Slingshots, Color, and Open Roads: How to Explore California’s Spring Wildflowers

Travel Features California
Slingshots, Color, and Open Roads: How to Explore California’s Spring Wildflowers

Beaches. Mountains. Deserts. Cities. California has a lot, and it’s known for a lot, but in the mix of some of the most incredible scenery in the United States, one excellent feature is often overlooked—spring wildflowers. With California’s famous—perhaps infamous—”atmospheric river” that has dumped a deluge of water on the Golden State recently, the conditions are especially ripe this year for a rare “superbloom” of kaleidoscopic colors that is not to be missed.

While places like Joshua Tree and Death Valley dominate headlines with their impressive annual blooms, what fun are long lines and crowded hikes? A road trip exploring the backroads and less-traveled state parks is the move here, as is making the right choice of vehicle with which to explore this vibrant side of the landscape. A regular car won’t suffice—too many windows and barriers deprive the senses and get in the way of fully experiencing the legendary California spring. If you want that giddy feeling of excitement that comes with turning loose and losing yourself within California’s less frequented, sun-drenched highways, look no further than a Slingshot.

Slingshots are an awesomely quirky three-wheeled car/motorcycle hybrid that I was given the chance to try and quickly discovered that they are perfect for this kind of open-ended drive in the springtime. The lack of any roof (although they can be installed for the rainier corners of the country) means I could fully immerse myself in every breeze, ray of sunshine, and scent of blossom wafting my way. There was a helpful map to ensure I wouldn’t get lost, and a must for any self-respecting road trip—a Bluetooth sound system to ensure that the Warren G and other bits of California hip-hop that I had planned to accent my adventure would be blasted triumphantly through the speakers. Most importantly, given the lack of ground clearance, I could also maximize the thrill of every turn and boost of speed. With all the right senses accounted for, what more could one ask for in exploring the majestic, open roads out west? After shooting some photos and practicing getting down the tight, responsive controls driving the Pacific Coast Highway, I was turned loose on the California roads. The only instructions I was given were, “Don’t miss your flight.” Nice.

A voyage into California flora is best pre-gamed with a stop at the Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve just north of Los Angeles in Lancaster. While on the smaller end, the park more than makes up for its diminutive size with the sheer warmth of the fiery orange hues emanating from the namesake poppies during peak season, which also double as the state flower. If you’re willing to trek further north, consider also starting at the Carrizo Plain National Monument. The idyllic landscape here becomes overrun with a flush, mesmerizing cascade of purples, greens, and golds in the spring, where the color more resembles a sugary treat with sprinkles or like someone dumped buckets of paint on the hills than any sort of natural occurrence.

From here, either skirt the northern edge of the San Gabriel Mountains to I-15 (or better yet, take the scenic route and cut through them), ultimately making your way to Chino Hills State Park. Asking the ranger about the best places to see spring color at the gate promptly led me around a few snaking roads to the head of the Bane Ridge Trail. It was hard not to admire the sight of the rolling emerald hills, morphing into dramatic snow-capped peaks far in the distance, as well as the incredible silence—so much so that I would have never guessed I was firmly inside the second-largest metropolitan region in the United States. As I walked past the vivid yellows, purples, reds, and oranges waving hello to me in the wind, I eventually encountered a power relay station with a set of buzzing power lines swooping into the horizon that inspired me to take a seat in a secluded, meditative corner off the trail to enjoy better the quiet and the visual splendor of the sun, flowers, and elevation before me.

Continuing southeast via I-15 will take one to Walker Canyon in Lake Elsinore, and while home to outstanding floral shows, historic crowds in years past have introduced restrictions on visitors flocking here for the sights. It is certainly possible to try your luck here, but a great alternative exists on the short trail lining the perimeter of Diamond Valley Lake in nearby Hemet, where the glistening surface of the water provides a terrific backdrop to the flowers. If you’re arriving late in the season, head slightly further away into Mount Jacinto State Park and check out the trails around Idyllwild Nature Center. While the higher elevation results in a delayed bloom, the spring tones are punctuated by the fantastic, lofty vistas, making this a superb stop for those who missed earlier peak sightings elsewhere.

From here, find your way to CA-79 and head south towards Julian. The town, known for its Gold Rush history, is also notable for its fields of a different type of gold—in springtime, an overpowering electric yellow fills the hills around the town with the onset of the heavy annual daffodil blossoms. Pair your flower viewing with hikes and camping in the enchanting forests comprising Cuyamaca Rancho State Park due south, or head to the trails around Mt. Laguna to the southeast. There are plenty of great options here—the Noble Canyon trail offers a compelling dose of rugged California wilderness, and the Big Laguna Trail will bring you up close to the gorgeous floral arrangements awaiting along the Big and Little Laguna Lakes and within the renowned Laguna Meadow. Finally, the Sunset Trail is an outstanding place to end your day, with its namesake evening sky pigments melding beautifully with the chromatic bliss exuded by the wildflowers.

Don’t miss Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, one of Southern California’s most prominent flower viewing spots east of Julian off of CA-78. While more well-known and attracting many visitors yearly, it is a must-stop. Alongside the usual suspects of daffodils, poppies, and the like, the desert flora provides an entirely different experience for spring viewing than places up north. Clear your schedule and lose yourself in Coyote or Grapevine Canyons, or allow yourself to simply roam aimlessly in the massive state park, the largest of its kind in California, where the addition of desert cacti, primrose, and marigolds with fun new tints of green, purple, and yellow merge with the ochre desert backdrops to bring out an incredible palette of nature in a way only California can.

The pull of the desert can be quite strong here, with its promise of strange sights in the wild frontier hinted at to the east. I decided to follow this call, knowing full well the risks of LA traffic and missing my flight, and continuing down CA-78 to the peculiar California oddity known as the Salton Sea. The lake as it exists today was formed a century ago when the Colorado River was diverted to assist local farming. By the 1950s, the Salton Sea had become a booming tourist community, with resorts popping up along the shores and the sight of boats and travelers lazing in the desert sun becoming commonplace. Eventually, due to the Salton Sea being a “terminal lake” with no out-flows, increasing salinity levels made the water inhospitable to marine life, and local tourism dried up by the 1970s. Arriving in the sizzling heat and dead quiet of day, it was hard not to be taken aback by the mysterious mid-century remnants, many of which can still be found today in weathered states around the water’s perimeter, hinting back to the region’s former glory.

The weirdness doesn’t end here—consider continuing onward to nearby Slab City, an eccentric little slice of land billing itself as the “Last Free Place.” As you explore the makeshift art installations and offbeat vibes, it is impossible to miss the visceral amalgamation of color and trippy religious iconography making up the curiosity known as Salvation Mountain. Sit atop the decorative outdoor spectacle, where intricate abstractions of art crafted out of abandoned windows, tires, and other bits of scrap sitting alongside psychedelic patterns that trick the eye painted on every square inch of the hillside make for the perfect place to reflect upon your journey into color in the Golden State.

John Sizemore is a travel writer, photographer, yoga teacher, and visual entertainment developer based out of Austin, Texas. Follow him on Instagram at @sizemoves. In his downtime, John likes to learn foreign languages and get immersed in other worlds, particularly those of music, film, games, and books in addition to exploring the world.

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