Eschscholzia californica is as essentially Californian as Disneyland, In-N-Out and Huell Howser. Never heard of it? You probably know it better as the California poppy. When we’ve been bestowed with plenty of wintertime rain, our beloved state flower dots the region in bright golden blossoms. We Angelenos are particularly lucky to live less than two hours away from the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve—a more than 1,700-acre park of poppy-blanketed hills.
The Poppy Reserve isn’t the only place to see wildflowers, but it’s definitely the dreamiest. The visitor center (parking lot at roughly 15101 Lancaster Rd) is already open for the season, and we’re just in the beginning phases of this year’s bloom. But before you hit the freeway, make sure you keep these things in mind.
As of March 30, the Poppy Reserve is closed to vehicle traffic. However, the reserve itself is still open (though many trails across the state have closed, non-campground outdoor areas in state parks remain accessible—and walking is still allowed and encouraged in the county). Do note that the visitor center is closed until further notice (restrooms are still open, though) and the hours have been set to 7am to 5pm.
To be frank, you probably shouldn’t be driving a long distance to visit the reserve right now; the county is stressing that, while walking outdoors is permitted, you should be doing so in your own neighborhood. If you are nearby, though, and hit the trails, please make sure to observe proper social distancing measures: Keep at least six feet from other visitors, try to avoid touching surfaces, bring soap or hand sanitizer, and cough or sneeze into something other than your hand.
Our original tips for visiting the reserve appear below.
Follow the bloom status.
The California State Parks website—and an old-fashioned phone hotline, 661-724-1180—continually updates the bloom status throughout wildflower season, noting the flowering flora along each trail. The website also posts photo updates, and if you need up-to-the-minute visual confirmation, the park even operates a live webcam now.
As of the end of March, the warm weather (which followed a bit of winter snow in the desert) has caused the poppies to bloom rather rapidly, and while it’s not quite on the same level of the dreamy carpet of flowers we experienced in 2019, the park’s hillsides are covered with poppies in bloom.
If you’re on the hunt for flowers outside of the reserve, the Theodore Payne Foundation keeps a log of bloom statuses across SoCal on its phone hotline-turned-website.
Check the weather, for your sake and the poppies.
Like Angelenos, poppies are meteorologically temperamental. They close up at night as well as on cold, windy days. About that wind: Expect it to be significantly stronger at the reserve than the surrounding areas. Lucky for you, the state posts the wind speeds in Antelope Valley on the hour. Also, the Mojave has the potential to have drastically different and unpredictable weather compared to L.A., so you’ll probably want to bring a sweatshirt along.
Anecdotally, we once rolled up to the reserve on a sunny day around 11am and were shivering while looking at half-closed poppies, but less than two hours later we’d shed our outer layer while the poppies were fully opened. On that topic, do keep in mind that there’s no shade on the trails; definitely bring along some sunscreen, lots of water and a snack (don’t litter, please).
Explore the desert.
We don’t know about you, but a trip to the High Desert isn’t exactly a regular occasion for us (Low Desert, though? See you at Coachella.). Admission to the reserve is priced per vehicle ($10) and is valid at any other state parks for the rest of the day. Take a side trip to the Joshua tree-filled Arthur B. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park, or, if you’re willing to trek a little farther, Saddleback Butte State Park and Red Rock Canyon State Park. On the ride back into L.A., consider a stop at sci-fi favorite Vasquez Rocks. You’ll also find plenty of poppies in the areas surrounding the reserve—more on that a little later.
Stay on the trail and don’t lay on or pick the flowers—or the snakes will eat you.
Apparently there’s some confusion about whether or not the poppy police will swarm upon you for picking one. Turns out picking any flower on state land is illegal. Plucking one of California’s precious poppy blossoms? We suppose that’s illegal and appallingly selfish. The same goes for trampling the flowers. You don’t want to stray off of the trail anyway: that’s Mojave green rattlesnake territory. They probably won’t eat you. Probably.
If it’s a dazzling bloom, brace yourself for crowds and traffic (but it’s still worth it).
Like a cheerier version of the Santa Ana Winds, super blooms whip Angelenos into a frenzy. So depending on your route, you can expect a considerable backup on the approach to the reserve, particularly on weekends. When the preserve hits peak bloom, the parking lot fills up pretty early; arrive before noon and there’s a good chance cars will only be let in as others leave. In that case, you’ll be waved past the turn for the reserve where you can park alongside the street for free (expect this to add at least a half of a mile to your hike). If you arrive later in the day, there may be space in the lot, but you’ll likely be stuck in a miles-long backup on Lancaster Road as cars queue up for the pay station.
Most motorists approach from the east, and you’ll likely find cars pulling over to walk the small patches of poppies that line the road a few minutes east of the reserve. If you’re hellbent on a poppy photo, then sure, stop (make sure to pay attention to any private property signs). But we think those pale in comparison to the grandeur of the reserve proper.
Our advice for those crazy traffic days? Approach the reserve from the west, instead of the east where the largest backups occur. For starters, don’t take San Francisquito Canyon Road on the way up; while your mapping app of choice may want to route you through there as it’s the most direct way from Los Angeles, you’ll be stuck on a narrow, winding canyon road with nothing around. Take the 14 freeway instead. But don’t get off at Avenue I, which will take you directly to the reserve. Instead, continue north to the 138 and take that west. Closer to the reserve, you’ll find fields filled with poppies just off the side of the road (these are considerably larger and less crowded than the ones on Lancaster Road east of the reserve). Make a left onto 170th Street, then a left onto Lancaster Road and you’ll be right near the park entrance and have avoided miles of traffic. We wouldn’t suggest sitting in the backup to enter the parking lot; just take a spot on the side of the road and hike in.
Unlike last year’s pandemonium in Lake Elsinore, the staff at the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve has the procedure down to a science, with traffic management, extra portable toilets and trail maps.
Speaking of the trails—and since it’s still early on in the bloom season, we’re basing this off of our 2019 knowledge—yes, some of them can be crowded, particularly on the paved paths near the visitor center and the snaking, uphill trail to the Kitanemuk vista point. But we’ve found the Antelope Butte Trail and Antelope Trail South Loop to be lightly traveled, while the alien, potentially yellow-flower–filled landscape of the Poppy Trail North Loop is practically empty. If there’s one essential less-crowded spot to hit up, it’s the Poppy Trail South Loop, where you can stare at an unbroken sea of orange as poppies cover the gentle slope of the hill.
Check out our footage from the 2019 super bloom below.
Poppy bloom at Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve
Here's everything you need to know before seeing the poppies in Antelope Valley. http://bit.ly/2FM3DFRPosted by Time Out Los Angeles on Saturday, March 30, 2019