California's state flower is making its annual appearance, popping into view across the Southland scene. One of the best displays of the golden California poppy is just north of Los Angeles in the Antelope Valley.
That's where you'll find a 2,000-acre park dedicated to the preservation of our Golden State flower. The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is one of the few places where the brilliant orange wildflower still blossoms in a massive display.
In 1816 when a Russian scientific expedition visited San Francisco Bay, its members were struck by the sight of golden poppies covering the hillsides. They named the flower after a naturalist in the group, J. F. Eschscholtz.
Now known botanically as Eschscholtzia californica, the poppy brightened the state's landscape every springtime and became the official California flower in 1903. Since then our expanding population has claimed many vast fields of the poppy and greatly diminished its annual display.
To keep the endangered wildflower from becoming only a memory, Poppy Park was established west of Lancaster in 1976. Today the reserve also boasts an interpretive center that serves as a seasonal museum for the golden poppy and other wildflowers.
It opened two weeks ago and visitors will be welcome every day as long as the flowers last (at least through May). Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekends, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. Entry to the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve costs $2 per car.
Get there from Los Angeles by driving north on Interstate 5 to join the Antelope Valley Freeway (California 14) to Lancaster. Exit west on Avenue I, which becomes Lancaster Road and leads to the reserve entrance about 14 miles from the freeway. Turn right at the state park sign.
Above the parking lot you'll see the visitor center that's built into the hillside for natural temperature control in the desert environment. A windmill generates electricity for the half-buried building.
Inside are wildflower paintings by Jane S. Pinheiro, the artist and conservationist for whom the center is named. You also can view an exhibit and videotape about poppies.
Four loop trails invite visitors to make close inspections and photographs of the poppies and other wildflowers. Picnicking is permitted. More information: (805) 942-0662.
Try to visit early in the day because by mid-afternoon winds often stir the poppies to fold up their petals and dim the display. Even when the wind doesn't blow, the flowers close every evening. That's why the Spanish named the golden poppy dormidera, the drowsy one.
Drive slowly to look for more wildflowers as you head back toward Lancaster. Bicyclists can detour a couple of miles south to follow a scenic bikeway along the service road of the California Aqueduct running across the foothills of Portal Ridge.
Before or after your visit to Poppy Park, visit the Wildflower Center in Lancaster that's open daily until April 27 to assist visitors looking for wildflowers in the Antelope Valley.
This year the center is in the newly opened Lancaster Museum and Art Gallery, 44811 Sierra Highway. From the freeway head east on Avenue I to Sierra Highway and turn south (right) to Lancaster Boulevard. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
At the center the Lancaster Woman's Club gives away maps indicating where to find the best displays of wildflowers. You'll also see paintings, a slide show and displays of freshly cut specimens to help you identify wildflowers in the field.
Some to look for are scarlet owl-clover, yellow coreopsis, violet filaree, white pincushion, red desert paintbrush, blue pygmy lupine and golden fiddleneck. And keep an eye out as well for the deep orange, yellow and occasionally white California poppy.
At the Lancaster Wildflower Center you'll also be able to buy an assortment of poppy souvenirs, from stationery to T-shirts to seeds. Another service is a wildflower hot line to inform callers of areas in the Antelope Valley that are in bloom. Phone (805) 948-1322 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (through April 27).
Or call the Lancaster Museum and Art Gallery through the city hall switchboard, (805) 945-7811. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m weekdays only. Restaurant and lodging information is available.
Or contact the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce, (805) 948-4518, for a list of motels and dining places. Also ask about the Antelope Valley Gem and Mineral Show set for April 26-27 at the Antelope Valley Fairgrounds.
South of Lancaster at the Palmdale Cultural Center, the annual Lilac Festival will be held April 12-13. Get details from the Palmdale Chamber of Commerce, (805) 273-3232.
Return to Los Angeles by rejoining the Antelope Valley Freeway (California 14) south.
Round trip from Los Angeles to see spring wildflowers in Poppy Park and the environs of Lancaster is 162 miles.
Readers are advised to confirm the hours of attractions, restaurants, etc., before embarking on any trip.