Outdoors columnist expects wildflower season to ‘explode with
color’ at five local hot spots
Predicting the spring wildflower bloom is a little like predicting the weather: Observe the relevant conditions, carefully compare them with information from prior years, make a carefully reasoned prediction, only to find later that you missed by a mile. My analysis (aka, gut feeling) says this should be a great spring for wildflowers. We have had plenty of rain, but cool temperatures have delayed the arrival of flowers that we normally see by now. I expect, after a bit of warm weather, they will all arrive at once, and the hillsides will explode with color.
Where are the best places to go to see the coming extravaganza? That’s another tricky question, but here are five places that, year in and year out, deliver the goods.
Pine Ridge, Henry W. Coe State Park
Coe Park headquarters sits on Pine Ridge, the pine-topped rim you see on the horizon east of Morgan Hill. From here, there are two lovely hiking loops that will take you to different habitats that are home to a variety of flowers. On the Forest Trail/Springs Trail loop (3.7 miles), the Forest Trail traverses the tree-shrouded north side of Pine Ridge (look for shooting stars, saxifrage, mission bells) while the south-facing Springs Trail loops back through sun-drenched oak-studded grassland (Johnny jump-ups, blue dicks).
In the other direction, the Frog Lake loop (4.5 miles) takes you up and over Pine Ridge via the Monument Trail and Hobbs Road returning on the Flat Frog Trail. At the top of the Monument Trail turn left toward Eric’s Bench and look for beautiful ground irises nestled in their clumps of grass-like leaves. Along Hobbs Road, masses of bright red Indian Warriors live as parasites on the roots of manzanita bushes there. Near the bottom of Hobbs Road, about 100 yards from the Little Fork of Coyote Creek, look to your left for a group of unusual Giant Trillium, a solitary purplish flower sitting atop an elegant whorl of three large leaves.
Harvey Bear Ranch
While many flowers — Johnny-jump-ups, blue dicks, and lupine, among others — grow on the lush grassy slopes, often the truly gaudy displays are on poor soils and rocky outcrops. Two trails at Harvey Bear Ranch produce fabulous spring color in just these conditions. The Calaveras Trail contours across Coyote Ridge just above Coyote Lake near the dam-end of the lake. Unfortunately, this is a long walk from both the Mendoza Ranch entrance near the reservoir and the Harvey Bear entrance at the end of San Martin Avenue. Unless you are prepared for long walk, consider entering the park at the Coyote Lake entrance and paying the day-use fee (currently $6) to access the Calaveras Trail from the dam parking area or via the Ohlone Trail near the picnic areas. Portions of this trail can be a stunning carpet of poppies and goldfields.
Closer in, the Mummy Mountain Trail turns off of the Mendoza Trail not far from the Mendoza Ranch entrance. You’ll climb up Mummy Mountain and walk the beautifully engineered trail that traces the length of the mountain. Look for splashes of color among the rocks.
Santa Teresa County Park (Stile Entrance)
Santa Teresa County Park separates the Santa Clara Valley from the Almaden Valley. Most visitors, as well as folks who work at the IBM Research Center enter the park at the west end of Bernal Avenue past Santa Teresa Golf Course. Not us. From McKean Road on the other side of the hill, turn east onto Fortini Road, then left onto San Vicente Road and park at the small lot with the interpretive sign.
Stiles Trail is to the left and zigzags quickly up a bare rocky hill that supports a diverse and colorful wildflower display. Here the serpentine that underlays most of the park pops through to the surface. Serpentine is a soil high in magnesium and low in calcium, a toxic potion to most plants, but one that is home to a specially adapted plant community. Goldfields, tidy tips, jewelflower, gilia, columbine and other beauties cloak this unlikely naked and rocky hillside.
Once you crest the slope, return the same way or continue on and loop back via the Mine Trail and the Fortini Trail — about 2.5 miles in all.
Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve
Thanks to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, a succession of open space preserves hang down each side of the Santa Cruz Mountains strung together by Skyline Boulevard that traces its crest. While Windy Hill and Monte Bello no doubt hold their own, Russian Ridge is a cut above.
I prefer to surrender and enjoy the fact that the drive there is a bit of a project. Taking Highway 9 up through Saratoga to Skyline Boulevard leaves an enjoyable drive along the mountain crest — one of the prettiest roads anywhere.
From the parking lot at the intersection of Page Mill Road and Skyline Boulevard, the Ridge Trail climbs briefly before starting its way across open grassland on this west-facing slope. If you can turn away from the fabulous view across miles of wild ridges to the ocean (fog permitting), you will enjoy the company of poppies, checker blooms, Johnny-jump-ups, and lupines at your feet. Ancient Oaks Trail, Alder Springs Trail and Hawk Ridge Trail combine to follow a parallel route lower down the slope that, along with the Ridge Trail, makes a great loop. This lower route has wooded portions that nourish flowers (giant trillium) that don’t grow in the open fields above.
Pacheco State Park
In the spring of 1868, John Muir stood atop Pacheco Pass and first looked across the Central Valley’s “vast golden flower-bed” to the Sierra Nevada. Late in his life, he called it a view, ” … that after all my wanderings still appears as the most beautiful I have ever beheld.” Muir saw that view from what is now Pacheco State Park.
My favorite path here is Whisky Flat Trail which rides the ridgetop on the park’s western boundary. Once again, it will be hard to turn away from the view, but when you do, look for butter-and-eggs, larkspur, goldfields, shooting stars, and more. Return by the same path or construct you own loop from among the trails that branch off Whisky Flat and turn home.
Flowers aren’t just pretty, they’re interesting. Learning their names is the first step to developing a meaningful relationship. The simplest guide I have seen to help with introductions is a color photo sheet ($3.28) sold at Henry Coe State Park that folds to pocket size and includes most of the species you are likely to see at any of these locations.
These are my favorite wildflower spots. I encourage you to grab your day pack and go. Hopefully, this will be an exceptional spring for flowers. But either way, there are special sights and memorable times waiting for you there.