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Plants

Check out this under-the-radar wildflower spot while you still can

Purple California prickly phlox.
The California prickly phlox (Linanthus californicus) grows abundantly on the hillsides around Highway 39 on May 8 in the Angeles National Forest north of Azusa.
(Raul Roa / Los Angeles Times)
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If you thought the wildflower season was over in Southern California, think again.

The easily accessible Highway 39, also known as San Gabriel Canyon Road, from Azusa north to Crystal Lake Recreation Area is one of the best hidden gems where you can still peep wildflowers — at least for a while longer.

While we haven’t had a superbloom this year — where flowers carpet entire hillsides and canyons all over — there was in abundance of wildflowers last week along Highway 39. Visiting reminded me of my trip to Anza Borrego Desert State Park in March to see desert wildflowers and bighorn sheep. In both spots, fantastic colors swirled in seemingly unexpected places. (However, Anza Borrego’s wildflower season ended in April.)

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California bluebells

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Red bush monkeyflowers

1. California bluebells (Phacelia minor) grow on the hillsides around Highway 39 on May 8 in the Angeles National Forest north of Azusa. 2. As do red bush monkeyflowers (Diplacus aurantiacus var. puniceus), as seen on May 9. (Raul Roa / Los Angeles Times)

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Thousands of people flock to the windy two-lane Highway 39 past the Morris and San Gabriel dams on their way to the east, west or north forks of the San Gabriel River for camping, hiking, picnics and recreation in the cool snowmelt. If you time your trip right, you may see what I saw: a localized explosion of wildflowers right next to the road and in the gullies and trails throughout the San Gabriel Mountains. As you drive north on Highway 39, you’ll notice a variety colors. Yellows, pinks and reds line the hillsides. Meanwhile, when a colleague visited Carrizo Plain National Monument, one of California’s most iconic wildflower viewing areas, in April, the wildflower display wasn’t as striking as years past. There were swaths of goldfields and pockets of other wildflowers there, but the tall, thick grass fueled by rainstorms crowded the views. The Carrizo display is “largely over this year,” according to Theodore Payne’s wildflower hotline.

The Carrizo Plain nature preserve is one of California’s most iconic wildflower viewing areas. But this year, if you’re looking for blankets of bright color covering the hills, prepare for a different experience.

April 16, 2024

Along Highway 39, there are many turnouts and parking lots to safely stop to get a closer look at the variety of native flowers on foot. (You’ll need a National Forest Adventure Pass to park, which is $5 for the day or $30 annually.) One of the best spots is the overflow parking lot for the Devil’s Canyon Dam Truck Trail right off the road up to the Coldbrook Campground.

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Spring water bubbles over rocks.

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A motorcyclist rides past wildflowers growing on the hillsides around Highway 39.

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A sign that says "parked vehicles must display a forest adventure pass" along Highway 39.

1. Elizabeth’s Spring bubbles right out of the side of the hill May 7 on Highway 39. 2. A motorcyclist rides past wildflowers growing on the hillsides around Highway 39. 3. Remember that you will need a National Forest Adventure Pass when parking in the Angeles National Forest. (Raul Roa / Los Angeles Times)

If you continue north, you can take a short hike to Lewis Falls in the Angeles National Forest and see Elizabeth’s Spring, a natural spring bubbling on the mountainside next to Highway 39. At the top of the road you’ll find Crystal Lake Recreation Area, where the Crystal Lake Cafe serves a simple menu including hamburgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, chili and brownies, and there are first-come, first-served camping sites.

In his road trip report, Times photographer Raul Roa describes the moment he noticed the holy grail of Anza Borrego wildlife.

March 15, 2024

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A bee lands on a sunflower off Highway 39.

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Wide throated yellow monkeyflower

1. A bee makes a pitstop on a sunflower along Highway 39 in the Angeles National Forest north of Azusa. 2. Wide throated yellow monkeyflower (Mimulus brevipes) frame the side of Highway 39. (Raul Roa / Los Angeles Times)

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A stalk of purple lupine

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Purple nightshade

1. Silver lupine (Lupinus albifrons) grows on the hillsides May 8 around Highway 39 in the Angeles National Forest. 2. As does bluewitch nightshade (Solanum umbelliferum), as seen on the same day. (Raul Roa / Los Angeles Times)

On your trip, you may see wildlife such as bald eagles, deer and perhaps bears. Remember to stay on the trails and not pick wildflowers to help the blooms return next year. Keep an eye out for snakes and if you venture farther on some trails, use tick and mosquito repellent, wear comfortable shoes and carry plenty of water.

Other spots worth a road trip to see wildflowers right now include Pinnacles National Park, the California Botanic Garden in Claremont and Los Padres National Forest near Los Olivos, reports the wildflower hotline.

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