published: February 20, 2020
If you are a fan of Eschscholzia californica (better known as California poppies), you'll want to know the very best places to see them. Sure, you can spot those pretty golden blooms along busy roadsides during late winter and early spring, but there are better, wilder places to see them. Here are a few of our favorites:
Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve
Sitting in Los Angeles County about 15 miles west of Lancaster, the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve offers miles of well maintained trails and expansive views of California's brilliantly colored state flower.
Benches are located along the Poppy Trail Loop, and there is even an ADA compliant paved trail for when you're traveling with elderly family members.
The North Loop trail at the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve is just over 3.5 miles round-trip, and this intermediate loop ascends about 450 feet. If you're looking to escape the crowds, this is your trail at Antelope Valley reserve.
Antelope Loop Trail will take you on a 5.5 mile stroll (yep, it's suitable for all skill levels) with a total elevation gain of just under 600 feet.
Because the reserve is in a desert climate, be sure to wear protective clothing and drink plenty of water as you hike the eight miles of trails found here.
Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve provides several shaded picnic tables where you can enjoy your packed-in lunch while marveling at millions of wildflowers, including poppies, flowering keel fruit, forget-me-nots, and fiddlenecks.
The reserve is open from sunrise to sunset year round, but the best time to see California poppies in bloom is from mid February through May.
From Hwy 14, take the Avenue I exit and drive west. Once the road becomes Lancaster Road, watch for signs that will direct you to the poppy reserve. If you're headed from I-5, exit to Hwy 138 east and make a left turn at 170th Street West in Lancaster. Proceed for about two miles to the reserve. Expect to pay around $10 for parking.
Figueroa Mountain Recreation Area
Located in the Santa Lucia district of Los Padres National Forest near Solvang, the Figueroa Mountain Recreation Area offers hikers panoramic views of blooming poppies throughout springtime months.
The moderate to difficult nine-mile out and back hiking trail at Figueroa Mountain ascends 2,751 feet.
The trail is dog friendly, as long as your canine companion remains on a leash at all times. In addition to California poppies, you will see a variety of wildflowers, including chocolate lilies, purple shooting stars, sky lupine, and brilliant Indian paintbrush.
Slip into your hiking boots, fill your picnic basket at Los Olivos Grocery, then head up Hwy 54 around 12 miles northeast to Figueroa Mountain. Rd. The park can also be reached via Happy Valley Road. For parking info, call the Santa Lucia Ranger District at (805) 925-9538.
Point Reyes National Seashore
Situated along a ridge crest at the eastern spur of the Point Reyes headlands, the Chimney Rock trail is the perfect place to view early blooms of wildflowers, including California poppies, daisies, lupine, and yarrow. According to Hiking Project, the easy-to-moderate Chimney Rock hiking trail ascends 81 feet and is open to bicycles, but leave your dog and drone camera at home.
From San Francisco, take US-101 North to exit 450B toward San Ansemo and merge onto Sir Francis Drake Blvd for 20 miles. Head right on CA-1 North. Once you hit Inverness, head west on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard until you come to the fork in the road. Follow the left branch of the fork to the Chimney Rock parking lot.
Before going to Chimney Rock at Point Reyes National Seashore, be sure to gas up and fill your pack with a picnic in Point Reyes Station, because no fuel or food is available west of Inverness. Wear layered clothing, too, as the wind can be mighty at this poppy lover's paradise.
Park your vehicle in one of the ample free spaces available at the end of Chimney Rock Road, then enjoy the three-mile hike to and from the end of the peninsula.
Yosemite Valley offers double the poppies of most meadows, as well as two great wildflower hikes. Merced Valley Loop trail blooms profusely with California golden poppies in springtime, and it's also home to the rare tufted poppy, explains Wondermondo magazine. The generally unpopulated 17 mile loop ascends 869 feet and is rated easy to intermediate.
If you don't mind a slightly more challenging hike, opt to take the Hites Cove trail a 3.5 mile point to point trail with about a 540 foot ascent. This hike is rated intermediate/difficult, but this hike will definitely get you closer to the wildflowers.
Hites Cove Trail was closed after the Ferguson Fire, and it may still be closed, so definitely have a back-up hike in mind.
Each trail offers amazing views of springtime poppy blooms.
First, gas up, get trail snacks, and use the bathroom at Claim Jumper Outpost at 17586 CA- 120 in Big Oak Flat. Get back on the highway and proceed northeast for 33 miles. Continue on Old Yosemite Coulterville Road for ten miles, then turn left onto El Portal Road and follow the signs to the Merced Valley Loop and Hite Cove trailheads. Numerous parking spots are available, and parking in Yosemite is free.
Bear Valley Wildflower Meadow
Situated in Colusa County, Bear Valley offers a virtually unpopulated peek at California poppies in their natural habitat. For most of the year, this pristine part of California's central valley appears dull and lifeless, but everything changes for a few short weeks in spring, especially after a rainy winter.
In addition to California poppies, springtime in Bear Valley is replete with Indian clover, pineapple weed, larkspur, rock lettuce, popcorn flowers, Chinese houses, wild vetch, and adobe lilies.
From Sacramento, drive north on I-5 to State Hwy 20. Turn left and stay on Hwy 20 until the road intersects with Hwy 16. From there, merge onto Bear Valley Road and continue for about 12 miles where you'll see a ranch sign touting wildflower access. Park your car for free, enter ranch property, and enjoy an easy, no-ascent hike.
San Joaquin Valley - John Muir's Favorite
No list of great places to see California poppies would be complete without including the San Joaquin Valley. John Muir was so enthralled with this valley that he wrote:
"The valley of the San Joaquin is the floweriest piece of world I have ever walked, one vast, level even flower-bed, a sheet of flowers, a smooth sea."
Morgan Territory Regional Preserve offers a host of trails on the 4700 acre preserve, so you can choose any of the 21 trails to explore this region of the world. Some of these trails allow spectacular views of the San Joaquin Valley. Morgan Territory Regional Preserve connects with Round Valley Regional Preserve via the Miwok Trail.
Hardy Canyon Loop trail is a heavily trafficked moderate trail in the preserve where you may chance upon shade flowers such as Chinese Houses and wild iris. This loop is right at 5 miles with just over 1,000 feet elevation gain.
If you're looking to get away from the crowds, head over to Volvon Loop Trail. At 4.5 miles and rated as a moderate hike with about a 750 foot elevation gain. This trail offers views of Mt. Diablo and Los Vaqueros Lake plus plenty of poppies in bloom. This trail doesn't have much shade, so be sure to pack a hat.
You can make your loop longer by adding in Blue Oak Trail and longer still by adding in Manzanita Trail. Altogether, you're looking at just over a 7 mile moderate loop with some great scenery.
From Livermore head north to I-580 East and take exit 52 onto N. Livermore Ave. and follow it north. Once the name changes to Manning Rd, be on the lookout for Morgan Territory Rd. You'll take a right onto Morgan Territory Rd and follow it for 5.5 miles to the staging area.
Black Diamond Regional Preserve is a 6,000 acre preserve that provides some up close view of poppies in the San Joaquin Valley. The Nortonville Black Diamond Loop Trail passes through the Rose Hill Cemetery where poppies and lupines bloom among century old graves. This moderate 5.7 mile lightly trafficked loop hooks up with the Manhattan Canyon Trail and offers incredible views of the surrounding hills dressed in blooming wildflowers. Dogs ($2 each) and horses are both allowed on this trail.
From Livermore head north to I-580 East and take exit 55 for Vasco Rd North. After 18 miles, continue onto CA-4 for 12 more miles and take exit 26 for Auto Center Drive toward Somersville Rd. Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve address: 5175 Somersville Rd, Antioch, CA 94509. Parking is $5.
California poppies typically bloom from mid-February through the end of March. Springs following wet winters tends to produce the most dramatic show.
Stay tuned for some more great articles on our favorite hiking trails in California plus some posts on backpacking and hiking essentials. Be sure to sign up for our newsletter so you don't miss any of these posts.
And, if you happen to be planning a trip to Fort Collins soon, here's a link to some great snowshoeing and hiking trails.
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