Ceanothus shrubs blooming along the Mount Wilson Trail above Sierra Madre. (Mary Forgione )
Tony Valois will tell you that a tough wildflower year doesn’t mean there aren’t any flowers. It just means you have to try harder to find them. And he should know.
The vegetation ecologist for the National Park Service hit a milestone recently when he identified his 1,000th plant species in the coastal and mountain parkland that includes the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Valois says he spent a decade collecting data, taking pictures and cataloging his finds -- and wound up with enough information to create a free app for identifying Santa Monica Mountains flowers.
Back to the flora-cast: It’s not good. The dry year forced some plants to wither without even producing seeds. "We had a lot of showers rather than soakers," Valois said of the winter rains. "So there are a lot of really patchy flower displays. I saw this last year too. You’ll be hiking along and the flowers are pretty good, but hike 100 feet and everything is dead."
So don’t expect carpets of California golden poppies in the Antelope Valley or blinding gold fields in the nearby deserts this year. Instead, expand your search to trees and shrubs, and hike with the intent of finding (and welcoming) those blooms that made it through this tough, dry year. Here are some good places to start.
Joshua trees: The twisted, shaggy trees spend most of the year brownish green until spring hits and cones of creamy white flowers emerge. Good places to find them include the Black Rock area of its namesake park, Joshua Tree National Park, where you’ll also find brittle bush, creosote bush and bladderpod. Closer to home, the Arthur B. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park in the Antelope Valley hosts a grove of J-trees too. The trees are pretty easy to find on any drive to or from the desert.
Ocotillo and cactus: The tips of the green ribbons of ocotillo plants bloom fiery red in spring. Anza Borrego Desert State Park on its website reports blooms along Highway 78 west of Ocotillo Wells and at Yaqui Pass Road and Borrego Springs Road. Showy cactus flowers should be popping along the park's Cactus Loop Trail across from the Tamarisk Grove campground.
Ceanothus: White ceanothus put on an amazing show in the Santa Monicas in February and March, and now the blue variety has been popping in the Santa Monica Mountains, the front range of the Angeles National Forest (I recently found wonderful blossoms along the Mt. Wilson Trail from Sierra Madre, where I also saw pockets of baby blue eyes, various species of phacelia and golden wallflower) and even within ultra-urban Griffith Park. The lilac-like blossoms are shedding their blooms and may not last long, so go sooner rather than later.
Mixed wildflowers: Hike the trails and do some sleuthing, as Valois suggests. Varieties of lupine, which range from deep purple to blue, slender Mariposa lilies, California poppies (remember, they don’t open if it’s overcast), owls clover and paintbrush likely will be found along La Jolla Canyon Trail at Point Mugu State Park, the Phantom Trail at Malibu Creek State Park and the Mishe Mokwa Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains on the L.A./Ventura county border, a trail which gets a 4.5-star rating on Yelp.
Before you set out, call or go to websites for parks and reserves to find out what’s blooming and where. Most visitor centers will have site-specific information about spring wildflowers. Other good sources include:
What’s Blooming in the Santa Monica Mountains: Valois runs this website and updates it with reports from hikers and rangers as well as his own boots-on-the-trail observations. You can find and download the free iPhone/iPad app that will help you identify species as you go. (It's 520 MB and takes awhile to download.)
Theodore Payne Foundation's Wildflower Hotline, (818) 768-3533, gathers updates from around Southern California and points north too. The weekly report also can be downloaded from the website in PDF or Word document format.
Follow us on Twitter @latimestravel, like us on Facebook @Los Angeles Times Travel.