Fields of Natural Wonders : A free guide gives wildflower tips for the Hungry Valley area, a short drive from the Antelope Valley poppy reserve.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Rebecca Howard is a regular contributor to The Times.

Toward the end of the month, area hillsides will appear dusted with gold and orange, a testament to one of California's most beautiful natural wonders--the wildflower. The distant floral glow can be acknowledged and admired from the window of a passing car. But a closer look reveals an amazing world of detail, full of colorful bursts as intense as any an artist could create on a palette, and ranging from fiery orange to purple. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, "The Earth laughs in flowers."

Encouraging travelers to pull off the freeway and stop to look at--as well as smell--a colorful bounty of wildflowers is the goal of preserves and parks in the Hungry Valley-Gorman area and in the Antelope Valley during wildflower season, which peaks from late March through the end of April. In the small town of Gorman, about 50 miles north of Los Angeles on Interstate 5, the Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) and Carl's Jr. are offering for the second year a free eight-page souvenir guide giving tips for identifying and photographing the wildflowers in that area.

"For years we've had people come up here and not know what they're looking at," said Dennis Doberneck, district superintendent for the Hungry Valley SVRA, who contributed to the guide. "We've been giving guided tours of the wildflowers for the last seven years. The guide takes it a step further in educating people by offering interesting bits of information on wildflower viewing."

The Mariposa lily, for example, got its name from the Spanish word for butterfly, due to the butterfly-shaped markings on the flower's petals, according to the guide. Additional facts include this about poppy petals: Along with olive oil, they were used by the Spanish to encourage hair growth. And Native Americans, too, used wildflowers for food and medicinal purposes.

Doberneck said he hoped the guide would inspire a new understanding for the native flowers and plants--and at least clear up one misunderstanding.

"One of the common perceptions by people is that the flowers here are planted," he said.

The guide, available at the Carl's Jr. in Gorman, as well as at area visitor centers and businesses, includes a map of viewing sites.

11 a.m.: To reach the Hungry Valley SVRA, take the Gorman exit off Interstate 5 and signs will lead you to the main gate of the park. A route marked with blue and orange poppy signs guides visitors through the approximately six miles of dirt roads offering vistas of the colorful fields. While Doberneck encourages photographing, walking among (or even lying down in) the flowering fields, he notes that picking any wildflowers is illegal and punishable with a fine and/or jail time.

There are no designated parking areas along this route, so be sure to park at a wide spot in the road to allow other vehicles to pass.

Once you've left your car, the enormity and beauty of this peaceful place will sink in, and it's easy to while away an hour wandering through the blooms. Around your feet, you'll see the brilliant orange of poppies, the crystal blue of baby blue eyes growing in round patches and the royal purple blossoms of Bentham's lupine. These brilliant flowers mix with the more subtle medicinal plants such as the tiny pinkish-white flowers of miner's lettuce and the dusty mustard of yarrow.

Wildlife, such as deer, hawks and an array of songbirds can be seen throughout the park. Doberneck warns that snakes, including rattlers, live among the flora, so it's wise to look before you step.

Noon: Fresh air whets the appetite. If you didn't bring your own picnic lunch, Gorman offers such options as the Carl's Jr., McDonald's and a couple of diners. Doberneck suggests picking up lunch and taking it six miles north on Interstate 5 to the picnic sites of Fort Tejon State Historic Park. Here, it's worth setting aside half an hour to roam through two 1854 adobe buildings, the soldiers' barracks and officers' quarters of the fort, which was built to protect settlers and Indians from marauders. A nearby visitor center features displays that illuminate the fort's colorful history.

12:45: In Gorman, another popular wildflower viewing area runs along Gorman Post Road, where turnout areas provide an opportunity to park and take a closer look, although visitors should note that the land behind fences is private property. Head east on the road, and you'll roll right along pastoral hillsides to your left and open meadows to your right.

The cause of what seems from a distance to be gold dust is the daisy-like coreopsis, which flourishes here. On the roadside grow other interesting plants, such as the monkey flower, whose sensitive hairs, when disturbed, signal the flower to close. Insects trapped inside become thoroughly coated with pollen, bettering the plant's pollination success. The bladder pod, a bushy shrub with yellow blossoms, also grows along the roadside. This plant is currently being cultivated in California for landscaping because of its drought tolerance and fire-retarding properties. Which contradicts another quote from Emerson included in the guide: "A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered."

1:15: Gorman Post Road leads to Highway 138, and from here your journey could continue to the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, which is about a 20-mile drive. Off the 138, make a right on 170th Street West and a left on Lancaster Road, and you'll soon reach the reserve. Acres of rolling hills are the canvas for the amazing poppy spread sprinkled among other wildflowers during March, April and into May. Hiking trails--some paved--offer yet more opportunities for exercise as well as great mountain views that might cause you to lose track of time and inadvertently extend your self-guided tour.

But before heading home, stop by the visitor center, built into the hillside and run on wind and solar power. It's an homage to wildflowers, from the brilliant poppy-design stained glass window to the watercolor paintings of flowers done by Jane Pinheiro. The center is dedicated to her as a tribute to her efforts in helping the reserve become established. Educational displays, including a large binder in which real wildflowers and grasses are pressed, give visitors further knowledge of the flora. Postcards, mugs, tote bags and other items bearing the familiar poppy are also for sale.

Continuing east on Lancaster Road for another 13 miles, you'll reach the Antelope Valley Freeway (14), which will carry you back to Los Angeles.

But will you ever look at the ground the same way again? It's unlikely.

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WHERE AND WHEN

What: Wildflower viewing in Hungry Valley SVRA.

Location: Take Gorman exit off Interstate 5 and follow signs.

Hours: Guided tours begin at 1 p.m. on weekends from Saturday through June 4.

Price: $4 per vehicle.

Call: (805) 248-7007.

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What: Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve.

Location: 15101 W. Lancaster Road, Lancaster.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through May 15. Nature walks at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Price: $5 per vehicle.

Call: (805) 724-1180 or (805) 942-0662.

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What: The Southern California Wildflower Hot Line, a service of the Theodore Payne Foundation, offers up-to-date information on wildflower viewing.

Call: (818) 768-3533.

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