Best Places to Take Your Kids to See California’s Wildflowers

The earth laughs in flowers. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

If you haven’t yet planned a road trip to catch California’s wildflowers, you’re doing spring all wrong.

Each spring, the state drapes itself in bright reds, oranges, yellows, and purples as its native wildflowers make their appearance. The star of the show is of course the state flower, the California poppy in all its orange glory but whether you venture out into the mountains, meadows, or dessert, there’s a vast array of spectacular flora to behold. So pack up the kids and get out there…before they’re gone!

The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve

The California poppy has been the state flower since 1903, and with good reason. When these delicate little blooms make their appearance, they carpet the land in fiery golds.

But the poppy is fickle. Too much or too little rain? Don’t expect a great turnout. Still, Antelope Valley remains one of the most popular places to spot them. And if the winter has been rainy, they’ll explode in a sea of orange as far as the eye can see.

Eight miles of trails lace the reserve, but you’ll mostly stick to the 2.5-mile South and North Loop with the kids.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

This unique desert biome boasts roughly 200 different kinds of flowering species, from purple desert lavender, sand verbena, desert sunflowers and red-tipped ocotillo. It’s one of the best off the beaten track places to spot cacti blooming in the desert. Each canyon—Borrego Palm Canyon, Henderson Canyon Road and Coyote Canyon—have their own varieties so if you can, catch them all.

Make a stop at the Visitor’s Center and hike through Desert Gardens. There are also plenty of off road opportunities and if you’re lucky, you may spot some bighorn sheep. Along with the rich botanical experience of the trails, don’t miss the 130 full-sized metal sculptures by artist, Ricardo Breceda. Dotting the Borrego Valley, you’ll find dinosaurs, wild horses, giant scorpions, and a 350-foot-long serpent.

Once you’ve had your fill of the desert-scape, take the kids on a trek through the nearby slot canyons and wind caves for more eye-popping natural wonders.

Carrizo Plain National Monument

Just east of San Luis Obispo, you’ll find the Carrizo Plain National Monument, the largest remaining California grasslands. Come spring, this plain is teeming with endless yellows and purples from coreopsis, tidy tips, and phacelia. In the early months of the season, you can catch tule elk and pronghorns roaming the lands amongst the blooms. In addition to the more common native botanicals, these grasslands also include rare and endangered species such as San Joaquin woolly-threads (tiny yellow flowers), kern mallow (delicate pink), and California jewelflower, whose wine-colored buds open into white flowers.

In a good year, you’ll be able to see hillsides painted in yellows and purples as sweeping brushstrokes of daisies, goldfields, and other bright flora cover the land.

Figueroa Mountain, Los Padres National Forest

Located in the Los Padres National Forest, you’ll find hundreds of miles of hiking trails around the Figueroa Mountain. While this spot is a bit more off the radar compared to the others, it isn’t necessarily any less spectacular. In a good year, orange and purple poppy and lupine fields blanket the surrounding area with patches of padre's shooting and chocolate lilies interspersed. Forested mountains offer a stately backdrop to the lush meadows full with flowers that are just as good as the Antelope Valley poppies when the winter has been wet.

As a bonus, you can add some wine tasting to your visit with all the lovely vineyards in the surrounding area. Take a nice long loop drive leaving Los Olivos on Figueroa Mountain Road, pass by Michael Jackson's former Neverland Ranch, hit the jaw-dropping flowering slopes of Figueroa Mountain, and drive southward on Happy Canyon to return to the Santa Ynez Valley.

Joshua Tree National Park

For a surreal scene that combines some of the brightest, boldest blooms with a desert-scape, head out to Joshua Tree National Park. Here, you can expect the park’s namesake blooming its soft, white flowers. Lupine, brown-eyed primrose, forget-me-nots and poppies also make their appearance in stunning hues. The brittlebush explodes in bright yellows and even the spiky ocotillos bloom in their delicate red blossoms. From prime locations like Black Rock Canyon area or the Wonderland of Rocks, you’ll see beavertail cacti sporting pink and purples flowers so vivid that you can spot them from far away.

The kids will enjoy spotting a variety of fauna as well, from quails and partridges to hawks, eagles, lizards, and ground squirrels. If you stay overnight, you may even be able to sight snakes, bighorn sheep, kangaroo rats, coyotes, and black-tailed jackrabbits. Not to be missed is the Cholla Cactus Garden, and of course, make sure to give your kids plenty of time to explore the beauty of the landscape and scrambling up its rocks.

Point Reyes National Seashore

Along the coast, Point Reyes is another unique wildflower viewing location. Rugged coastal bluffs and mossy Douglas fir forests will greet you with their splendor. The National Seashore park designates a 1.4-mile flower walk at the bluff-top Chimney Rock Trail, where you’ll find a banquet of poppies, owl’s clover, tidy tips, checkerbloom, paintbrush, Douglas iris, and footsteps-of-spring.

If you feel like your wildflower hunt is incomplete without the poppy, drive over to Abbotts Lagoon, where an easy hike will reward you with plenty of golden blooms.

Shell Creek Road, San Luis Obispo

In San Luis Obispo County (just off Highway 58), Shell Creek Road is a great to view the wildflowers. Like a living Persian carpet, the land is covered in baby blue eyes, yellow goldfields, and white-tipped tidy tips. Orange poppies and blue-purple sky lupine also blanket the roadside.

All of the property on Shell Creek Road is private, so it’s important to keep your kids in check while visiting. Be careful on the roads: you may come across herds of cattle also out to enjoy the wildflowers.

Carlsbad Flower Fields

Worth mentioning….the Carlsbad Flower Fields. While you won’t be finding any native wildflowers here, you will be able to walk amongst waist-high cultivated ranunculus. Topped with big yellow, pink, white or red blooms, the flower fields are a great alternative in less than stellar years where the winter doesn’t bring much rain. Even on a good year, it’s a wonderful location to add to your spring flower hunt.

Besides soaking in the ranunculuses, you can wander in a sweet pea maze and visit greenhouse displays. There is also a Santa’s Playground for the kids.

For up-to-date info on best locations for viewing spring wild flowers in Southern and Central California, check the Theodore Payne Wildflower Hotline online report.

Happy hunting and happy spring!

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