What experiencing a California Superbloom is Like - Honest Reviews of Carrizo Plains, Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens & Anza Borrego,
Head's up, if you're just here for the pictures there's a slideshow at the bottom...
You know, sometimes it’s easy to underestimate California. The intensity, the ruggedness, the heat, the diversity it’s above and beyond a gentle forest, my friends. It is needle grass and foxtails in every inch of your socks. It is swelling poison oak blisters on your face. It is a burning sun sucking up every bottle of water you have in your backpack and you brought four. It is steep gutted-out dirt roads pot-holed from sudden rains and sandy soils in a little rental car you never should've brought here in the first place.
And then every once in a not-too-rare while, you have windows of perfection. Huge rainbow explosions of color, warm dreamy winds, the soft whistles of birds & rich grapey smells of lupines dripping with nectar. Vast fields of life tickling your senses and reminding you that the quiet seasonal grasslands - once the dominate ecology of our state - are complex refuges of ecological power. And diversity.
Maybe it’s because I was returning home to California fresh out of 5 months of Canadian winter, or maybe it’s because I’m a plantophile /wlid-ecology-stalker, but these Superblooms, they took me places. They took me to childhood memories, of camping in hot chaparral hills and waking up to bird song. They took me to dreams, of mountains and lakes made of purple, white and gold. They took me away, and filled my eyes, ears and nose with sweetnesses I had never imagined possible.
So, while I wouldn’t advise bloom hunting to the outdoorsy adventure adverse, I can certainly say it is worth every ounce of sweat, struggle and being worried you're lost to absolutely anyone who loves discovering things about the world and about themselves outside. Another barely imagined beautiful California ecology is waiting my friends. It is so much more than pictures can ever convey I promise.
So, without further ado, here’s my first-hand experiences and advice on:
3 of California’s Best Superblooms
Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens
If you’re not at all experienced in backcountry there is no better opportunity to view a California Superbloom than the meadow garden at the Santa Barbara Botanic gardens. It's right when you walk in. There's stunning photo opportunity on a path that cuts through the foreground or it with the Santa Ynez mountains forming a perfect natural backdrop (professional photography requires permitting). You can walk around it in 20 minutes, explore a number of other nooks and crannies of the vast facility, than return to watch the grass and blossoms dance in fresh light for the rest of the afternoon near the entrance before going downtown for a meal.
What it’s like Getting There
- Tucked up at the base of the mountains a couple minutes out of town. Access is easy in and out of the garden and a number of pathways are paved.
- Parking can be tight during peak blooms, so arrive close to opening or towards the end of the day when the kids have gone home to nap. Or try an early weekday.
- You can make reservations for timed entries so book in advance to help out the management if you can.
- No cafe - picnic area only. Pets are allowed, on leash only!
What the Experience is Like
- Big enough to take you away, even when it’s busy - and the meadow garden is right when you walk in - so you can do a quick visit in a pinch.
- Incredible variety of blooms in a densely packed native-improved habitat
- Shady areas and creek trail to chill out by when needed, but still it's a hot West-facing nook if it's not foggy.
- Helpful staff & onsite nursery available (they'll also remind you to always stay on the trails and help you if you're lost)
- Only open during the hottest hours of the day so bring lots of water, sunscreen and wear a hat
Early blooms in the meadow garden: Golden poppies, pink yarrow, penstemon, hummingbird sage (salvia spatheca), California Wild Lilac (Ceanothus)
Shade blooms to look for: Coral bells (heuchera), Douglas Iris, California Columbine, Native currants, Redbud trees... don’t forget to stop and smell the intoxicating menthol-vanilla scent of the California bay tree.
Later blooms: Matilija Poppies come after most other flowers are winding down (when it’s just starting to feel more like summer than spring). But the purple sages and purple three awn grass will still be going strong.
Want to grow a Superbloom at home? Scroll to the bottom of the page to check-out my preplanned Superbloom plant pack now.
Carrizo Plains National Monument & Wildflower Preserve
Wow I am still reeling from this place. It is HUGE my friends. And literally jaw-dropping. A vast, vast reserve that I barely touched ⅓ of in a 12-hour day of rugged excursioning. The premiere Superbloom destination for the true ecofreak at heart. It is also no small feat to experience it fully. So plan to spend time, pack accordingly and trek.
I drove on the Cuyama highway from the coast and passed a number of magnificent blooms in the hills on the way. To the West side of the park I could see dramatic sandy ranges painted with purple and orange but there was no access through the fenced rangelands before them. My heart began to race...
I Missed the turn I was looking for - it wasn't marked - and ended up entering the reserve from the Southern side (Soda Lake Road) instead of the Northern side (to be near the Wallace Creek Trail) as I had planned. I found this site helpful for planning - click here for Carrizo Plains Wildflower Viewing Ideas. But despite missing the visitor's center, the large lake and some of the more talked about trails, I was not disappointed. Not at all.
Carrizo was significantly more remote and a lot wilder than I anticipated.
What Getting There is Like
- The maps are rudimentary, cell service is rare, there is no management or staff on site (except at the visitor center) and restrooms are sparse and very widely spaced.
- Bring a ton of water & snacks ...and a even good change of clothes or two in case one gets covered in dirt, sweat or itchy plant stuff. I even changed by shoes because of how loose and fine most of the soils are.
- Nearest store or gas station is at least 20 minutes from any entrance to the reserve. And the reserve is 250,000 acres of slow pitted roads. The main road isn't bad though! And worth a cruise if you're mobility limited.
- Signage is extremely minimal, so plan your approach and be alert when you are getting close to potential turns of interest.
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What the Experience is Like
You certainly can just drive a little bit of the park and look out the windows but to really experience the blooms I found it was essential to explore the many tiny side dirt roads by vehicle and use my instincts to track down some of the exceptional hidden jewels off beaten paths. Like my photos of the silver bush lupin fields show, it such a spectacularly wild place.
This is a thick grassland. When Superblooms are on the annual and perennial grasses are already over knee high and some mild trail-breaking may be required because the reserve is largely self-maintained. Wear good shoes and pants if you’re sensitive.
- Take it in - nature like this is not something you can absorb in passing. Get somewhere you feel charmed by and just BE slow there. Open your senses and observe. You will see or feel things that soften you...like the constant traffic of fuzzy caterpillars crossing the road. It's worth relaxing in forest bathing style.
- Park safely (obey the many “this is not a road” posts at walking trail heads) and explore on foot or you will miss out on the glorious bird song, shocking perfumes & gorgeous presence of being so far removed from modern development you feel like you've entered another era.
- Most roads (and trails) are not marked and many of them can be treacherous. If you are not experienced driving on backcountry roads just stay on Soda Lake road and take side hikes where desired. The best places - like elk horn mountain - require 4-wheel (or more importantly) high clearance vehicles to access.
- Camping is allowed! You can camp off of many of the rugged side roads and there are 2 small campgrounds but services at them are minimal (no running water or garbage) so be prepared - like borderline burning-man style prepared - as there is no shade, exposure can be intense.
Burrowing seed heads are plentiful (and come in 3 different shapes...arrow, corkscrew and more!) but they are not at their worst when Superblooms are happening as they have not fully dried and hardened yet. Still my Friend's whoodle (wheaton/poodle) - who thankfully came along for the trek because I needed the moral support in the more hair-raising moments... did I say the roads were treacherous and this place was very remote?? - like any dog, certainly needed a good combing over at the end of the day.
And yes - if you're anything like me and have sensitive skin - you will be quite itchy after foraging amongst and rolling around in these fully unhinged grasslands. A quick note on laying in the flowers - the deer do it, the antelope do it, I don’t think it is too destructive to do a bit of it in less popular / more undisturbed areas - however, in places pockmarked with many trails, where pedestrian traffic is obviously heavy and delicate blooms show evidence of degradation, use your good sense and stay on the trail.
Keep pets leashed/restrained and under control at all times. Smell all the flowers.
I visited the Anza Borrego Superbloom 5 years ago and rented a cabin in the park. Which was just lovely (though my husband at the time forgot to pack the sleeping bags… we used beach towels and made due well enough)! Being quite far South and a true desert, visiting the Superbloom in Anza Borrego often comes much earlier in the year. Our timing was in mid February. Still it can be very hot and exposed even in winter in this desert, so plan your viewings for cooler hours of the day.
What Getting There is Like
- Deep in the desert, you can either approach the National park from the San Diego side or through the increasingly popular greater palm springs area:
- From the coastal side: wind your way through the stunning forests of the Julian area / Cleveland National Forest (and see some spectacular Ceanothus blooms on the slopes as you come down the East-facing canyons)
- Heading South from L.A.: head out of the urban jungle and into the desert through Palm Desert and all the way down towards Indio. There are often exceptional land art exhibits going on in the area in conjunction with the proximity to Coachella (i.e. Desert X) so do some research for fun stops along the way!
- Either make a day trip of this from a nearby town or National park (like Joshua Tree) or reserve camping in the park advance. It's several hours drive or more each way from any major city - except Palm Springs - so it's worth planning a stay somewhere for more relaxed flower time.
What the Experience is Like
- It is really something to see a barren cactus-studded sand-floored desert explode in a carpet of delicate blossoms. They reach up into the hills and across the fields and getting off the beaten path is easy if you’re up for a little wandering.
- You need to drive to access the flower fields from wherever you decide to stay or camp. Roads are mostly paved or otherwise well maintained and manageable.
- The blooming areas are relatively more contained in comparison to Carrizo Plains (unless you're more interested in cactus flowers, like the Ocotillo’s brilliant red flags) and the park is carved up a bit by some previously existing development at Agua Caliente so it’s not quite as immersive.
- Avoid Peak Heat by viewing in the early morning or evening. At the time I had a large black Newfoundland-type dog so we made sure to view the blooms close to dusk and dawn to avoid peak heat and beating sun (keep pets restrained and on leash at all times)
I recall being struck by how humorous it was to see so many humans in big hats and cargo shorts bent over at odd angles in a remote desert snapping photos. The experience of watching people photographing is a little less alien now with the ripening of the Instagram age but it can be distracting from your experience of nature.
The most moving time to visit the flower fields for me was at dusk, when the big, nearly transparent Oeneothera cups catch the moonlight and the flowers release the most instense fragrance after a hot day. The first few hours of sunlight are also a great time to capture the fields of native sunflowers, verbenas and daisies that take off in the sunshine immediately after a bit of winter rain.
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Timing your Superbloom Visit
Making it to a Superbloom is not a calendar schedule-able thing. They don’t even happen every year (though Carrizo seems to be more consistent). If the rains fall too early or the sun doesn’t get hot within 1-3 weeks after the rains end, many of the biggest blooms simply aren't very significant. But with rainfalls seemingly occurring later and later more or less every other winter, chances are good you will still see something spectacular next season.
February-early May is the typical timing for Superblooms. This 2023 Superbloom was a late one, with peak bloom - even of early flowers - happening mid April in most places. When a very hot week comes up most blossoms get cooked - except Matilija poppies - so some Superblooms are much shorter than others. This years went until mid May.
If you need help tracking the bloom at Carrizo Plains, Antelope Valley, Lake Elsinore and other popular Southern California destinations the following site from the Theodore Payne Foundation is extremely helpful.
A service from this native plant organization that provides weekly reports on Wildflower events in Southern California.
This San Francisco chronicle page provides live reports for the Bay area.
A fantasy die-hard Superbloom pilgrimage would involve starting at the Southern end of the state at Anza Borrego, than winding your way up through Lake Elsinore, Antelope Valley Poppy reserve, Carrizo Plains and on into these Northern California superbloom sites over a period of 2-4 weeks. Road trip idea anyone???