Whether you’ve experienced a Southern California “super bloom” (the occurrence of a higher-than-average amount of wildflowers blooming within a short stretch of time, typically following a wetter-than-normal rainy season, such as occurred in 2017 and 2019) or have only seen it in pictures, the appeal is evident: There’s a certain joy of witnessing California poppies paint the hills in a golden glow, and petals of purple, pink and yellow sprinkle the desert sands. The sight of this natural phenomenon is enough to — as Fred Clarke, an acclaimed orchid-grower and general manager of the Flower Fields, a 50-acre ranunculus bloom attraction near the coast in Carlsbad, says — “strum your heartstrings.”
But destructive visitor behavior at popular super bloom sites proves that beauty can be a double-edged, selfie-stick-shaped sword. When poppy-peepers descended on Lake Elsinore and the Walker Canyon area in droves last year — an estimated 150,000 people in just one weekend — plucking up poppies, wielding selfie sticks and trampling the delicate blossoms, the mayor declared a “poppy apocalypse” and shut the whole thing down.
So, what’s all the fuss about stepping on a few flowers anyway?
With millions of wildflowers bursting from the desert sands or the hillside soil, you might assume there’s no harm in losing a few — when visitors intentionally pick them or accidentally crush them underfoot. But the impact of each damaged flower is far-reaching — into the ecosystem and into the future, especially when you consider the cumulative, literal footprints of hundreds of thousands of people.
“If one person steps [off the trail] two feet and steps on flowers, and then the next person steps 2.5 feet, and then the next person three feet, and the next person four, then six, then 10 feet,” Clarke explains, it’s not long before “the whole area is trampled.”
Desert plants are hardy in many ways and have adapted to survive harsh conditions that include below-freezing temperatures and extreme heat, says Colin Barrows, the conservation coordinator at Friends of the Desert Mountains, a nonprofit organization in California’s Coachella Valley. But they’re certainly not built to withstand the weight of a human. If we’re not careful, our seemingly innocent frolic in a field could be game over for the wildflowers we encounter.
“A lot of desert wildflowers grow for only a very short period of time and may bloom for only a few hours,” Barrows explains. They have a brief window within which to attract pollinators. So, if someone comes skipping along and steps on them then, Barrows says, “it’s doubly tragic.” The flower is crushed, and the seed is expended. “They’ve lost their chance to survive. . . . They’ll never be able to reproduce. That plant will never contribute to the next spring bloom or super bloom.”
It’s not simply a matter of aesthetics. “The flowers are an integral part of the ecosystem and the natural community,” says Dennis Stephen, regional interpretive specialist for the Colorado Desert District of California State Parks. When wildflowers are crushed, “those flowers aren’t able to contribute to the overall ecosystem, which includes the caterpillars that feed on the flowers, the hawks that feed on the caterpillars . . . So, there’s a ripple effect.”
But Stephen, Barrows and Clarke are not suggesting that you stay away. On the contrary, they encourage anyone that’s able to get out and experience the springtime desert display while keeping in mind these expert tips.
Where to go
Popular sites such as Lake Elsinore, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Joshua Tree National Park are not the only places you can find flowers blooming in the spring — and, for some, well into the summer.
In Goose Creek and Molly Gulch, Colo., for example, a variety of wildflowers such as honeysuckle, bergamot and black-eyed Susan have emerged from the ashes of wildfires and are visible from April through early June. Meanwhile in Yosemite, visitors will find hyacinth growing along Hornitos Road and lupines blanketing the hills. Up in Oregon, guests at Kimpton Hotel Vintage Portland can book a guided flower-peeping hike to the Columbia River Gorge and scout for purple-hued Poet’s Shooting Star (March-April) and broad-leaf lupine (April-May). And in Tahoe City, lupines spring up along the lake shore in June or July each year — some reaching four feet tall.
There are innumerable wildflower trails to explore. Check the Wildflower Viewing Areas page of the U.S. Forest Service website for inspiration on where to go petal-peeping across the country, then call the respective visitor centers for the most up-to-the-minute info.
“There are lots of [personal] blogs with tips on wildflowers, but the people that really know what’s blooming — especially in the desert where one week is different from the next — are the people who are the land managers, the people in the visitor center, and the field offices,” Barrows advises.
You can also ask about ranger walks or guided tours, which most state and national parks offer. “Everything [at the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument] is wildflower-related this month,” Barrows says. Guided wildflower walks are offered there on Thursdays and Saturdays through the end of March.
Tap the visitor center staff for insider advice about where to go to avoid large crowds and long lines. Ask if they can recommend alternative park entrances, wildflower hikes that are farther afield, or, Barrows suggests, even a roadside route.
“If you can do so safely, a good way to look for wildflowers is to drive along the road,” he says. “Sometimes the roadsides are home to some of the best wildflowers, and driving is a great way to see a lot of flowers in a short period of time.”
What to bring
You’ll need sunscreen, hiking boots to ensure traction and protect your feet from prickly plants and poisonous critters, and plenty of water.
“The desert is a drier environment,” Stephen says, “so even though it may not feel hot, you can still dehydrate because of the lack of moisture in the air.”
In addition, Barrows suggests bringing a magnifying glass.
“Everybody likes a big field of poppies or lupine. But to me, the more pleasurable experiences you can have looking at wildflowers are getting up close and personal with the flowers,” he advises. “Look for the kinds you don’t usually see — the tiny flowers that are the size of a pinhead, for example.”
Studying flowers in detail helps you appreciate the desert’s diversity.
“You may have that cartoon image of the desert where it’s desolate and there are tumbleweeds rolling by,” Barrows says, “but the reality — especially when you consider the seed bank and the wildflowers — is that every inch of the desert is covered in some kind of life.”
And each flower is trying to attract specific pollinators, so if you look closely you’ll see every flower has a unique character. “Some want to be pollinated by bees, some by hummingbirds, some by moths or butterflies. You can actually see those interactions happening when you take the time to look at individual flowers.”
Don't be selfie-ish
It’s natural to want to be part of and share this wildflower phenomenon. But don’t let your social media visions cloud your judgment.
“In a super bloom year, it becomes this lifetime — life-changing, for some people — experience to see these flowers coming from the dry desert soil.” Visitors “want to go out and have that sort of Instagram moment lying in a field of flowers or the ‘hills are alive’ [Sound of Music] moment where they’re running through the fields.” Instead of doing that and damaging flowers, Barrows suggests visitors “find an established trail and stick to it” to lessen their footprint.
You can have your desert flower photos safely from the trail and respect the fragile environment and fellow visitors, too.
“Tread lightly. You’re not the only person out there,” Clarke says. Being mindful — of the flowers, park rules, and other creatures and people — can go a long way in preserving the natural beauty for this season and beyond.
“The resources are here for everyone to enjoy,” Stephen says. “ ‘Don’t doom the bloom.’ ”
Fitzgerald is a writer and responsible travel specialist based in Amman, Jordan. Her website is thisissunny.com.