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Figueroa Mountain: Where the poppies are

April 22, 2011 |  3:29 pm

Photographing poppies:web

When it comes to spring wildflower peeping in Southern California, there are generally two hot spots: deserts and mountains. Because of the wacky winter weather this year, the Antelope Valley poppy bloom is less than stellar, but the blossoming is on in a big way at Figueroa Mountain (above), in the Los Padres National Forest.

After checking the Theodore Payne Wildflower Hotline online report (updated weekly) and a Figueroa flower update on the Los Padres website, we decided to skip the desert and head up the coast. On a Santa-Ana-wind-warmed afternoon, we set up camp north of Santa Barbara at Refugio State Beach (warning to tent campers: this is RV heaven), then headed with our dog back south to Arroyo Burro Beach. Possibly even more colorful than the wildflowers was that evening's sunset, tinted garishly from the sundowner wind that blew particulates out to sea (below).

SB sunset:web

The next morning we drove through the Santa Ynez Valley, lush with spring greenery, and headed to Los Olivos. From there it's only a 30-minute drive to Figueroa Mountain. We started seeing distant orange-splashed hillsides about 15 minutes into the drive along Figueroa Mountain Road. If you go, you'll know you've reached poppy central when you start seeing tripods and cars pulled out along the road. The poppy-dense hillside in the top photo is a short distance before the turnoff for Pino Alto picnic area and Figueroa campground.

San Rafael

I highly recommend the drive to the campground and, beyond it, the lookout at the top of 4,528-foot Figueroa Mountain. It has stunning views of the San Rafael Wilderness (above), which still had spots of mid-April snow.

Goldfields_web Instead of backtracking, we took Happy Canyon Road back — it hits Armour Ranch Road, which meets Highway 154 just west of Lake Cachuma. Beware that Happy Canyon sometimes closes after storms; there's an unpaved section that's pretty rough. From there the lovely drive is all green (for now) hills and Santa Ynez Valley horse ranches.

The flower displays at Figueroa usually start in late March with shooting stars and filaree, followed by lupines, chocolate lilies, California poppies and Indian paintbrush. We saw splashes of lupine amidst the poppies, but the state flower is the star of the show this year. Shown at right are goldfields along Happy Canyon Road.

Although the season at the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve has been disappointing, it could have an "extended minimal display, possibly through the end of May," according to the reserve's website. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park hasn't had spectacular fields of showy wildflowers either this year, but the update on its website says some canyons still have annuals on display and cactuses are coming into full bloom.

— Julie Sheer

Photos by Julie Sheer