California may not get the fall foliage you see on the East Coast, but in the springtime, California wildflowers are second to none. Huge parts of the state are overrun with vibrant displays of orange, purple, red, yellow, pink, and white, oftentimes mixed together in a scene that is so dazzling, it's hard to believe that it's real even as you're looking at it.
Flowers bloom just about everywhere in the state, although a few places consistently rank as the most stunning (and most Instagrammable, for photographers). Keep in mind, however, that wildflower seasons vary depending on what part of the state you're in, with desert flora blooming and dying much sooner than mountain flowers.
You also need to check flower predictions for the year. When the right weather conditions line up, a "super bloom" can occur when the flowers are even more unreal than a typical year. On the other hand, a particularly dry or windy winter can prevent the flowers from sprouting at all. To get information about the current year's bloom status, the Theodore Payne Foundation Wildflower Hotline is the best all-in-one resource you can find for conditions across California.
The harsh Mojave Desert in Southern California may not seem like an ideal place to see delicate flowers, but the local flora has adapted to thrive despite the intense sun and little rainfall. Anza-Borrego State Park is home to hundreds of different flower species that take over the landscape, and the colorful show is so vibrant that it seems dreamlike.
Anza-Borrego State Park is next door to Joshua Tree National Park, about an hour and 30 minutes south of Palm Springs or almost two hours inland from San Diego. It's California's largest state park and it would take days to explore it all, so narrow down your wildflower search by visiting the most luscious areas like Arroyo Salado, Coachwhip Canyon, Ella Wash, and June Wash.
Even though some years are definitely more impressive than others, there's always a Anza-Borrego wildflower bloom worth visiting. The flowers begin to make an appearance as early as January, but the peak bloom usually happens at the end of the season around March. You can check this year's bloom status before you go, but by the time the flowers start blooming, it may be too late to find a place to stay in the area.
You've maybe seen news stories about out-of-this-world Death Valley super blooms, but be sure to check the date on those headlines before driving out there. It's a rare year when flowers bloom in Death Valley National Park. In fact, the park's super blooms may only happen once every five to 10 years.
When the perfect combination of conditions aligns to bring the flowers out, it usually occurs between mid-February and mid-April. The flower displays in Death Valley are especially eye-popping because they occur in a landscape almost devoid of color. Whether or not the seedlings flower depends on the rain, wind, and sunshine throughout winter and spring, but the park can usually predict the bloom in advance based on conditions.
In a good year, flowers generally begin blooming at the south end of the national park. If you're visiting later in the season, the higher elevation flowers at the north end of the park often last through April and into May.
North Table Mountain (February – April)
In the northern half of the state, North Table Mountain is an ecological reserve that was formed millions of years ago from ancient lava flows. The basalt terrain isn't ideal for just any plant growth, but the local flora has found a way to flourish and puts on an incredible spring production. Over 100 types of wildflower bloom each year, including orange poppies, magenta-colored shooting stars, and golden buttercups.
The bloom starts in February when white meadowfoam completely takes over the park, but it peaks around March or early April as the other flowers emerge and bring pops of colors to the scenery. The park's webpage gives updates so you can plan your trip accordingly.
If you want to spend the night, the closest place with accommodations is Oroville. For even more lodging and restaurant options, the university town of Chico is just 30 minutes north of the reserve and Sacramento is about 90 minutes south.
Valley of the Oaks (March – April)
Many Californians don't even know about this protected valley west of King City that is little changed since the Spanish colonial days. The land has never been cultivated, making it an excellent place for spring wildflowers.
Because it's so unknown and quite remote, there are hardly any visitors even during the peak of the spring bloom, which usually occurs from March to April. You may come across some seasoned nature photographers, but the area is essentially empty compared to other California wildflower hot spots.
Valley of the Oaks doesn't show up on Google maps, so it's truly an off-the-beaten-path location. It's about 30 minutes off of Highway 101 and the closest landmark is the historic Mission San Antonio, about five miles north of the town of Jolon.
For a truly remarkable road trip, instead of returning to Highway 101 after your trip, continue west to Highway 1 on the coast. The scenic drive through oak forests and meadows is only 30 miles, but plan for it to take at least an hour. From there, continue the drive to the breathtaking Big Sur.
Carrizo Plain (March – April)
The entire California Central Valley was once overrun by bright wildflowers and grazing elk, and the Carrizo Plain National Monument is one of the few places where you can still get a sense of that untouched land. It's one of the least-visited parks because it's not near any major cities, but the springtime wildflower displays are some of the best in the state.
The wildflowers bloom in March and April all around the perimeter of Soda Lake, which may have some water after spring showers but is usually a dried-up lake bed with white salt deposits. The famous San Andreas Fault runs directly through the park, and you can actually see where the two continental plates meet.
To reach Carrizo Plain, you'll either head east off of Highway 101 or west off of Highway 5. The nearest notable cities are San Luis Obispo or Bakersfield, both of which are about an hour and a half away.
The flowers at the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve can really be hit or miss. Some years are deemed a super bloom with spectacular showings, while in other years nothing blooms at all. Most often, however, the result is something in between the two.
The golden orange California poppies are the star of the event, but they're backed up by a colorful ensemble of purple lupin, yellow fiddlenecks, and pink filaree. The peak bloom generally takes place from mid-March to mid-April, although ideal conditions can mean there are flowers from February all the way to May. For the most up-to-date information, a Live Poppy Feed shows you exactly what's in bloom.
Since Antelope Valley is just a short detour off of Highway 5, it's perfect to visit on a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It's also an easy day trip from Los Angeles, taking just an hour and 20 minutes from downtown without traffic. You can even get there via public transit on the LA Metrolink.
Hite Cove Trail (March – May)
Although the desert sun quickly kills off the flowers as spring temperatures start to rise, late-season flower watchers can head to higher elevations for more opportunities. Wildflowers bloom a little later and last longer in the Sierra Nevadas, perfect for a romantic and picturesque trip to the mountains.
The Hite Cove Trail is just outside of Yosemite National Park, and the accessible hike makes for a perfect pitstop on your way into Yosemite Valley. Hite Cove is an abandoned mining facility and the full hike to get there is nine miles roundtrip. However, many of the best flower spots are concentrated at the beginning of the trail, so you can still make it a worthwhile trip by just hiking in a mile or two and then heading back.
Most visitors speed right past the Hite Cove Trail on their way to Yosemite, but the number of cars parked for no apparent reason off Highway 140 is your first clue to pullover. From March to May, the Hite Cove Trail is arguably the best wildflower hike in all of California.
Eastern Sierras (May – July)
The Eastern Sierras is a vast area of California that connects various ecosystems and changes drastically in elevation. The result in the spring is thousands of different types of plants that shoot up and flower, transforming the landscape into a real-life watercolor painting.
To take it all in, hop in the car and head on a road trip along scenic Highway 395. Because the mountains are generally covered in snow through early spring, the flower season is significantly later than in other parts of the state, starting in May and lasting until July.
The Eastern Sierra region of Highway 395 stretches on for over 250 miles, but the best scenery spots are between the towns of Bishop and Lee Vining. Since there's no designated park as with other destinations, just drive along and pull over wherever you see spots of color, making sure not to miss obligatory stops like June Lake, Mammoth Mountain, and Mono Lake.