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    Journeys to See California’s Wildflower Super Bloom

    By John Chen–

    (Editor’s Note: With Earth Day on April 22, we asked John Chen to write about his and his partner Ted’s recent trips to see California’s spectacular wildflower super bloom. John is the San Francisco Bay Times sports columnist—see his column on page 21—and his visits to the super bloom sites remind that scenic hikes involve exercise in ways that feel more like a vacation than a workout.)

    As a native Californian, I’ve come to appreciate all of the natural wonders and beauty that our great Golden State has to offer. From the most celebrated, Yosemite National Park, to hidden gems that only locals know about, e.g. Coyote Creek Cave of Calaveras County, California has a plethora of unique landscapes, climates, ecosystems, flora and faunas, and geothermal features. We have the tallest (Redwood) and the largest (Sequoia) trees, the lowest point and the hottest places in Death Valley, and all four types of volcanoes at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Did you know that California has 20 named glaciers, seven on Mount Shasta and thirteen in Sierra Nevada?

    Palm Canyon wildflowers with Palm Springs in the distance, March 2019

    I discovered recently that California, when the stars align, creates the most magnificent wildflower super bloom throughout the southern part of our state during early spring. In actuality, the super bloom happens when there’s just the right amount of rain during the right months of the year with the right temperatures.

    The normal desert and chaparral biomes are relatively desolate, survived only by the most hearty and adaptable plants. Because of such harsh conditions, very few invasive species can stand long bouts of drought and heat, leaving the native flora to thrive when the stars align. During the super bloom, rocky and sandy mountains and hillsides are draped with golden poppies as well as sheets and interweaves of yellow, orange, purple, white, pink and violet wildflowers. The usually dearth desert floor looks like a tall lush or short shaggy carpet of bright, vibrant colors—a stunning visual that should be seen rather than described.

    Our first Southern California super bloom trip was in March of 2017, when Death Valley and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park became wildflower oases brimming with miles of desert marigolds, sunflowers and dandelions, evening primrose, golden sun cups, phacelias and many other beautiful desert blooms. All we had to do was to get a map from the rangers, learn the do’s and don’ts, drive to designated locations, and take a stroll through a myriad of colorful grassland. Oh, and take a million photos and selfies.

    Diamond Valley Lake Wildflower Trail super bloom, March 2017

    Just two years later, record rainfall in winter and early spring 2019 has created another super bloom, one even more spectacular than our 2017 trip, and covering even more of Southern California with vibrant colors. This March, armed with various camera devices, sunblock, water, enthusiasm and stamina, we headed south to Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, Diamond Valley Lake, Walker Canyon (Lake Elsinore) and Joshua Tree National Park.

    Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is a state park where visitors in spring can take a fairly easy one-mile roundtrip hike to see golden poppies blanketing the park’s hillsides. Diamond Valley Lake has a designated one-mile wildflower trail overlooking the lake and the near 9,000-foot Bear Mountain Peak in the distance. This easy hike meanders through fields and hillsides of eye-popping and glorious wildflowers, especially during a super bloom.

    Walker Canyon near Lake Elsinore was the most publicized wildflower super bloom with thousands of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook postings. The area was so densely and widely populated with California poppies that clear images of orange and gold were captured from outer space! The relatively easy hike over the hills was instantly rewarding and awe-inspiring! Joshua Tree National Park also boasted a magnificent wildflower super bloom near the eastern Cottonwood entrance. Just drive along Cottonwood Springs Road and stop anywhere that is legal and walk through large, colorful wildflower fields.

    While all four of these well-known super bloom displays were as spectacular as advertised, we were stunned to see amazing super blooms along our Interstates and back country desert highways. Along Interstate 10 in Coachella Valley, the desert landscape had been temporary displaced by densely populated wildflower blooms of bright yellow and orange. The heavily traversed I-5 north of the Grapevine had fields and fields of white, yellow, purple and orange flowers as far as the eyes could see. Sometimes the most beautiful wildflower fields are hidden in the back country, as is the case of California Hwy 18 and 247 near Bear Mountain, where we saw a sea of violet and magenta colored wildflowers blanketing the landscape.

    Diamond Valley Lake Wildflower Trail super bloom with Bear Mountain snowcap in the distance, March 2019.

    Although it may be too late to see some of the super bloom in Southern California, golden poppies can still be seen canvasing the northern end of the Grapevine and the hillsides at Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve.

    How do you get to see the next super bloom? It can happen next year or not until another 20 years. Remember, the stars have to align. My advice is to keep an eye and ear open for consistent and long periods of rainfall over winter and early spring in Southern California. Or just Google California super bloom in late February and early March and see if it’s happening, but be ready to take that road trip on a drop of a dime (weekdays highly recommended), be ready to be among thousands of visitors seeking wildflower nirvana, and be ready for a selfie.

    Avid hiker John Chen is the sports columnist for the “San Francisco Bay Times.”