Fields of Color
Wildflower Viewing in the Bay Area
by Sue Rosenthal on April 01, 2002
Wildlflowers from Point Reyes.
Photo by BrotherGrimm, used under Creative Commons.
In 1855, the Reverend T. Starr King traveled by carriage around San Francisco Bay and wrote back to an East Coast magazine, “Here they have flowers in May, not shy, but rampant, as if nothing else had the right to be; flowers by the acre, flowers by the square mile, flowers as the visible carpet of an immense mountain wall. You can gather them in clumps, a dozen varieties in one pull…. Imagine yourself looking across a hundred acres of wild meadow, stretching to the base of hills nearly two thousand feet high—the whole expanse swarming with little straw-colored wild sun-flowers, orange poppies, squadrons of purple beauties, battalions of pink…. This is what I saw on the road to San Mateo.”
Fortunately, there are still places to see colorful fields of spring wildflowers in the Bay Area, though displays are ephemeral and unpredictable from year to year (depending on factors such as rain, temperature, competition from non-natives, etc.) Here we describe one location for each Bay Area county and note two others.
Alameda County: Springtown
This area of eastern Alameda County offers easy roadside wildflower viewing. Carpets of yellow tidytips, goldfields, and butter’n'eggs as well as sky blue phacelias grace the fields along Hartford Road (continuing on Lorraine and Raymond Roads) from late March through mid-April. Beyond the end of Hartford is one of the few remaining vernal pool ecosystems in the county.
To get there: I-580 to the North Livermore Rd exit; north on North Livermore, then right on Hartford Rd.
Other locations: Sunol Regional Wilderness near Sunol; Skyline Serpentine Prairie in Redwood Regional Park, Oakland.
Contra Costa: Long Ridge, Mount Diablo State Park
Mount Diablo’s biggest wildflower fields are on Long Ridge, accessible by a steep hike up Burma Road fire trail. Even in dry years, expect to see a diversity of flowers in April and May, including yellow goldfields, tidytips, and lomatiums; orange poppies; and pink jewelflowers.
To get there: Hwy 24 to Ygnacio Valley Rd exit in Walnut Creek; Ygnacio Valley east to Walnut Ave; then bear right onto North Gate Rd. About three miles past park entrance station, park at Burma Rd fire trail turnout. Hike up Burma Rd fire trail about two miles to the grassland/wildflower area.
Other locations: Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve near Antioch; Seaview Trail in Tilden Regional Park.
Marin: Chimney Rock, Point Reyes National Seashore
The dramatic seabluff at Chimney Rock offers a continuing series of wildflower blooms from April through early May. Yellow goldfields, buttercups, and footsteps-of-spring; blue irises and lupines; pink checker mallows; orange poppies; red paintbrushes; and unusual brown Point Reyes chocolate lilies are but a few of the many species that decorate this level, 1.5-mile round-trip hike.
To get there: From Bear Valley Visitor Center, turn left on Bear Valley Rd, then bear left onto Sir Francis Drake Blvd. Continue about 15 miles to Chimney Rock trailhead sign (half mile before lighthouse). On weekends during peak whale watching months (generally January through mid-April), you’ll be directed to park at Drake’s Beach and take shuttle bus to Chimney Rock.
Other locations: Ring Mountain Preserve in Tiburon; Mount Burdell Open Space Preserve near Novato.
Napa: Snell Valley
This 25-mile drive through the Napa Valley countryside offers many wildflower fields and smaller roadside displays in April through early May. The best display will be on your right about one mile up Snell Valley Road. Nearly the entire color spectrum is represented: white evening-snow; blue brodiaeas, lupines, and larkspurs; yellow lomatiums; orange poppies; and lavender bird’s-eye gilias.
To get there: Take Silverado Trail or Hwy 29 to Sage Canyon Rd (by Lake Hennessey); turn east on Sage Canyon and then left onto Chiles and Pope Valley Rd. Continue for several miles, then turn left on Pope Valley Rd, right on Butts Canyon Rd, and right on Snell Valley.
Other locations: Knoxville Wildlife Area near Lake Berryessa; Oat Hill Mine Trail near Calistoga.
San Francisco: Tank Hill
Tucked into the northern slope of Twin Peaks, Tank Hill hosts ever-changing wildflower dipslays from late winter well into summer. This jewel of open space has been carefully tended by Greg Gaar, park steward, and neighbors since 1977.
To get there: #37 Corbett bus to Cole and Carmel St (walk up Shrader to Belgrave St steps); #33 Stanyan to Clayton and Carmel (walk back up Clarendon to steps).
Other locations: coastal bluffs of the Presidio (Golden Gate National Recreation Area); Garden of California Native Plants at Strybing Arboretum (Golden Gate Park).
San Mateo: Edgewood County Park and Natural Preserve
From late March through mid-April, Edgewood’s serpentine grasslands support magnificent carpets of wildflowers that include blue larkspurs and lupines; pink shooting stars; white fairy lanterns and cream cups; yellow goldfields and tidytips; magenta owl’s clovers; red paintbrushes; and rare fragrant fritillaries. (Park docents lead wildflower walks in springtime; call (866)GO-EDGEWOOD for schedule.)
To get there: I-280 to Edgewood Rd exit (Redwood City); turn right on Edgewood and proceed 1.5 miles to park entrance.
Other locations: Russian Ridge Open Space off Skyline (Rte 35) in Palo Alto; San Bruno Mountain near Brisbane.
Santa Clara: Stile Ranch Trail, Santa Teresa County Park
This hillside has been called a “wildflower-covered rock garden” and also boasts great views of the valleys below. A short, zigzagging, uphill trail winds through diverse wildflowers that thrive in serpentine soil, including pink shooting stars, jewelflowers, and spring beauties; yellow sanicles and goldfields; red columbines; blue gilias; and orange poppies.
To get there: Almaden Expwy south to the end, turn right on Harry Rd, left on McKean Rd, and left on Fortini Rd. Park just beyond the intersection of Fortini and San Vicente.
Other locations: Almaden Quicksilver County Park south of San Jose; Henry Coe State Park east of Morgan Hill.
Solano: Jepson Prairie Preserve
This is a fascinating example of the vernal pools that were once abundant throughout the Central Valley. In a flat, open prairie, concentric rings of colorful flowers bloom on the edges of drying seasonal pools from mid-March through mid-May. White meadowfoam, yellow blennospermas, golden violets, and blue downingias make showy displays as the season progresses. To explore Jepson Prairie, you must join a docent-led walk offered by the Solano Land Trust. Walks begin at 11 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday from mid-March through Mother’s Day. Call (707)421-1351 for information or to make reservations for groups of five or more. A small donation is requested.
To get there: I-80 to Hwy 113; south on Hwy 113. Where Hwy 113 turns left 12 miles past Dixon, continue straight on Cook Lane (a gravel road) to the parking area at the end of the road.
Other locations: Rush Ranch Open Space Reserve near Suisun City; Rockville Hills Regional Park in Fairfield.
Sonoma: False Lake Meadow, Annadel State Park
In April and May, False Lake Meadow at Annadel State Park is dotted with many exquisite wildflowers, including blue-eyed grass; yellow sun-cups; pink shooting stars, true babystars, and mariposa lilies; creamy death camases; rare white fragrant fritillaries; and even beautiful blue downingias as the stream dries. From Channel Drive parking area, walk up North Burma Trail or Orchard Trail to False Lake Meadow (about 2 miles).
To get there: Hwy 101 to Hwy 12 in Santa Rosa; Hwy 12 east to Mission Blvd; turn south on Mission, left on Montgomery Dr, then right on Channel Dr to the parking area. Public transit access via Sonoma County Transit bus #30 from Santa Rosa (call 817-1717).
Other locations: Bodega Head near town of Bodega Bay; Kruse Rhododendron State Reserve, off Hwy 1 near Fort Ross.
Thanks to Stella Yang, Celia Zavatsky, Glenn Keator, Sherrie Althouse, Phil Van Soelen, and the CNPS East Bay chapter board of directors for an abundance of wildflower viewing suggestions.