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Wildflowers in the West

Springtime in the West means warmer days, green grasses, and in special places bountiful blooms. Here’s where you can feast your eyes.

  • Baby blue-eyes, wildflower in California, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Miwasatoshi/Wikipedia
    Photo caption
    Baby blue-eyes grow all over California from sea level to 6,500 feet.
  • Red Indian paintbrush, wildflower, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: D Arceneaux/Wikipedia
    Photo caption
    In June, red Indian paintbrushes spread over Wyoming's Beartooth Scenic Byway.
  • Tidytips wildflower close up, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Eric Johnston/Wikipedia
    Photo caption
    Radiant tidytips bloom in California's Carrizo Plain.

Driving down a country road on one of those delicious days of spring, you’d best keep a sharp eye on the car ahead. Its driver could be a wildflower enthusiast, apt to hit the brakes for any meadow ablaze with reds, oranges, yellows, or blues. Even before the season officially starts, flower fans are combing online blogs, dialing hotlines, and pestering park rangers: “Anything blooming yet?”

But are wildflowers really worth a road trip? Anyone who has seen a bloom called blazing star backlit by the setting sun, a field of buttercups against a snow-clad peak, or the flowers with wonderful names—lady’s slipper, butter-and-eggs, goatsbeard—will answer with a resounding yes.

Luckily, the West—from the Pacific Coast to the Rocky Mountains—bears an embarrassment of riches. Where to go? Utah’s Albion Basin and Southern California’s Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve are popular destinations. Others, like the less busy ones here, can be even more rewarding. You may know Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park for its grand rock formations, but have you spied its fiery globe mallows? You may have seen photos of wildflowers in Yosemite, but just outside the park is a hike that in a good flower year will take your breath away.

Not every year is a good year. Wildflowers need just the right mix of warmth and rainfall to bloom in profusion. That’s why it’s best to call ahead or check online before starting a wildflower safari. (For links to websites about the places in this article and other wildflower destinations in the West, check out our "Wildflower Resources" article.)

Carrizo Plain National Monument Central California This narrow grassland valley in eastern San Luis Obispo County isn’t the easiest wildflower destination to reach by car, but the Carrizo Plain is worth every missed turn and lonely back road it takes to get there. When rainfall and temperatures conspire in just the right measures, the 250,000-acre preserve bursts into exuberant bloom, just as if Mother Nature had spilled huge buckets of bright paint. Wildflower displays typically begin in March when the cheerful yellow of hillside daisies and goldenbush turns foothills into seas of sun-kissed gold, sprinkled with purple lupines, pink filarees, and orange poppies. In the following weeks, flowers march down the hillsides. April can be a riot of color, with goldfields, lavender-blue phacelias, and baby blue eyes. Be sure to visit the salt-crusted but curiously beautiful (and usually dry) Soda Lake to spy crowded fields of yellow tidytips, with white petal ends that appear to have been painted by a French manicurist. (877) 444-6777.

Zion National Park Southern Utah Visitors to Utah’s oldest national park—a dreamscape of sandstone cliffs and slot canyons—are often surprised to find a diverse array of wildflowers. “My favorite is probably the globe mallow,” says park ranger Rebecca Lieberg. “I just love the orange color.” Peak season is May, but visitors can find lovely blooms in late March and April at the park’s low elevations, around 3,700 feet. In the southwest corner, purple phacelias splash color on the crumbly gray gypsum beds that border Coalpits Wash. A bit higher is Chinle Trail, known for its forest of petrified logs. Lean in for a whiff of Higgins’ milk vetch, with white flowers that smell like a grape Popsicle. In April, blooms are more bountiful—and beautiful—along Zion Canyon, the spectacular gorge carved by the Virgin River’s north fork. On the Watchman Trail near the visitor center, find bright yellow desert marigolds, red or orange desert paintbrushes, and showy red penstemons. In late April, take the Scenic Drive shuttle to Weeping Rock, near the natural amphitheater called the Temple of Sinawava. Amid the ferns and mosses that drape across the wet sandstone walls of the Hanging Gardens, look for glorious pink Zion shooting stars. (435) 772-3256.

Hite Cove Trail West of California’s Yosemite National Park Visions of quick riches lured Gold Rush miners up the Merced River’s south fork. Today’s prospectors search for a different treasure—a wildflower display that’s among California’s finest. “It attracts people from all over the world,” says botanist Joanna Clines of Sierra National Forest. The bloom gets under way in February and March, when golden poppies carpet hillsides, baby blue eyes borrow bits of the sky to decorate grassy slopes, and redbud bushes wear mantles of pink-magenta blossoms. Later, slopes glow with lupines, Indian paintbrushes, golden blazing stars, and white-and-purple Chinese houses. In late May and June, a flower called farewell-to-spring trumpets the season’s end. The trail is 6.6 miles round-trip, but you can see these raucous colors along the first mile or so. Feeling energetic? Push on to Hite Cove to see rusted mining relics and the burned-out remains of an 1880s boomtown. Park near the bridge at the confluence of the Merced River and its south fork. (559) 877-2218.

Valley of Fire State Park Southern Nevada Much of the year, Nevada’s largest state park is a harsh expanse of strange rock formations and Mojave Desert scrub. With a good dousing in winter, this refuge near Las Vegas takes a lively turn as wildflowers unfurl their petals. “People think of the desert as desolate, but in spring it’s quite the opposite,” says park employee Ben Plummer. Beauties can be easy to spot in March and April, blooming along the road between the park’s east and west entrances or along many of the walking trails. Look for orange globe mallows and purple-blue indigo bushes. Barrel cacti don yellow garlands and beavertail prickly pears sprout fuchsia-colored blossoms as flamboyant as a lady’s hat at Royal Ascot. The beauty crown may belong to jimsonweed, which looks to have stepped off a Georgia O’Keeffe canvas. (702) 397-2088.

Table Rocks Southwest Oregon Nature knows how to set a beautiful table. Upper and Lower Table Rocks are two mesa buttes—remnants of ancient lava flows—that soar 800 feet above the Rogue River Valley north of Medford, Ore. In late winter and early spring, their horseshoe-shaped tops come alive with brocades of wildflowers, among them species seldom seen elsewhere. “It’s beautiful,” says Darren Borgias of the Nature Conservancy, which manages the site with the Bureau of Land Management. “You’re up on a grassy plateau dotted with clusters of purple-eyed grass that nod and wave in the wind.” March also brings western buttercups, hyacinth brodiaeas, and Chinese houses. April is the peak season to spy cream-colored dwarf meadowfoam. You may be treated to showy red bells or bright lilac Henderson’s fawn lilies in the dappled shade of an oak tree. (541) 618-2200.

Denali National Park and Preserve Central Alaska Grandeur? Think massive Mount McKinley, mile-wide glaciers, hulking grizzlies, and hefty moose. But Denali’s splendor also comes in small packages. Starting in May, when the purple pasqueflower pokes through the snow, wildflowers—some in clusters no bigger than the nail on your pinkie—march across alpine meadows, rocky slopes, and wet thickets. “People are often surprised by the diversity,” says ranger Jake Frank. “During peak wildflower season in late June and early July, it’s possible to see 50 or 60 species on a single day hike.” The 92-mile Denali Park Road is flanked by brilliant displays, among them pink patches of wild sweet pea and clumps of purple-blue arctic lupine. Hikers on the short trail between the visitor center and park headquarters may spy the calypso orchid, remarkable for its fairy-wing petals and slipper-shaped pouch. Others crouch low to sniff the shooting star, which has a grape-juice scent, or drink in the Lapland rosebay’s intoxicating aroma. “When the sun is beating down and there’s a warm breeze, it just engulfs you,” Frank says. (907) 683-9532.

Craters of the Moon National Monument Southern Idaho A 19th-century pioneer bound for Oregon once described Idaho’s weird ocean of congealed lava as “the devil’s vomit.” An overly harsh label? Certainly visitors wouldn’t speak ill of springtime here, where wildflowers paint the craggy terrain in bright whites, yellows, reds, and purples. (You can download a park wildflower app.) Viewing is easy along the seven-mile Loop Road or any of several trails, especially Broken Top Loop, Tree Molds, and wheelchair-accessible Devil’s Orchard. Craters of the Moon lies at an elevation of 6,000 feet, which means that blooms arrive late. The season gets rolling in April with ground-hugging pink-purple wild onions. In late May, cinder cone slopes gleam with carpets of pink dwarf monkey flowers, which are among the park’s iconic blossoms. Around the same time, antelope bitterbrush announces itself with a honeysuckle scent. “As soon as you open the car door, you’re just surrounded by this beautiful, heavenly sweet smell,” says park geologist Douglass Owen. And what about the park’s showstopper, the lemon-yellow blazing star? A good excuse to return in summer or fall. (208) 527-1335.

Beartooth Scenic Byway Northern Wyoming This 70-mile, two-lane road is the highest highway in the Northern Rockies. Come spring, it’s also among the most colorful. It begins in Red Lodge, Mont., then dips south into Wyoming as it wends up and over the rugged Beartooth Range, climbing to nearly 11,000 feet before dropping to 7,600 feet at Cooke City, Mont., near Yellowstone National Park. “You can see flowers in forests and valleys and wetlands and meadows,” says botanist Charmaine Delmatier. At lower elevations, June brings swaths of purple penstemon, red Indian paintbrush, white phlox, and yellow balsamroot. The real show begins in July above timberline on the Beartooth Plateau, where grand vistas seem to sing out, “O beautiful for spacious skies.” Stands of bitterroot, sky pilot, alpine avens, and American bistort spread across meadows and glacial valleys against a backdrop of jagged peaks. Consider a side trip on a three-mile gravel road (suitable for all kinds of vehicles) to the visitor center at Clay Butte Fire Tower. “You’ll see a big carpet of wildflowers,” says Vicki Morgan of Shoshone National Forest. (307) 527-6921.

North Hills Ridge Trail Missoula, Montana Wildflower peeping in this western Montana college town can be done on a long lunch break. The North Hills Ridge Trail climbs windswept hills that support dozens of wildflowers, including rare alpine pincushion plants. “On a good weekend, you might see more than a dozen kinds in bloom,” says ecologist Paul Alaback, a professor emeritus at the University of Montana. In May, look for royal-blue lupines, lavender fuzzy-tongue penstemons, and the nodding rose-red flowers of long-plumed avens (aka prairie smoke). Pincushion plants, which grow low in mountain winds, include Missoula phlox and the red-and-cream cushion buckwheat. The best month is June, when lucky visitors spot the slim pink petals of bitterroot, Montana’s state flower. Starting at the trailhead off Interstate 90 near Greenough Drive, hikers can return along Cherry Gulch to make a three-mile loop, although flowers are plentiful just minutes out. (406) 552-6260.


Wildflower Etiquette

Native flowers are delicate and short-lived. Help make sure others can also enjoy their beauty.

Be a safe and courteous ogler Pull well off the road when you stop your car for a look.

Tread lightly Wouldn’t you rather view a fresh, untrampled patch of flowers?

Take only pictures Picking flowers on public lands is often illegal and always a bad idea. Collecting wildflowers diminishes their ability to sow seeds for the next season.

Respect property rights Some parks abut private lands. Mind any boundary signs.

For a list of websites for these and other springtime destinations, check out Via's "Wildflower Resources" article.

This article was first published in March 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.