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Hiking that's easy -- on the eyes

December's rains nourished the wildflowers, which have bloomed early and in abundance.

February 05, 2011

A friend in Seattle says that come midsummer, everyone in town goes a little crazy for several weeks. With good prospects for sun in an otherwise rain-drenched calendar, people head to the mountains, the islands, anywhere outdoors to drink in the prime but fleeting moment.

In the Northeast, it's the spectacular autumn leaves of October. In Washington, D.C., it's cherry blossom season in late March. And here, it's right now — midwinter, after the first big rains followed by enough sun to green up the hills and set off the early wildflowers. Usually this happens in late February, but this year everything was accelerated by early storms and, of course, the late December deluge. The red flowers of gooseberry were budding in early December in some spots, a full month ahead of time. By now, we're already past the first purple glimpses of lupine; there are crops of them.

People in other regions of the country think of Southern California as a year-round outdoors venue, free of snow, ice and wilting humidity. It's true that hiking here is always possible, but it's not necessarily attractive. Not when the landscape becomes waterless, the flowers wither, the scrub turns brown and the sun feels like it's about 10 feet away.

Right now, though, the creeks are full. The waterfalls are running. The rattlesnakes won't be out until April. The first flowers are breaking up the scenery along the sunnier trails. They'll be replaced by the later flowers, but this is the time for rich clusters of lavender canyon pea, full bushes of pinky-violet wishbone flower and meadows of yellow-gold fiddlenecks.

My nearest hiking haunt, Laguna Coast Wilderness Park in south Orange County, was closed for weeks after the torrential rains. It opened last Saturday, and the cars were lined up outside the dirt parking lot. No one wants to wait too long to get on the trail: The lavender canyon pea will have faded away; the ephemeral waterfall will be just a bare platform of rock, and the creek will dry into a depression lined with stones and silt. Once that happens, we'll look for some shady oak woodlands to meander in while we wait for next year's rains, hoping they come and soak us good.

Karin Klein

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