Wildflower super blooms took us to the best fields in California — and a secret Carrizo spot

Mother Nature is putting on an epic springtime show across California, and San Luis Obispo County’s two super bloom spots are as dazzling — or more — as anywhere in the state.

You’ve seen the up-close photos of colorful blossoms and the satellite shots from space of hills blanked is swathes of yellow and orange. But until you actually go, find a clear spot and plop yourself down in a sea of wildflowers, it’s hard to really appreciate the spectacle.

Over the last few weeks, Tribune staffers have made pilgrimages to eastern SLO County’s flowers fields. Here’s what we found:

The best wildflower spot in California

We set out to see the flowers on a Sunday morning, with two dogs in tow and a cooler loaded with sandwiches and drinks.

After leaving Santa Margarita, the meandering drive along Highway 58 quickly reveals patches of wildflowers but nothing to suggest the riot of yellow, blue and orange blossoms that greets you at Shell Creek Road, part of the Sinton family’s Avenales Ranch.

In some spots, the blooms are so intense the fields look like one interrupted splash of color. This is especially true of the bright yellow California goldfields flowers, which burst together from the earth in great masses, like fans elbowing for room in a sold-out football stadium.

Masses of goldfields and California poppies make for a picturesque dog portrait background along Shell Creek Road. Joe Tarica

In other spots, varieties of assorted wildflowers erupt in a balanced symphony of color: Occasional tiny pink flowers cling to the ground below a layer of baby blue eyes. Next come healthy sprinkles of goldfields and California poppies. Finally, pretty yellow-and-white tidy tips finish the scene, popping up here and there to provide tall exclamation points.

You walk into the fields choosing a careful path. It’s all but impossible not to step on a flower somewhere. You’d have as much luck walking into your house trying not to step on the carpet. The blooms are that thick.

Fields of yellow blend into blue then into orange, in a scene dotted with oak trees and the namesake creek that gurgles through the middle.

It’s a floral Shangri-la. I defy you to find a more peaceful or picturesque wildflower spot anywhere in the state.

Once you’ve taken all your photos, definitely leave some time to sit and absorb the scene without a screen in between. It’s a rare sight, and we never know when it will return.

In contrast to Shell Creek Road, the Carrizo Plain National Monument emerges in a great expanse out of the rolling hills to the west.

It’s a wholly different experience, wide open and far-ranging. It strains the imagination and calls on you to linger. I wished we could have stayed longer than an afternoon, to see the valley in the morning and evening when the light changes and the shadows lengthen.

Footprints break through the salty crust on the shore of Soda Lake in the Carrizo Plain National Monument. Joe Tarica

From the Soda Lake Overlook, the Temblor Range range looks positively spray-painted in yellow goldfields from the north end to the south, as far as the eye can see.

The yellow hills rise up behind the salty lake, its shores a brilliant white that up close looks as though someone took a giant sifter and sprinkled it with a layer of powdered sugar.

But be careful how close you get to the water or you may sink up to your ankles and leave looking like you’ve stepped in brownie batter.

— Editor Joe Tarica

Secret spot is not for the faint of heart

I’m going to tell you how to see unique views that few have the knowledge, inkling or appropriate vehicle to visit.

I’m hesitant to share my experience with Superbloom 2019® because I’m wary of big crowds hitting up sacred spots that most tourists don’t yet know about. However, I’m also passionate about preserving public lands and I know the best way to do that is to create more passionate lovers of public lands. To be honest, I get giddy when I see hordes of people introducing their kids to the magic of wilderness.

So here it goes.

Explore the range of mountains on the west side of the Carrizo Plain, where Caliente Mountain stretches higher than any other point in San Luis Obispo County. That’s where the views are 360 degrees, the crowds are sparse and the birds soar below.

wildflowers caliente ridge lake.jpg
Soda Lake and south-facing hills covered in wildflowers are seen from a dispersed camping spot off Selby Road in the Caliente Range, above the Carrizo Plains National Monument. Monica Vaughan

On this trip you will see row after row of south-facing hillsides that aren’t visible from the valley. Each is blanketed in yellow.

On the way up the hill, thick clusters of poppies grow in the foothills around fascinating rock formations, remnants of a time when the Carrizo Plain was the floor of an inland sea. You’ll continue higher to see rare wildflowers that prefer higher elevations along the side of the road.

Dispersed camping is available here, meaning you can wake in the morning away from other people to see the yellow flower floor of the valley and hillsides illuminated by beams from the morning sun. Or, watch Soda Lake transform from a shiny surface with salted river veins to a mirror of the night sky.

To get there, you need a high-clearance vehicle, patience and good etiquette to manage the boom in traffic on the rutted, one-way dirt road. Remember, vehicles going up hill have the right-of-way. You may need to negotiate the road in reverse to find a turnout so others can get by you.

Near the south end of the lake on Soda Lake Road, turn west onto Selby Road. A couple miles in there will be a fork in the road. Selby Campground is to the left. You are going to stay right.

wildflowers Temblor Range.jpg
Kirk Barron and Sir Rockeford Vaughan-Barron, III walk on a dirt road in the hills to the east of Carrizo Plain National Monument. The Temblor Range offers bursts of wildflowers in spring 2019. The San Andreas Fault is parallel to the range to the west. Monica Vaughan

I also recommend exploring the Temblor Range, where you can see clear evidence of massive land movement at the San Andreas Fault, where the Pacific Plate meets the North American Plate. There you can ponder how tectonic movement effects our existence and perhaps see the source of the next big earthquake.

Finally, if you are traveling from San Luis Obispo, don’t take Highway 58 from Santa Margarita to the Carrizo Plain. For additional adventure and to see more nature, take Pozo Road through Los Padres National Forest. The road is winding and scary, a little dangerous, and beautiful.

Be sure to stop to eat at the Pozo Saloon. A sign says no dogs allowed, but it’s a lie.

Drink a brown ale or stout. Order a cheeseburger, a side of ranch and onion rings and you’ll be set.

Illinois transplant out on the plains

I’ve visited the Carrizo Plain twice this season, once for a story on a Thursday and again with friends during the weekend.

It’s important to note here that I’m from Illinois. I’ve lived here for three years, but California still has the power to leave me in awe after growing up in a Midwestern landscape that’s so different.

Once in the monument, the expanse of the valley floor looks like a sea of yellow stretching in every direction. When you stand somewhere amidst the flowers, they sway and bob in the wind like a real body of water.

When I first saw the Carrizo Plain, I mentioned to Tribune photographer David Middlecamp that it reminded me of a landscape I’d only seen in the television western “Bonanza.” (Yes, I’m aware “Bonanza” is set in Nevada, but I think the comparison is still apt.)

The Carrizo Plain covers 250,000 acres — it’s so big, it’s easy to find some unoccupied spots where you can have a small part of the experience for yourself.

And while the flowers are spectacular, my favorite part of these sorts of excursions are observing other visitors. Parts of the monument — such as Overlook Hill and the boardwalk along Soda Lake — draw clusters of people hiking up the slope or kneeling near the flowers for their new social media profile photo.

Fields of wildflowers stretch nearly as far as the eye can see in the Carrizo Plain National Monument in eastern San Luis Obispo County. Lindsey Holden

Springtime on the Carrizo Plain definitely isn’t as crowded as Disneyland, but it seems to draw a similarly diverse crowd on the weekend — one you would expect to see at Hearst Castle, not a remote area of the county.

Some visitors arrived dressed for a trip into nature, complete with hats, hiking boots and backpacks. Others were clearly there for photo shoots with a floral background, decked out in brightly colored sun dresses, crop-tops and flip-flops.

My friends and I opted to drive down Soda Lake Road, a bit away from the more crowded areas near the entrance of the monument.

Past the Goodwin Education Center, we found some spots with fewer people and set up a picnic on a small hill with panoramic views of the mountains and valley.

Below us, purple flowers dusted the valley floor, while the Temblor Range rose in brilliant yellow in the distance. A few groups of people hiked by, but it was surprisingly quiet otherwise.

We also checked out Soda Lake, the edges of which are soft and crusted with salt. One of my friends even tasted the white flakes to confirm.

The muddiness of the lake’s banks made reaching the water too challenging for us — as evidenced by a single white shoe someone left behind in the muck.

— Staff writer Lindsey Holden

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