creek offers a nice drive and some good shows of Primrose, Phacelia and Gilia. While you’re here also take a short side trip up hole in the wall road off Highway 190 south of Furnace creek. Next head south to the Badwater Basin area to catch a view of some evening primrose and desert gold.
Although technically not in the park highway 178, also known as the Trona Wilderness Road in the western part of Death Valley has some really good shows. If you’re driving south keep an eye out when you reach the hills, before you get to the small town of Trona.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree spans two distinct deserts with two completely different habitats making it a wildflower mecca. You won’t find the flowers on the north side in the south and the southern flowers don’t grow in the north. Because of this you can get two awesome wildflower experiences for the price of one!
Because of the vastness of the park, the elevation and the varied habitat types, Joshua Tree can have wildflowers blooming from as early as February and as late as June. The park publishes weekly wildflower updates which you should download before heading into the desert. Desert USA also has a great page dedicated to updates on Joshua Tree wildflower blooms.
Grab a map before heading into Joshua Tree. The most accessible wildflower viewing areas are found around the West Entrance, in Blackrock, Indian Cove, and around the Wonderland formations. As you go deeper in the park take the road up to Keys View, and the Geology Tour Road.
If you have time head to the Colorado desert in the south end of the park. You will notice a gradual change in elevation and vegetation in the middle of the park as you head down into the Pinto Basin. If you’re lucky you will have an opportunity to witness the ocotillos in bloom! Also keep an eye out for the endangered Joshua Tree poppy, Desert dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata), Arizona lupine (Lupinus arizonicus), and Browneyes (Chylismia claviformis).
Mojave National Preserve
The Mojave National Preserve is located in the high desert with elevations up to almost 8,000 feet. This is a great place to view late season wildflowers and add some new species onto your list.
If the yucca are blooming some of the best views will be along Essex road and Black Canyon Road in the middle of the park. Indian paintbrush and Mojave yucca are also visible off the Kelbaker road near Granite Pass. Continue west on Kelbaker road for good roadside shows of Desert dandelion and Beavertail cactus.
The east side of the New York Mountains is another great location. Access Keystone canyon by taking New York Mountains Road west off of Lanfair road at the Ox Ranch. To access Caruthers Canyon there are some roads you can take north off of the paved portion of the Mojave Road near the Rock Spring Loop Trail. Keep an eye out for Claret cup cactus, Indian paintbrush, Giant four O’Clock, and Panamint live-forever.
Another great spot is off of Lanfair road exactly 5.4 miles south of Cedar Canyon Road or 11 miles north of Goffs of highway 66. There are good shows right off the road and a few side roads here you can explore. Look for Desert Marigold, Wallaces Willy Daisy, Narrowleaf Goldenbush, and Desert Mallow.
The preserve offers a lovely free downloadable map here and check out the park’s wildflower reports to make sure the flowers are blooming before you head out.
Since you’re out in the middle of nowhere anyway you might as well take a short side trip to investigate the Amboy Crater. It’s 26 mile trip off highway 40 south of the Mojave National Preserve. Take the Ludlow exit 50 and head south on the National Trails Highway towards Amboy. The pulloff to the crater will be on your right.
The crater will take about 3 hours to hike into but you can get some good views of California wildflowers on the drive in and at the trail head. If you choose to hike into the crater the views will reward you with a cratered backdrop of sand verbena and desert lilies. Download the brochure and map before heading out.
Coastal Southern California
Santa Monica Mountains
The Santa Monica Mountains encompasses 153 thousand acres ranging from the Pacific Ocean to the San Fernando Valley. This range of climates and elevations offers a variety of wildflowers that spans several months if you know where to look.
The best flowers early in the season are going to be in the Sycamore Canyon valley in the north west end of the park. Start at the trailhead at the end of Wendy Road and make your way to the Satwiwa Native American Indian Cultural Center. Later in the season try hiking the backbone trail to Sandstone peak, when in bloom the shows of Ceanothus are amazing.
Point Mugu State Park
The park is located in the western end of the Santa Monica Mountains and offers mostly hiking trails with some easily accessible wildflower viewing locations.
If you are an adventurous hiker start at the Chumash trailhead on highway 1 near the Port Hueneme Shooting Range. The hike is steep. Stay left at the top, the trail drops down in the the La Jolla Valley for some amazing spring wildflower shows.
If you want to see some good wildflowers but don’t want to hike or are short on time head in the La Jolla Canyon via highway 1, just across from the Point Mugu State Beach Campground. Head to the end of the road to the Ray Miller Trailhead and walk north. Look for Catalina mariposa lily, Globe gilia, Foothill lupine and Blue dicks.
Point Dume State Beach
Enjoy an afternoon on the beach and a short hike through the State Beach park to search for California wildflowers. More known for its beaches and cliffs, Point Dume offer some good wildflower views on the nature trail on top of the cliff. It’s best accessed from a trail on the beach or skip the steep hike and drive around to Birdview Ave.
The big draw here is the beautiful yellow Giant Coreopsis. Also keep an eye out for Purple sand verbena, Beach evening primrose, Bush sunflower, Mother earth’s delight, and of course California poppies.
Malibu Creek State Park
Malibu Creek State Park is another State Park in the maze of parks and preserves that make up the Santa Monica Mountains. This one is a little closer to Los Angeles and offers over 8,000 acres of grasslands and scrub oak habitat.
Access the 9,000 acre park off of Las Virgenes/Malibu Canyon Road. The best locations to view California wildflowers in the park are in the northwest part of the park south of Mulholland drive on the Tapia Spur trail. Another great location is along Mulholland Highway heading toward Malibu lake. For a short excursion take a drive up Liberty Canyon, which is accessed off Highway 101 in Agora Hills. This is a dead end for cars but there are hiking trails here that connect with the rest of the park.