Among the sunny slopes and soft, rolling meadows of Northern California, the wildflowers are shaking off the winter doldrums and opening to a hopeful, new spring.
Even if you've spent the last two years under a rock (haven't we all, kind of?) you probably know that there's no shortage of places to see wildflowers around these parts. But there's so much more to the season than hiking alone. If you've never wildflower-watched from a vintage train or ogled the springtime bounty from a raging river, the time is now.
These seven unique ways to experience the wildflowers are best attempted between March and the end of May.
Wildflowers by Train: Western Railway Museum, Suisun City
(Courtesy of @westernrailwaymuseum)
Climb aboard a historic train for wildflower viewing vintage-style. The Western Railway Museum's annual spring journey travels through fields of blooming poppies, goldfields, sheep’s sorrel, and more. Docents on board, as well as a useful printed guide, will help you identify them all. Spend a few extra bucks on a first class ticket for a posh ride in a restored 1914 Salt Lake and Utah Railroad parlor observation car complete with cookies and lemonade. Scenic wildflower trains run from March 26th to May 1st.// 5848 State Highway 12 (Suisun City), wrm.org
Wildflowers by Raft: Merced River
(Courtesy of @mindego_hillcat)
In the springtime, the banks of the scenic Merced River bloom in technicolor. Tufted poppies, redbuds, and dozens of other species come to life with the snow melt between April and June, coincidentally also one of the most exciting times to ride the river’s whitewater (in spring, the usually Class III-IV rapids can reach Class V intensity). Get paddling on an Oars Merced River trip or an All-Outdoors California whitewater rafting tour, full-day rides that each include lunch.
Wildflowers by Trail: North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve, Oroville
(Courtesy of @whatthehellsie)
Ok, so it’s not the most innovative way to see this year’s blooms, but what good’s a wildflower guide without at least one classic hike. At North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve, the rich volcanic soil and seasonal springs and pools give rise to what is considered one of the best displays in Northern California. The blooms here—lupin, poppies, meadowfoam, purple owl’s clover, goosefoot violet, buttercups—blanket meadows, cascade down rocky ravines, and form colorful fairy circles around mounds of stone. For a long look at the springtime beauty, try the Phantom Falls Trail, a gently rolling, 4.2-mile out-and-back hike; if you’re pressed for time or have little ones in tow, take the 1.5-mile out-and-back Hollow Falls Trail instead. Wildflowers bloom at North Table between late February and late April.// 2488 Cherokee Rd (Oroville), wildlife.ca.gov
Wildflowers by Car: Highway 1, Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz
Wildflower sighting along Highway 1.
(Courtesy of @sactownrich)
The wildflowers along Highway 1 in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties are so prolific you don’t even need to get out of the car to see them—though you might have more fun if you do. You’ll find some of the best fields south of Half Moon Bay at Iacopi Farms where, last year, they decided to welcome flower-frolickers for a $10 fee; in the rural farm village of Davenport; and at Wilder Ranch State Park. The poppies, Bermuda buttercup, and lupine bloom from mid-March through May.
Wildflower Picnicking: Chimney Rock, Point Reyes National Seashore
(Courtesy of @flora_acolyte)
With colorful spring blossoms, barking elephant seals, and miles of California coastline, there are few locations as utterly perfect as Point Reyes National Seashore’s Chimney Rock for a wildflower-inspired picnic. Pick a spot along the easy, 1.75-mile trail—you’ll have an incredible view almost anywhere you choose—and settle in for an afternoon that will feed so much more than your grumbling stomach. The Douglas iris, Indian paintbrush, baby-blue eyes, and Johnny Tucks are on display late March through April.
// Chimney Rock Rd (Point Reyes Station), nps.gov/pore
Wildflower Backpacking: Henry W. Coe State Park, Morgan Hill
(Courtesy of @skunky420)
Fully immerse yourself in wildflower season with a beginner-friendly backpacking trip at Henry W. Coe State Park. From March through May, the park, the largest in Northern California, gives rise to flowers of every color, shape, and size including blue witch, buttercups, and checkerblooms. All you need to access a number of backpacking campsites is a first-come first-served $5 permit (plus an $8 parking fee); campsites range between one- and 7.5 miles from the Coe Ranch entrance. Download the Pine Ridge Association’s wildflower album to help you keep track of the flowers you’ll encounter along the way.
// 9000 E Dunne Ave (Morgan Hill), parks.ca.gov
Wildflowers With a Private Guide: Wildflower Walks, Hotel Healdsburg
(Courtesy of @hotelhealdsburg)
See wildflowers the white-glove way with a private guided wildflower walk as part of an overnight stay at Sonoma’s boutique Hotel Healdsburg. The experience, which includes a two-hour hike through the hills where pink wild rose, blue-eyed grass, and buttercups blossom plus a gourmet picnic lunch for two from Dry Creek Kitchen. A local trail maven and certified health coach will guide you, tailoring the experience to personal levels of fitness and flower knowledge; available March through May.// 25 Matheson St (Healdsburg), hotelhealdsburg.com