March 14, 2008

Where to find wildflowers

By Mark Wheeler
Hi-Desert Star

MORONGO BASIN — Wildflower watchers have already begun to find good floral shows in many locations. Low desert flowers have already started to appear and the bloom is moving uphill as the days grow longer and warmer.

Desert Lily

Like all living organisms, different species of plants have habitat preferences and growth routines. Wildflower hunters who want to see a reasonably wide range of the many species that grow in this region must start looking early and in many different places.

Following is a short guide to some key locations. Between them, they represent a range of elevation, soil and topographical differences. Anyone exploring most or all of them will stand a good chance of seeing a fine collection of the local native plants that make this part of the southwest desert so special in the spring.


Either drive through the park to this location or take I-10 south to the Cottonwood entrance. Driving time one-way from the Morongo Basin going either way will be about an hour.

On the open slope below the mountains that line the park boundary on its south side are fields of standing flowers. Most notable at the present time is the blue and deep-purple chia plant. Although the poppies are starting to fade on the boundary itself, a drive on into Cottonwood Canyon will find them in fresh glory and remarkable abundance.

As well as these two species, there are also lupine and numerous other desert wildflowers growing in the area. This is the place to see and photograph fields of tall flowers waving against rocky landscape backgrounds.


From the Morongo Basin, enter into the park at either the Joshua Tree or Twentynine Palms entrances. The park road from either station will arrive at the Pinto Wye where a branch road goes east and south to Cottonwood campground and ranger station.

Pinto Basin starts at a roadside attraction called Cholla Garden — well marked — and continues for as far as the eye can see to distant mountains. Flowers are blooming from the Cholla Garden all the way to the Cottonwood station. Take advantage of the established pull-outs to stop and get out of the car for a while and walk among the many different species that are currently in peak bloom.

This is a good place to find low-growing mat flowers like the evening primrose and verbena. Lucky observers might also find specimens of the desert five spot and anyone willing to walk out to the sandy hills that can be seen north of the Turkey Flats parking area — well marked — should also find the desert lily.


Driving east of Twentynine Palms on Twentynine Palms Highway, flower hunters will find much to see for about 30 miles, all the way to Iron Age Road. At this point the bloom tends to disappear as the road proceeds into geographically very arid country.

This is also a good place to see the mat-forming primrose and verbena shows. Those with a sharp eye may also find the seldom-seen yellow evening primrose. Once this flower has reached full maturity, it is one of the true photographic beauties.

Soil composition of the landscape in this area alternates between very sandy and very rocky. Take time to explore both surfaces. Although many plants will grow on both surfaces, each habitat will support collections that are specific to that type of earthen bed.

For instance, in the sandier areas, desert lilies are currently blooming and small but very colorful gilia will be found where it is rockier.


The bloom in this area is just starting to gain momentum and should be good until about the end of March, or perhaps into the first week of April.

The preserve is about 14 miles west of Yucca Valley on Twentynine Palms Highway, and 2.3 miles north of the highway on the Mission Creek road. Visitors can park at the gate and walk in; special arrangements for limited auto entry can also be made by calling 369-7105.

Located in the low desert, the preserve shelters a large number of Colorado Desert plants. Currently, several hillsides are covered with fields of the deep blue canterbury bells, and very large bushes of fiesta flower are evident everywhere.

This is one of the few local places with a large population of owls clover, a shorter version of the taller and more familiar Indian paintbrush.


Right now, traveling east on Dillon Road from Desert Hot Springs to Thousand Palms Canyon Road will more than reward the hopes of any flower watcher. Brown-eyed primrose lines both sides of the roadway and large stands of neon yellow desert dandelion dot the landscape in every direction. With every mile farther east, the brittle bush also begin to add their golden canopies to the view.

Turning south on Thousand Palms Canyon Road will take travelers to the Coachella Valley Preserve. Hiking trails here will take visitors to a variety of different plant habitats, from palm grove to sand dune to rocky wash and hillside.


Watch for the bloom to start very soon at higher elevations. When it hits Yucca Valley, one of the best places to see flowers is in the Sky Harbor area. Farther uphill at Black Rock in Joshua Tree National Park, hiking trails give flower watchers access to many different flowering habitats. This is a terrific place to look for species variety.

Upper and Lower Covington in the park are also superb flower hunting locations when the bloom is on. Reach both places by driving up La Contenta Road from Twentynine Palms Highway on the town’s east end. Proceed directly across Alta Loma and on out the dirt road to the park boundary and follow signs from there.

JTNP’s Queen Valley, where the Wonderland of Rocks is located, will also be blooming soon. Hikers might want to explore the Juniper Flats region or hike along any segment of the California Riding and Hiking Trail. Ask for directions at the entrance stations. Motorists will find much to see anywhere along the roadway.

Later in the spring, the Queen Valley is an excellent place to look for cactus flowers, and they should be very good this year. An especially good place to look for them is at the base of Queen Mountain.

By end of March and early April, the roadway between Pioneertown and the road into Pipes Canyon Preserve should be spectacular. The preserve itself is still closed due to fire damage.

For further information about JTNP locations, call 367-5522 or the park’s wildflower hotline at 367-5500. Hi-Desert Nature Museum at 369-7212 is also an excellent local source of wildflower information.