TRAVEL INSIDER : Winter Showers Have Brought April Flowers : Sightseeing: Here is one writer's pick of six wildflower-viewing destinations in Southern California.

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Think of this space as an island. While the rest of today's section is awash in cruise news, we stand above sea level, covered by wildflowers. Or covering flowers.

The subject is wildflowers, and after the rains of the past winter, they are rising left and right. On March 15, natural science curator Jim Cornett of the Palm Springs Desert Museum identified 45 plant species in a four-hour desert walk.

Many authorities are expecting spectacular wildflower blooms this year. Some, however, have already been a bit disappointed, in part because of the hot spell that followed this year's rains, and in part because hardy non-native species like mustard are overwhelming native plants in many areas. Another theory is that last year's ferocious blooms stole some of this year's botanical thunder. (Last year around this time, Cornett found 51 species.) But there's really not much to complain about.

"We expected a great spring, and what we got was a good spring," says Cornett.

The big questions for flower chasers, as usual, are precisely when and where. Speaking generally, the next four weeks should be prime time in most places, and blooms usually arrive earlier at lower elevations and later as the terrain rises. But details depend upon the weather, and bloom-seekers should call numbers below for up-to-date information (and brace for busy signals).

One source for information about blooms throughout Southern California is the California Wildflower Hotline: (818) 768-3533. That service, updated every Thursday, is run by the Theodore Payne Foun dation in Sun Valley. The foundation also operates a nursery with seeds and plants native to California, and Saturdays through May 15 is offering guided tours of wildflower trails on the 27-acre site northeast of Burbank. Walks start at 8:30 a.m.; a $2 donation is recommended. The Theodore Payne Foundation: (818) 768-1802.

Here's a sampling of six spring floral destinations in Southern California, moving south to north.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, northeast San Diego County.

What: A carpeted desert floor. Ocotillo, desert lilies, brown-eyed primrose, monkey flower, blooming cacti, desert willow, paloverde trees. Volunteers report "massive crowds" on weekends, even though this year's rains permitted wild mustard and grasses to take over territory normally occupied by more varied flora. Wildflower maps available from park visitor center or merchants of tiny Borrego Springs for $1. Recorded wildflower hotline: (619) 767-4684. Information Center: (619) 767-5311.

When: through late April.

How: Take California 15 to Temecula, exit at Indio-Warner Springs, turn left onto California 79, and continue 39 miles toward Warner Springs. Turn left onto County Highway S-2, continue toward Borrego Springs for 24 miles, then turn left at County Highway S-22. Follow steep mountain grade down into Borrego Springs. State park visitor center is on the left.

Indian Canyons, outside Palm Springs in the Coachella Valley.

What: Oases and company. The Indian Canyons area includes one of the largest natural desert palm oases in world, along with larkspur, stream orchid, Emory's rock daisy, blooming beavertail cactus, encelia, brown-eyed primrose, barrel cactus. The nearby Palm Springs Desert Museum (101 Museum Drive; 619-325-7186) includes a permanent display of 20 desert flower species common to the area, and from April 6 to June 6 will also feature 30 additional species from the museum herbarium.

When: Through mid-April.

How: Interstate 10 to southeast-bound California 111 (Palm Canyon Drive); continue through Palm Springs and beyond, as street name changes to South Palm Canyon Drive. Road dead-ends at Indian Canyons, a patch of reservation land opened to public by the Cahuilla Indians. Desert Museum Natural Sciences Curator Jim Cornett reports the site is open daily, with $4 admission for adults, discounts for children. There is no phone number. The Living Desert, a wildlife park and botanical garden in Palm Desert, runs a wildflower hot line: (619) 340-0435. For more on the Living Desert: (619) 346-5694.

Joshua Tree National Monument, Riverside County.

What: Boulders and Joshua trees, flowering white and pale yellow. Also desert dandelions, bladder pods, brown-eyed primrose, fiddleneck, rock peas, heron's bill and manzanita at higher elevations. The national monument's 29 Palms Visitors Center (619-367- 7511) and the Joshua Tree Natural History Association are staging an art festival today (March 28) and April 3-4, featuring desert landscapes from local artists.

When: Throughout April.

How: Drive east on I-10, continue 30 miles past Indio, enter the national monument at Cottonwood Springs. Continue seven miles to Cottonwood Springs visitor center. To reach the visitor center, head east on I-10, then north on California 62 (which becomes 29 Palms Highway). Just past the city of 29 Palms, turn right on Utah Trail.

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, northern Los Angeles County.

What: Poppies, sometimes joined by filaree, fiddleneck and pigmy lupine, on 1,700 acres of rolling hills. The state maintains eight miles of trails. Nearby is the 560-acre Ripley Property, owned by the state and covered by Joshua trees, junipers and many smaller flowers, most of which bloom yellow and white. The reserve recording: (805) 724-1180.

When: The reserve's Jane S. Pinheiro Visitor Center opened on a daily basis March 27, with $5-per-car entrance fees. (Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m.) Park officials guess the flowers will be at their best during the last half of April.

How: Take Interstate 5 north. At California 14, head east toward Lancaster and Palmdale. In Lancaster, exit on Avenue I and proceed west (left) about 15 miles. Stay on the road as it changes name to Lancaster Road; the reserve is on the right. The Ripley Property is five miles west on Lancaster Road at 200 Street West.

The Grapevine and Gorman Hills.

What: Towering hillsides along I-5 near Gorman, which last spring were saturated with orange, yellow, blue and purple from poppies, lupine, coreopsis and company. Region includes the 29,000-acre Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area (805-248-6447). Park rangers offer two-hour flower tours every Sunday from today through June 6, or until the bloom concludes. Meet at 1 p.m. at Gorman entrance to recreation area; park-use fee is $4 per vehicle.

When: State park ranger Yvette De View, a veteran of eight Gorman springs, says the coreopsis usually come first, followed by the lupine and the poppies. Her predictions for this year's optimum viewing time: late April to early May.

How: Head north on I-5. To reach the recreation area, take the Gorman exit about 60 miles north of Los Angeles, and follow signs.

Central and Eastern Kern County.

What: Around the farm town of Arvin, orange poppies, owl's clover and blue lupine, among others. The 14th annual Arvin Wildflower Festival is scheduled April 24-25 at Bear Patch Recreation Area. Toward higher Tehachapi, poppies blossom later. In the desert of Ridgecrest at the county's eastern edge, desert candle, Mariposa lillies and primrose. The Maturango Museum (619-375-6900) in Ridgecrest has guided walks scheduled Tuesday as well as April 14, May 4 and 19; its annual Wildflower Show is April 23-25.

When: Ann Gutcher, manager of Kern County Board of Trade and a veteran of 44 Kern County springs, estimates that the most vivid colors will arrive in early to mid-April at lower altitudes. For updates, try the Board of Trade's wildflower hotline (805-861-2367) 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

How: Take I-5 north, then California 99 north toward Bakersfield. After about three miles, head east on California 223 to Arvin. Continuing into the hills, follow 223 to its intersection with California 58. Then head east on 58 into Tehachapi and higher altitudes. To reach Ridgecrest, continue east on 58, take California 14 north, then head east again on California 178.

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