Rows of pink bubblegum blossoms march to the right, sloping toward a coastal hillside carpeted with broad stripes of sherbet orange, blazing yellow, ruby red, and purple.
We blink like a disbelieving Dorothy blown from Kansas to Technicolor Oz. It’s surreal, it’s dazzling, and it’s a tonic to eyes weary of winter’s bleak browns, moody grays and wicked-cold whites.
“There’s something about being surrounded by all this color that’s just magical,” says Lisa McClure of San Clemente, Calif., who makes an annual trip to stroll through The Flower Fields of Carlsbad, Calif.
Sprawling across 50 acres about 35 miles north of San Diego and an easy hop off Interstate 5, the fields are the largest producer of Giant Tecolote ranunculus flowers in the world and provide 7.5 million fresh-cut flowers each year, says Chris Calkins, president of The Flower Fields.
The fields began humbly in the 1920s with a grower raising single-petal ranunculus in red and yellow. Through successive generations, they expanded to multiple petals and a spectrum of colors and variegated patterns. Today’s full 4-inch flowers look like the love child of poppies and peonies with elegant stems and bold blooms dense with hundreds of tissue-thin petals.
They begin to open in March and can linger into May with a constant flow of visitors bobbing up and down click-clicking photos and pointing out favorites. The farm offers tractor rides, a maze of sweet peas, award-winning rose bushes, greenhouses packed with historic poinsettias and orchids, plus gardening demonstrations.
Field crews also may be around, carefully cutting flowers on the cusp of unfurling and bundled into bouquets destined for vases throughout the coast. It does little to diminish the full-color impact of hillside that overlooks ocean to the west and hazy purple mountains to the north.
This place is phenomenal,” says Cheryl Hampton, who has made multiple road trips from Las Vegas over the years to soak in the view. “We’re standing here in the flower fields and looking at the ocean. How can you not have a good time?
Road trip for more spring flowers
For anyone craving more seasonal color and willing to road trip 90 miles inland, California’s rich diversity of landscapes delivers a lush variety of spring flowers. We climb, hugging mountain curves with motorcyclists, bicyclists and convertibles, soaking up scenery and heading east on Highway 78. The valley drops below us, and roadsides blur with the hazy lavender of wild lilacs and smatterings of orange poppies.
It’s only 60 miles from the coast, but Julian, pop. 1,500, feels like another world. Apple orchards with clouds of white blossoms and vineyards flank this historic mining town tucked into piney mountains. Homey whiffs of coveted apple pies, dumplings and pastries waft into the narrow downtown, a designated historic district from its gold-rush days. A horse and buggy clip-clops past, and a giggling group of girls try to sell us a cat.
The elevation and cooler four-season temperatures bring more than apples. In March, daffodils add bright yellows and creamy whites to roadways and lure spring visitors to this quaint mountain getaway with easy access to horseback riding at area stables, boating and more than 100 miles of hiking at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.
Wildlflowers at the state park start peak mid-March through early April, with blossoms lingering through early June. A 3.5-mile hike up Lookout Fire Road to Cuyamaca Peak provides a 360-degree view from ocean to the west to the Salton Seat and desert to the east.
From Julian, it’s less than an hour or about 32 miles to continue along Highway 78, climbing down from the mountains into the flat arid basin until reaching Borrego Springs. Here, Anza Borrego Dessert State Park—the largest of California’s state parks and a bit off the beaten path—provides a less-crowded alternative to Palm Springs to the north.
Spring blooms depend on rain, and park rangers are “cautiously optimistic” for this year. The Visitor Center offers a nice interpretive exhibit on desert life and also irrigates the nearby cacti, coaxing blooms each March. Hummingbirds dart in and out of tubular orange blooms on a blue elf aloe, and families stop to admire hot pink flowers on beaver tail cactus, translucent yellow on a prickly pear, and a fiery orange on claret cup cactus.
In less than 90 miles, it’s a stellar mix of desert and mountain wildflowers, cultivated and coastal blooms, and Carlsbad providing the big-wow of flower power.
WHEN YOU GO:
Carlsbad Flower Fields is open daily from early March 1 through early May. Admission is charged. It’s extra for wagon rides through the fields. There’s also a season pass for anyone who can’t get enough in one visit (5704 Paseo Del Norte, Carlsbad; 760-431-0352)
Julian has its annual Daffodil Show at the Town Hall in early March. Julian Women’s Club Wildflower Show, an event for more than 90 years, is held in early May at the Town Hall (760-765-1857)
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in Borrego Springs has 600,000 acres, with desert plants usually blooming between January or February and March depending on rainfall. Call the wildflower hotline at 706-767-4684 for updates. Also look for spring stargazing nights (200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs; 760-767-5311)
WHERE TO SLEEP:
Grand Pacific Palisades Resort and Hotel has Mediterranean-style guest rooms and villa condos with kitchens perch above the Flower Fields, making them ideal for anyone who can’t get enough of the color. They offer a free Flower Field shuttle and tickets, plus a view of the ocean from the large pool and some of the rooms. (5808 Armada Drive; 800-725-4723)
Orchard Hill Country Inn (2502 Washington St., Julian; 800-716-7242) offers 22 upscale lodge and cottage rooms, plus breakfast.
Travel information: San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau (619-236-1212)
Featured image by Lisa Meyers McClintick.
Lisa Meyers McClintick, a longtime travel writer for the Twin Cities Star Tribune and Midwest Living magazine, is happiest when strolling great gardens and orchards, photographing fields of wildflowers and capturing the colorful beauty of it all.