It happens every spring, but the transformation of a green hillside to a bright carpet of orange, purple, or golden blooms never gets old. The fields bordering Highway 1 north of Santa Cruz turn bright yellow with sour grass and mustard. Cheery orange California poppies pop up along the San Lorenzo River and striking spires of lupine create varying brush strokes of amethyst, violet, and fuchsia along the coast and in the mountains.
The wide variety of ecosystems in Santa Cruz County, from redwood forests to the rare Santa Cruz Sandhills, creates a wonderland of wildflower blooms from mid-March through May. Any hike will reward you with a unique bouquet of blooms but some trails are known for putting on an especially good show.
Rancho del Oso is home to no fewer than seven ecosystems, each with its own unique wildflower display. A must-stop along Highway 1, Rancho del Oso is a treasure chest of biodiversity, encompassing beach dunes and coastal bluffs at its entrance and extending inland through an ever-changing display of scenery, finally connecting with the ancient redwood forests of Big Basin State Park. Every May, the Nature and History Center hosts a Wildflower Weekend boasting the largest indoor display of wildflowers in the county. The weekend also features botanist-led wildflower walks along a freshwater marsh, through Monterey Pine Forest, and beneath a dizzying canopy of old growth redwoods. (Keep your eyes peeled for banana slugs!)
Engelsman Loop starting on the inland side of Wilder Ranch State Park is your best bet for showy blooms. Look for the purple petals of Sky Lupine and Western Blue Eyed Grass mixed with California Poppies and Buttercups in the open, sunny chaparral. In the shade of the coastal redwood canopy, lush carpets of Redwood Sorrel with delicate pink and white flowers border the narrow path. Also look for the Redwood Violet and pointed petals of the tiny Western Starflower. If you’re lucky, you may find the delicate nodding blossom of the elusive Calochortus albus, also known as the Fairy Lantern or Globe Lily.
The Santa Cruz Sandhills in Henry Cowell State Park are endemic to Santa Cruz County, meaning this unique ecosystem is only found in our coastal corner of the world. The sandhills are just as they sound, making this an especially fun hike for little ones who may rather be at the beach. And they’ll love the fact that 15 million years ago, the Santa Cruz Sandhills were at the bottom of the ocean. Today, this ‘beach’ in the mountains is home to several plants and animals found nowhere else. Keep your eyes peeled for the Santa Cruz Wallflower, Ben Lomond Spineflower, Ben Lomond Buckwheat, and Bonny Doon Manzanita. Although found throughout Santa Cruz County, the orange blooms of the Sticky Monkey Flower also love the sandy soil and full sun of this strange ecosystem.
Although Quail Hollow Ranch only has 4.5 miles of hiking trails, this 300 acre park packs a lot into its small footprint. Explore Santa Cruz Sandhills, a dwarf redwood forest, and a sunny meadow lush with lupine, Scarlet Pimpernel, and eye-catching fuschia splashes of Tiny Red Maids. Fun fact: The grounds of Quail Hollow were once home to the test gardens of Sunset Magazine and the ranch house was home to its test kitchen.
Urban Wildflower Oases
For a quick sampling of Santa Cruz County wildflowers—no hiking required—pay a visit to the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History’s native plant garden. Take a self-guided tour of the Museum’s outer perimeter and the banks above Pilkington Creek to find Common Yarrow, Sticky Monkey Flower, Blue Dicks, Flannelbush, California Sagebrush, and Lizard Tail. Walk the cliff trail behind the Seymour Marine Discovery Center for an impressive display of native coastal bluff species or sign up for a behind-the-scenes tour of neighboring Younger Lagoon Reserve.
Super Blooms Call for Super State Park Visitors
This year promises super blooms throughout the state, attracting thousands of visitors in one short season. To help preserve these incredible floral landscapes for everyone to enjoy, make sure you’re well informed of state park rules before going on your wildflower adventure.
For instance, you can stop and smell and photograph the flowers to your heart’s delight, but picking a bouquet of wildflowers can damage fragile ecosystems and diminish the natural beauty for other hikers. (It’s also against the law to take anything from state parks, from flowers to driftwood.) And while it’s tempting, frolicking in a field of lupine or spreading a picnic blanket across a carpet of baby blue Forget Me Nots also disturbs the natural landscape, so keep your frolicking and picnicking to designated trails.
Watch this short video from California State Parks for more tips on treading gently in wildflower areas and make sure to read up on their hiking safety tips and where to find the best blooms throughout California.
This year’s Wildflower Weekend at Rancho del Oso is May 4 and 5 from 10-4pm. Botanist-led Wildflower Walks will be offered at 10:00am (4.5-miles) and 1:00pm (1-mile) on both Saturday and Sunday, departing from the Nature Center deck.