Flying over the desert in a sweeping arc, our drone lifted above the dry plain and revealed the mountains, soft sandy swaths, and much more -- spots of color. After a decade of driving east each spring, this was my first bird's eye view of the desert wildflower environment. I always look forward to the annual carpets of color. Even years when no super bloom is forecast, finding flowers springing up in the middle of the harsh desert landscape is magical.
The first spring that I ventured east from San Diego, the phenomenon was a revelation. We pulled over dozens of times. As I bent over rocky soil, the better to peer into wide, poppy-like blossoms, their pale petals trembled in the light wind. I looked out across the plain to see spots of green, touches of red, and along the roads, pale purple spears. It was a wonder.
Everyone wants to see a super bloom, but those happen about every 10 years, and even so, the flower show is fickle. Much depends on rainfall. The dry ground needs flooding: just the right amount before spring flowers can emerge. It has to fall during the winter months, well before the desert heats up and scorches any chance of flowering. If storms are too harsh, only the hardiest flowers pop through and there is no abundance to enjoy. If winds sweep the fields too fiercely, petals rip from stems and scatter.
1. Weather Isn’t The Only Wildflower Threat
On coastal trails after sunset, I've been awed by moths the size of hummingbirds. Most are destructive to tomato or tobacco crops. They’re cousins to butterflies, and the most popular comprise less than a tenth of the over 180,000 variations. Nocturnal fliers, the striped sphinx moths are seldom spotted, but I met hundreds of their babies on a desert wildflower hunt in 2015. Where I hoped to find blooms, giant, fat caterpillars swarmed small plants throughout the Mojave Desert.
They eat ferociously and fast, even crossing roads to find more food. As cars crush them, they've created dangerous slick conditions. It's a disaster for wildflower seekers, but the moths have an important role to play in pollinating iconic desert plants and trees.
Sphinx moths lack the long legs or proboscides of butterflies. I'd love to watch the chubby moths wiggling into flowers, scattering their pollen widely. It's a good thing they do. Only the giant moths of the family Prodoxidae can pollinate desert yucca plants and Joshua trees.
2. Travel To The Blooms With Care
This spring, the pandemic is far from over, and while you may be outdoors, it’s still important to maintain social distance and to wear masks when close to people on trails. Also, masks are required in California state parks. Not all services like restrooms are open. Bring soap/hand sanitizer and toilet paper just in case. Many campgrounds are still closed. Before leaving home, check out your destination website to make sure it’s open.
3. Prepare For the Hunt
The blooms characteristically begin along the California/Mexico border and sweep north as the weather warms. Each February, I start watching the reports on the DesertUSA Wildflower Guide. The reports are personalized by on-the-ground observers as the season progresses. Members send in photos and very specific directions to the best viewing spots throughout the desert. Armchair travelers can enjoy the discoveries as well.
4. Drive Checklist
The desert is a wild environment with few roads -- paved or otherwise. With few places to get gas or food, it’s important to prepare accordingly.
- Fill your tank, and check the tires and engine coolant levels. Even with cooler conditions, getting over mountain passes can lead to overheating.
- Check weather conditions. It may be a clear day, but higher-profile vehicles are more vulnerable to high winds.
- Don’t rely on cell service. Read about your destination online and download a map before leaving home.
- Stay flexible. GPS and some map apps may take you to dirt roads requiring 4-wheel drive. Don’t risk getting stranded.
- Want the best experience? Avoid the crowds and visit during the week.
- Many of the roads are narrow. Park safely off the roadway to keep passage clear for other drivers.
- Leave an itinerary with a friend or family member, listing your destination and the names of everyone in the group. If you run into trouble, it will help speed your rescue.
5. Make It Personal
- Don’t push yourself. You may be in great shape, but the desert is tricky. If you can talk easily, that’s a good pace. Remember there’s always a return trek to manage.
- Bring water! Stay hydrated and bring more than you think you may need in case you get stuck.
- With few restaurants and stores, be sure to pack snacks. Favor high-protein, less salty foods.
- Conditions can change quickly. Temperature drops of 30 to 40 degrees are not uncommon. Bring a foldable hat, windbreaker, and a warm layer.
- Bring sunscreen and reapply it. If you plan on trail hikes, make sure your shoes have good soles to avoid injury.
- Bring your camera, and if you love wildlife viewing, binoculars.
6. Respect The Desert
- Each region is unique. There may be sand dunes along one route or a trail to an oasis. Stay on trails to avoid trampling plants and blossoms.
- If you’ve found a particularly beautiful wildflower area, you will likely have to share it with others. Be mindful of who’s around you. Flower picking is prohibited.
- Pack it in and pack it out. Don’t expect roadside trash containers in the desert. Pack trash bags in your car and bring your garbage home.
- Wildlife! Stay on trails to minimize snake interactions. Watch for birds, owls, and hawks, but don’t approach them, especially if they’re feeding. Look up on canyon trails. It’s not uncommon to sight bighorn sheep in the Anza Borrego mountains.
7. Revel In Spring Color
Even with late winter rains, experts doubt there’ll be big swaths of desert wildflowers in 2021. Don’t despair, as there will still be some, especially if you know where to look. Keep your eyes open and watch county or city wildflower reports. I’ve pulled over along Highway 15 and navigated side roads after spotting hillsides full of wild poppies. The same often happens along the Grapevine route out of Los Angeles on Highway 101.
8. Make Your Way To Off-The-Beaten-Path Sites
Fields Near Living Coast Discovery Center
The flower fields near the Living Coast Discovery Center in Chula Vista fill with tall wildflowers in early spring. There’s a lot of construction encroaching on the area, but I haven’t been disappointed yet.
Carlsbad Flower Fields
This commercial undertaking is not wild, but it provides easy access to flowers. They are open through May 9. You must purchase a ticket online this year. If that’s not possible, I’ve driven the road just east of the fields to overlook points. It’s not the same as walking between the blooms but still beautiful.
The Irvine Ranch Wildflowers
The Irvine Ranch has announced big blooms this year in Orange County. There’s a virtual tour, as scheduled hikes have been postponed due to health cautions. Check their site to register if you want to visit in person.
The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve
In a big flower year, you can see the orange hillside from miles away. This year, unfortunately, the rains came very late. No big blooms are in the forecast.
The Carrizo Plain And Soda Lake
This is one of the least-known wildflower spots yet only a few hours north of Los Angeles. The conditions have to be right to find the bright blooms and this year doesn’t look favorable. The drive is worth it, especially if you continue onto Soda Lake, one of the largest natural alkali wetlands in the state. It looks like a curvy, white blanket. Tread carefully -- the odd space is bordered with nesting bird sites. The Soda Lake Overlook has benches and a trail to a raised boardwalk to preserve the saltbush habitat.
9. Desert Resilience
The last super bloom was after plentiful rains in 2017. However, every year there are some desert flowers. There will be cactus blooms. Red tufted blossoms will highlight Ocotillo branches. Saguaros and barrel cactus blooms will emerge. Watch for swaths of road lined with purple lupin.
After being shut in over most of the last year, getting out into these wild spaces is great medicine for the spirit. There’s something magical about walking around carpets of bright color -- especially in unexpected places. As you enjoy them, be careful. The seeds you don’t damage just might lead to a super bloom next year.