My first encounter with the California poppy fields consisted of a poster that a friend in college had. The caption said, "Antelope Valley, California". It sounded like some distant and remote place that only a few hardy souls would see. It certainly was no place that an ordinary person like myself would ever see. I was wrong. Although California is very distant from Pennsylvania, I ended up moving to California and found that the Antelope Valley and the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve were just a day trip away.
The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is a state park located near Lancaster California. California was once covered by countless acres of poppies and other wildflowers but as the human population grew, the wildflower population shrank. Concerned residents wanted to preserve a sample of the vast fields of the state flower while there still some left. Studies were done and it was found that the most consistant displays were found on a series of hills in the far western end of the Mojave Desert and 1800 acres of land were acquired for the reserve.
California poppies (Eschscholtzia california) are not the only flowers found on the reserve. There are also extensive stands of goldfields (Lasthenia californica) and smaller groups of other beauties such as lupines (Lupinus species), phacelia (Phacelia species), owl's clover (Castilleja exserta), and cream cups (Platystemom californicus). However, the star of the show is the California poppy. It is the most numerous flower and the blankets of orange can be seen from at least 15 miles away. The displays are all natural. The park does not plant seeds or provide supplemental water.
The "antelope" (pronghorn) of the Antelope Valley have been gone for almost 100 years, but smaller mammals still live here. You might see a coyote, bobcat, jackrabbits or ground squirrels. It is also possible to see the burrowing owl, red tailed hawk, roadrunner, western meadowlark, and horned lark. Since this is the desert, snakes and lizards are present, including the Mojave rattlesnake. You are almost guaranteed to see numerous painted lady butterflies during wildflower season.
Wildflowers are usually blooming from mid February to mid May, with the peak being in April. Not all years are equally good. Precipitation in the desert is highly variable and undependable. In years with little rain, there will be few flowers. Even years with more abundant rain may not be all that good for flowers. The timing of the rain is important. If the rain comes at the wrong time, it favors the growth of grass instead of flowers. At close to 3000 ft elevation, the reserve will get snow during some winters. My unscientific observation has been that years with snow tend to produce better flower displays. Before planning a trip to the reserve, it is of utmost importance to check the web page for the status of the flowers.
Far from being some exotic, remote locale, the reserve is easily accessible. It is on a paved road 15 miles west of highway 14. The main rules are that the visitors stay on the trails and don't pick the flowers. The entrance fee during peak wildflower season is - at the time of this writing - $5 per vehicle or $4 per vehicle if at least one passenger is 62 years old or older. Peak wildflower season runs from March 15 until when someone decides it is over in May. Check the web site for the most up-to-date-information. The rest of the year entrance is free.
During peak wildflower season, the visitor center, the Jane S. Pinhiero Interpretive Center, is open. Ms Pinhiero was one of the people who worked very hard to get the reserve established. The center is built partly underground to minimize visual impact. It is readily seen from the parking lot but not from the poppy fields. The center contains interpretive displays and also sells souvenirs and memorablia like books, tee shirts, postcards, and magnets. Prices are reasonable.
The park consists of 7 miles of easy and moderate trails. There is a section of paved trail that is wheelchair accessible. The rest of the trails are native sandy soil. At the parking lot, there are four clean pit toilets. There is a restroom with flush toilets and sinks at the visitor center. There are a small number of picnic tables near the parking lot. No food or beverages are available for purchase at the reserve and there is no camping. There is an abundance of restaurants and gas stations in Lancaster.
During most of wildflower season, the weather will be sunny. Rain is a possibility, but not all that likely in most years. The temperature can range from almost hot to rather chilly. It seems to always be windy in the spring and the wind can range from a stiff breeze to a gale. Poppy flowers close up in windy weather, but you can see from my pictures that there is still plenty of color visible.
That wildflower poster that my friend had - they sell them at the reserve. I bought one and have had it hanging up for almost 20 years. It is a reminder that no matter how remote or unlikely a place may sound, I just might have the chance of visiting it some day. You too - you never know what good things are in store for you. It might even be a trip to the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve.
Pictures taken in 1991, 1998, and 2008. Pictures property of Kelli Kallenborn.