We spent our second night on the coast in Morro Bay and came home via Highway 25. I would have enjoyed a drive up the coast, but given the road closures in Big Sur that wasn't a possibility. Highway 25, however, proved to be a very pretty drive. It was nice to see wildflowers closer to home, too.
Almost all of the hills sported bright yellow patches, some denser than others. At first I thought they were goldfields, but as we got closer I could see that the color was too bright and lemony to be goldfields, and the plants proved to be wild mustard (Sinapis arvensis). Mustard is widely considered a weed in California. Its native habitat is the Mediterranean basin, and one hypothesis is that it arrived in California with the Franciscan friars who established missions up and down the state. Mustard is one of the first plants to bloom every spring, and it covers hillsides, agriculture fields, and the side of the road.
For the first time in several years the oak trees appear to be flourishing this spring. There was a lot of rain this past rainy season, and it's such a relief to see the trees coming back to life. I'd forgotten what it is like to see so much green in a California landscape. I mean, just look!
Unfortunately for us, most of the land through which Highway 25 winds is private owned, which means we couldn't just wander off on some back road to get closer to the wildflowers. We did happen upon some lupines which were growing conveniently along the side of the road. These were the big purple bush-type lupines. They were not growing in any kind of park or protected area, so I tossed a couple of sprigs into the plant press.
By this time the light was fading as the sun began to set behind the western hills, so we headed home. I made it through three days of riding in the car without having a panic attack, which is much better than my concussed brain could have managed a few months ago. All in all it was a great trip, made even better because we got to spend some time with friends and family. These superblooms don't occur every year, and I'm very glad that I was able to see some of this one.
If you're considering making a trip to see the wildflowers in the desert areas of southern California, stop thinking about it and just go! If you can spare even a single night away, you will see some awesome displays of Nature's majesty. And it won't last much longer, so go now. Don't worry so much about actual destinations; just keep your eyes open for blooms wherever you can see them and be prepared to travel off the beaten path, because the flowers could be anywhere.
Day 2 (24 March 2017): Tehachapi, Antelope Valley, and Wind Wolves
We spent the night in Bakersfield and the next morning (24 March 2017) headed up over Tehachapi Pass and headed into Antelope Valley.
It had been many years since I'd driven over Tehachapi Pass, and I didn't remember ever having seen Joshua trees before. Maybe I was always sleeping on that part of the trip. Once we got past the windmills at the top of the pass--most definitely Not Good for my concussed brain--and started descending into the valley there were Joshua trees all over the place! So cool! And with this year being the 30th anniversary of U2's best (in my opinion) album, how appropriate.
To my admittedly inexperienced eye, Joshua trees are the symbols of the Mojave Desert, as the saguaro is the symbol of the Sonoran Desert. None of the Joshua trees that we saw at Tehachapi were blooming, although I heard from a friend that they were in bloom slightly farther south at Lancaster.
Continuing on, we drove through the desert scrubbiness and eventually could see orange splashed onto the distant hills. We stopped to pick up sandwiches at a corner market and then headed towards the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve. And bang! all of a sudden we were in the poppy fields.
California's state flower grows as either a perennial or an annual, depending on how much water it receives. In desert areas in the south it behaves like an annual, whereas in moister areas along the coast and in gardens it can come back as a perennial. There are several subspecies of E. californica, each adapted to a particular habitat within the state. Blossom color varies from a golden yellow (very similar to that of fiddlenecks, actually) to a deep intense orange.
Our intent was to stop at the visitor center of the park and pick up a trail map, but we never got there. We arrived at early mid-day on a Friday, when everybody from Los Angeles showed up, and the line of cars trying to get into the park was backed up almost to the road. Um, no thanks. Besides, we saw all these poppies from the road, and could find places sort of off the beaten track with fewer people tromping around with selfie sticks than would be inside the actual park. Now I'm not one to discourage people from visiting our state parks, but if you decide to go here, try to arrive earlier in the morning on a midweek day. And time your visit for a sunny day, when the poppies will be open.
And looking up towards the hills we saw pastel paintings. The orange flowers are poppies, I'm guessing that the yellow is goldfields, and the purple is lupines.
And in terms of lupines, Antelope Valley was the best place we visited. When we made plans to come here I had grandiose ideas of capturing that perfect iconic photograph of purple lupines and orange poppies together. You know the one. Unfortunately I think we arrive a week or two early to catch the peak of the lupine bloom. I never did see nice full lush poppies and blooming lupines in the same spot.
We did, however, see several nice lupine bushes in the various washes around the poppy reserve. Honeybees were glad to see them, too.
As glorious as the poppies were, we needed to keep moving in order to meet up with friends on the coast. Working our way westward we stopped at the Wind Wolves Preserve, an ecological reserve managed by the Wildlands Conservancy. I had never heard of the place and wasn't sure what to expect. What I got was a lovely surprise.
There are, of course, no wolves in this part of California. So then, why the name? According to a sign at the head of the wildflower trail, the name refers to the Preserve's long grasses, which undulate like running animals when the wind blows through them. I wasn't carrying the tripod with me so I didn't try to take any video. However, on our way from Antelope Valley we stopped at Tejon Pass, where the wind was blowing pretty well. I took this video there.
It does look like one of those aerial views of a herd of galloping ungulates, doesn't it? Perhaps not wind wolves, exactly, but at the Preserve it was easy to imagine how the place got its name. The wildflower walk, a bit less than a mile long, winds through rolling hills covered with grasses and dotted here and there with flowers. There were several small groups of people hiking the trail, and it wasn't uncommon to have them disappear completely from the landscape when they got lost in the grasses as the trail dipped into a small depression.
No doubt the resemblance to running wolves will be stronger when the grasses are a bit taller.
We were perhaps two weeks ahead of the bloom and most of the flowers were just starting to open up. The overall effect was a cool wash of green dotted here and there with bright splashes of color. There were lupines, of a smaller ground-growing type rather than the bush lupines we had seen in Antelope Valley, and a plant that we had first seen a lot of on the Carrizo Plain, another whimsically named flower called purple owl's clover (Castilleja exserta). As its scientific name implies, owl's clover is a member of the paintbrush family of plants.
And this might well be my favorite photo of the entire trip:
We had already seen many familiar and not-so-familiar birds on the trip, and it was at Wind Wolves that I saw my first ever horned lark (Eremophila alpestris). This individual wasn't very shy at all; it let us approach within 2 meters on the trail before running off ahead to wait for us again. It had such expressive postures, and a curious look on its face. If there hadn't been a family with small kids behind us on the trail, I could have watched this bird for a long time. But we couldn't block the trail just because there was an interesting (to us) bird standing in it, so we let the family pass and the lark flew off into the grasses. They are social birds so no doubt it had friends and family of its own to join.
We saw lizards, too, most notably the western side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana ssp. elegans). These lizards have very interesting gender expression, depending on color morph: there are three male morphs (orange-throat, yellow-stripe, and blue-throat) and two female morphs (orange-throat and yellow-throat). Sounds crazy, doesn't it? The female morphs differ in egg-laying strategy. Orange-throat females lay many small eggs and defend territories, while yellow-throat females lay fewer larger eggs and are less territorial.
Work by Barry Sinervo's group at UC Santa Cruz showed that the three male color morphs also have different reproductive strategies. They are locked in an evolutionary game of rock-paper-scissors: each color can dominate one (but not both) of the other colors. Note that in this context 'dominate' doesn't necessarily mean that one lizard beats up the other, but rather has greater reproductive success than the other. Orange-throats are the most typically testosterone-driven males; they are more aggressive towards other males and control territories containing several females. Yellow-stripe "sneaker" males hang around the edges of an orange-throated male's territory and sneak copulations with females while the territory holder's attention is elsewhere. Blue-throats have an intermediate level of aggression; they can defend a single female from other blue-throats and yellow-stripes, but not against an orange-throat. In a nutshell: