Somehow, it seemed appropriate to chase down the Southern California super bloom in the rain.
Here, the old adage “April showers bring May flowers” usually doesn’t really apply — but this year, all bets are off. Who knows what these April showers will bring?
As it is, the rains of this past winter – the wettest we’ve had in years – were enough to bring a bona fide “super bloom” to SoCal’s desert lands as far south as Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in San Diego County and as far north as the Antelope Valley and the Mojave Desert.
But this super bloom isn’t done with us yet. It’s still moving north.
While the wildflowers are just starting to dwindle elsewhere (though still going strong, compared to previous years), they are painting the town yellow, orange and purple in the Central Valley – namely, at the Carrizo Plain National Monument and the Temblor Range of mountains that separate it from the nearest major cities of Bakersfield and Taft.
Every year, Carrizo Plain sees its peak visitation during wildflower season, which usually does peak right around April – but this year has got locals and even the rangers shaking their heads in disbelief.
It’s like when The Wizard of Oz switches from sepia to Technicolor. You’ve got to blink a few times to trust that those splotches of yellow and purple on the hillsides are real.
Most of the purple you’ll see is Phacelia, although you’ll also find some intermittent purple lupine around Soda Lake and purple bush lupine near the south entrance (at the southern end of Soda Lake Road).
Keep your eyes open for some blue lupine (Lupinus nanus), too – and you’ll find a nice patch of baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) at the top of Soda Lake Overlook.
In greatest abundance is the yellow Hillside Daisy (Monolopia lanceolata), a member of the aster family that’s endemic to the southern part of our state. You’ll find these in large swaths both up in the mountains and on hillsides as well as along Seven Mile Road.
On Soda Lake Road south of the overlook and at the turnoff for Selby Campground, California goldfields (Lasthenia californica) take over, creating a sea of yellow ripples as far as the eye can see.
In the lowlands surrounding Soda Lake – a saline lake that’s normally soggy at best but now is almost entirely full of water – you’ll find a shocking amount of orange-colored fiddlenecks (Amsinckia) flapping in the breeze. They’ve grown so tall that, as you walk the trail down to Soda Lake, it seems as though they’re almost at eye level.
You may find a few lone examples of Indian paintbrush (Castilleja exserta), too – but you’ll have to bend over and really look for those, since they’re hugging the ground a little more tightly.
The tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) come out at Carrizo Plain every year, and this year is no exception.
And if you’re wondering if there’s anything still to come, rest assured that many of the “heads” of the so-called “snake’s head dandelion” (Malacothrix coulteri) haven’t sprouted any petals yet.
If the weather remains wet and cool, the flora will stick around and remain green and colorful for a while.
Wherever you are in the monument (and whenever you visit), keep your eyes and ears open for birds. Soda Lake in particular is considered an Important Bird Area along the Pacific Flyway – and even if you don’t see some of the shy songbirds that hide in the bushes, you’ll hear them.
If you’re not familiar with the area, play it safe by sticking to the paved roads. While there are maintained, good dirt roads to some of the main attractions – like Elkhorn Road to Wallace Creek – in wet conditions, they can become impassable (especially in a sedan / passenger car).
And you’d be lucky to get enough of a cell phone signal to call for help if you end up getting stuck.
As you head west along Highway 58 to the monument’s north entrance, you may be tempted to pull over and gawk at the oil canvas hillsides, but try to resist. There aren’t many turnouts on this winding, mountainous road that traverses the Temblors (and the San Andreas Fault) – and, with a 50 mph speed limit, it’s unlikely that oncoming traffic will be able to slow down in time if you’re blocking traffic.
Once you get to Seven Mile Road and Soda Lake Road, however, you’re free to pull off to the side and park wherever you like, just as long as you leave enough room for two-way traffic to pass through.
There are no “official” wildflower hiking trails at Carrizo Plain other than the short (but steep) 500-foot walk up to Overlook Hill and the Soda Lake trail and boardwalk, which are less than a mile round-trip. That means you’re welcome to walk pretty much wherever – but keep in mind good wildflower etiquette and try not to trample all the flowers before everybody gets to see them.
And once it gets a bit warmer out, you won’t want to be stepping on the rattlesnakes that frequent the plain.
Make sure you arrive with a full tank of gas (you can fill up in Taft, Maricopa or Buttonwillow) and an empty bladder. You’ll also want to bring plenty of water and snacks, since the Goodwin Education Center only sells t-shirts, maps and books — but no food or drink.
If you can visit on a Saturday, it’s worth taking the extra time to visit Painted Rock, an incredible archaeological resource, on a ranger-led tour, which can be reserved in advance online. Guided tours of Painted Rock are only available through May, although you may register for a self-guided tour from July to February. (Advance registration is the only way to legally access the site beyond its locked gate.)
Seen something else spectacular at the Carrizo Plain super bloom? Share with us in the comments.