Spring Wildflower Adventures in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area
By Lee Foster
The refreshing opportunity for spring wildflower adventures makes mid-March to mid-April a joyous annual travel time in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Wildflowers please the fortunate viewer in many ways. Golden carpets of the small goldfields flowers or abundant clusters of poppies delight the eye and lift the spirit. More delicate and less revealing flowers, especially the Douglas iris, reward a searcher in the shadier woodlands. Highly specialized dashes of color, such as red larkspur, add punch to the green tapestry of spring. The variety in wildflowers stuns the imagination.
Identifying wildflowers can excite some detective passion. The first reality is simply to enjoy the flowers. But knowing their names and collecting a personal record of memories in seeing them can be an enriching experience. Start with brochures available at some wildflower parks. Move on to Helen Sharsmith’s book Spring Wildflowers of the San Francisco Bay Region. Possibly proceed further to learn the Latin names and precise vocabulary of the botanist.
The Life Force
The life force surging forward in a wildflower seed is a wonder to behold. Beauty in wildflowers is a blatant effort to attract pollinator insects and perpetuate the species. Conditions of germination that trigger a seed are cagey, sometimes not allowing all to sprout at the same time, lest an unfavorable situation wipe out the species.
Five places in the Bay Area rank among the most pleasing wildflower outings of my experience. (An “If You Go” section at the end suggests further information, directions, lodging, and dining.) Call ahead to the wildflower destination, if you can, to check and determine if the bloom is peaking. Rainfall levels, cold/warm temperatures, and cloud cover/sunlight variations can accelerate or delay the bloom time.
-1. The Chimney Rock area of Point Reyes, near the lighthouse on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, is my single favorite place to experience wildflowers.
Chimney Rock presents an enormous variety and abundance of wildflowers, ranging from California buttercup to seaside daisy. The ocean cliff ambiance provides a rugged landscape. Sometimes other dramatic nature experiences also occur. For example, a red-tail hawk flew in and landed about 20 feet from me on my last visit.
Because the area has not been grazed for some time, a satisfying pristine feeling has re-emerged in the wild vegetation. You’ll see many of the large yellow flowers known as mule’s ears, named for the characteristic look of their leaves. Dense clusters of blue Douglas iris thrive in the moist ocean breezes.
Road to Chimney Rock
To get to Chimney Rock, take the last turnoff to the left before reaching the Point Reyes lighthouse and park in the designated lot. The hike out to the end of land is about a mile. There is a loop trail, lending variety to the walk. (I usually precede my walk with a short drive beyond the turnoff to venture all the way up to the lighthouse, just for the pleasure of seeing the luxurious yellow bush lupines covering the hillside looking north.)
With a little attention to detail, you will see more than 25 varieties of wildflowers on a sunny afternoon here. Bring a picnic. A brochure, posted behind glass at the parking lot, will help you identify the local wildflowers.
-2. The Pantoll Ranger Station, midway through Mount Tamalpais State Park, allows you access to a gentle hike in a wooded area, the Matt Davis Trail.
Park at the Pantoll lot and check in with the ranger before hiking on the trail.
Ask the ranger to see the lovingly crafted book on the wildflowers of Mount Tamalpais, in three-ring binder form, produced by Jim and Doris Vitek. Take it to a picnic table near the ranger station and look through it. This couple loved Mount Tamalpais and spent a lifetime cataloguing the nuanced beauty of its wildflowers, including their locations. Their passion and their intellectual precision are apparent.
Then hike out along the trail, which has both sun-drenched grassy hillsides and cool moist forests. You’ll see white Douglas iris in the shady forests and morning glory on the sunny grassy hillsides.
There are other good wildflower areas at Mount Tamalpais, especially at Rock Spring, near the juncture of Pantoll Road and East/West Ridgecrest Road. Volunteers put out labeled flower signs there each spring. Call ahead to determine the best weekend for wildflower viewing (see the phone number in the “If You Go” section).
After you look at the wildflowers, venture out East Ridgecrest Road to the Visitor Center at the top of 2,571-foot-high Mount Tamalpais. You will be rewarded with a lovely elevated view of the Marin County region immediately north of San Francisco.
-3. Mount Diablo State Park, on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay in Contra Costa County, is a wondrous drive-through spring wildflower setting.
I like to drive in from the north side and enjoy the abundant poppies along North Gate Road in the typical oak and grassland environment. It is likely you will also see flocks of wild turkeys here. The elevation change at Mount Diablo shows flowering from early spring at low elevations to much later in the spring near the peak.
At the Junction Ranger Station, where Summit Road turns east to the peak, a brochure posted behind glass on an information board will help you identify the flowers. The Junction Campground here and Juniper Campground farther up the road to the summit are quite lovely, and will surprise you with how little they are used, even on a glorious spring weekend. The drive between the ranger station and summit boasts more than 50 handsome turnouts with picnic tables, benches, and stone fire pits, all legacies from the California Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Enjoy them as you gaze out at the populated valleys, such as the Livermore Valley, below. The drive has especially lovely showings of white ceanothus bush wildflowers each spring.
From the summit of Mount Diablo you can look clear into the Delta or back to the Golden Gate Bridge. This is arguably one of the finest panoramic views you will find in the Bay Area. On a particularly clear day, after winter rains have cleaned the air, you may be able to see all the way north to Mount Lassen.
The drive to the south entrance shows many more flower-filled hillsides, with bush lupine in abundance.
San Antonio Valley
-4. The San Antonio Valley south from Livermore, via Mines Road, is the wildest wildflower backcountry drive that I know of in the Bay Area.
Choice wildflower areas flourish near where Mines Road changes its name to San Antonio Valley Road, at the junction with Del Puerto Canyon Road. The single dominant experience is vast carpets of a small yellow flower known as goldfields, Baeria chrysostoma, in a semi-grazed landscape. You will find vast landscapes of this delicate gold flower stretching for long distances.
I like to do this drive from the San Jose area, across Mount Hamilton, with a stop at the Lick Observatory, and then end up at Livermore. But be warned that this is a remote and twisty road, good only for the patient and careful driver. There won’t be many travelers on it when you descend behind Mount Hamilton. Be prepared to sustain yourself for a while if you experience an automotive breakdown.
The drive, as I like to do it, begins on Highway 130 at Grant Park and proceeds up the flanks of Mount Hamilton to the pinnacle and the Lick Observatory, noted for its astronomy efforts. A drive up on a spring day shows a lovely leafing out of the oak trees with their delicate shades of green. The view from the summit of Mount Hamilton at the Observatory provides a panoramic look at the contrast between the populated Silicon Valley to the west and the rustic backcountry to the east.
Remote Mount Hamilton
When you drive east down the back side of Mount Hamilton, the remoteness of the environment will astound you. If I were a mountain lion in the Bay Area, this would be my chosen hangout because there are enormous road-less areas where a mountain lion can retreat for a little privacy. A dry forest of digger pine and oak dominates the scene. The goldfields wildflowers begin when San Antonio Valley Road turns north towards Livermore.
-5. Edgewood County Park and Natural Preserve on the Peninsula is one of the most biologically rich 467 acres in Northern California, with more than 500 plant species.
So many species grow here because of the diverse habitats, from grasslands to dense forests.
The serpentine rock outcroppings are also particularly hospitable to certain wildflowers and native grasses. A butterfly named the Bay Checkerspot, close to extinction, still survives here. Spirited volunteers have protected this environment for decades. A small interpretive center is the meet-up place for wildflower hikes with a knowledgeable guide during the spring bloom period.
Edgewood has several kinds of biotic habitats, which explains its rich wildflower diversity. I particularly enjoyed the patches of a purple wildflower known as owl’s clover, plus the large blue bush lupines that I found in the midway part of the park. Five loop trails wind through the park. In the cool oak woodland forests there are lush showings of miner’s lettuce and various ferns.
Making the acquaintance of the rich wildflower heritage of the extended Bay Area can provide you with one more reason as to why you enjoy living in or traveling to Northern California. The spring wildflower show flourishes from mid-March to mid-April, with a cast of thousands. An exuberance is especially apparent if the winter rainfall has been heavy.
Bay Area Wildflower Travels: If You Go
For a quick reference on the reported areas, here are some links:
Get more information for:
Point Reyes at https://www.nps.gov/pore
Mount Tamalpais at http://www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=471
Mount Diablo at http://www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=517
Edgewood at http://www.friendsofedgewood.org
Remote San Antonio Valley lacks an Internet champion extolling its virtues.
Wildflowers in My Books
This article is one of thirty chapters in my book/ebook on Amazon as Northern California Travel: The Best Options. The ebook is also available in Chinese on Amazon.cn, and will soon be out as a printed book in Chinese in China.
The book is also available to bookstores through Ingram. The ebook version can be seen in the Apple iBook Store and the other major ebook stores, such as B&N.
Wildflower viewing and other nature pleasures figure prominently in my other travel books/ebooks on San Francisco and Northern California. These books can be seen on my website (https://fostertravel.wpengine.com/shop) and on my Amazon Author Page (https://amzn.to/1jl9Lnz). Here is a PDF sheet on my eight main current books.
Locations in More Detail
Information: Point Reyes National Seashore is part of the National Parks Service. See http://www.nps.gov/pore. Point Reyes National Seashore, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956; 415-464-5100.
Directions: Take the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard turnoff from Highway 101 south of San Rafael and stay on the road until you reach the seashore. Stop in at the Bear Valley Visitor Center for information and orientation.
Lodging: Point Reyes Seashore Lodge, 10021 Coastal Highway 1, Olema, CA 94950; 800-404-5634, www.pointreyesseashore.com.
Dining: Try a platter of Hog Island oysters at the Farm House restaurant, on the road to the park, at 10005 State Route 1, Olema, CA 94950; 415-663-1264; www.pointreyesseashore.com.
Information: Mount Tamalpais State Park, 801 Panoramic Highway, Mill Valley, CA 94941; 415-388-2070; http://www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=471 for State Park information and www.mttam.net for interpretive information.
Directions: Drive west in Marin County on Highway 1, then turn northwest on the Panoramic Highway, which crosses the park.
Lodging: The Mountain Home Inn, 810 Panoramic Highway, Mill Valley, CA, 94941 is a good, upscale choice in this area. The setting is rustic, located on a ridge. Phone 415-381-9000; www.mtnhomeinn.com. Rooms have scenic views.
Dining: The Mountain Home Inn is a fine-dining opportunity, especially on their outdoor deck when the weather is sunny. See lodging, above.
Mount Diablo State Park
Directions: From Highway 24 drive east on Ygnacio Valley Road, then south on North Gate Road into the park. Drive out of the park at the south end on South Gate Road, then turn west on Diablo Road to reach Highway 24.
Lodging: Near the south entrance is the Best Western Danville Sycamore Inn, 803 Camino Ramon, Danville, CA 94526; 925-855-8888; www.danvillesycamoreinn.com.
Dining: For Mediterranean dining, try Faz, 600 Hartz Avenue, Danville, CA 94526; 925-838-1320; www.fazrestaurants.com.
San Antonio Valley Road, near Mt. Hamilton
Information: There is no official information source for this wild region.
Directions: Either drive south from Livermore on Mines Road or east from San Jose up Mount Hamilton on Highway 130.
Lodging: Courtyard Livermore, 2929 Constitution Drive, Livermore, CA 9551; 925-243-1000; www.marriott.com.
Dining: Junction Bar and Grill, 47300 Mines Road, Livermore, CA 94550, corner of San Antonio Valley Road and Del Puerto Canyon Road; 408-897-0099. This is the only dining opportunity during the trip.
Information: Edgewood County Park and Natural Preserve, 10 Old Stage Coach Road, Redwood City, CA; 650-368-6283; www.smcoparks.org, Search Edgewood. The local volunteer interpretive organization is Friends of Edgewood Natural Preserve, www.friendsofedgewood.org.
Directions: Edgewood Park is off Highway 280 at Edgewood Road. Turn east at the off ramp and drive 1.5 miles to the park entrance. Parking is limited.
Lodging: Take nearby Highway 92 over to the coast and lodge with a view of the ocean at The Beach House Inn, 4100 N. Cabrillo Hwy. (Hwy. 1), Half Moon Bay, CA 94019; 650-712-0220; www.beach-house.com.
Dining: Next door to the Beach House Inn is a favored local place for fresh halibut just off the boats from the nearby Princeton harbor. Try Sam’s Chowder House, 4210 Cabrillo Highway North, Half Moon Bay, CA 94019; 650-712-0245; www.samschowderhouse.com.