Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve: Fields of Color

Walking the Poppy Trail at the Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve in Southern California. James Dorsey photos.
Walking the Poppy Trail at the Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve in Southern California. James Dorsey photos.

Like Stepping into a Monet Painting in Southern California

By James Michael Dorsey

Ah Spring!  The time of rejuvenation, color, and especially flowers!

For those of us fortunate enough to live in Southern California, we have an abundance of all three in our own back yard.

Officially known as the Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve, the rolling hills of the southern Mojave, 15 miles west of Lancaster, explode with color each spring as 1745 acres of wildflowers end their hibernation and burst forth to seek the sun.  This poppy is our state flower, and even though it grows wild everywhere, this is the best place to find it.
Beginning in early February and lasting till late May, visitors may wander through eight miles of maintained trails surrounded by not only Mother Nature’s palette of color, but also a cornucopia of local wildlife, a leisurely hour and a half drive from Los Angeles.

Besides the poppies, you will see Owls Clover, Lupine, Coreopsis, Cream Cups, Fiddleheads, and a couple dozen other indigenous plants I cannot begin to name.  You will also probably see a bunny or two chowing down on some of these exotically named plants.

This is an elevated valley that rises to 3000 feet above sea level, so it can be quite windy even on a sunny day, but being protected land that prohibits farming or grazing, it is the most productive area for the California Poppy.

Plenty of poppies blooming in the fields.
Plenty of poppies blooming in the fields.

Early Spanish residents called the poppy "dormidera" or the sleepy one, as its petals curl up as if going to sleep once the sun goes down.  I was also told that they fried the petals in olive oil to make a hair tonic, but will not vouch for what may be an old wives tale.

The flower population depends entirely on the previous winters rain fall, and to maintain the natural process of the area, the fields are not watered manually.

From the large paved parking lot, I climbed a meandering path to the Jane Pinheiro interpretive center, named for a local artist who spent 35 years drawing and painting the local flora and fauna and a driving force behind the creation of the current park.  Some of her watercolors are on display at the center.

Critter Dioramas

Watch out for rattle snakes.
Watch out for rattle snakes.

Inside I was treated to several dioramas of the local critters likely to pop up along the trail, especially the infamous Mojave green rattlesnake, a park native that likes to sleep close alongside the trail.  (Yes, it really is green!)

There is also a wonderful display of the hundreds of flower species you will encounter, and plenty of friendly volunteers to answer all your questions.  Books on the area, wildlife, and flora, are all available at reasonable prices.
Several trails wander through the park, up and down gently sloping hills that provide panoramic views from the summits.  The main trail, which is an easy amble from the interpretive center, takes you to Antelope butte, the highest point in the area and named for the Pronghorn Antelope that once roamed this valley.

There are local docents at specific points to let you know exactly what you are seeing, while a State Park Ranger is also available.  If you are lucky, you may catch of glimpse of a coyote or bobcat that frequent these fields along with hawks, meadow larks, field mice, gophers and scorpions.

Blooming poppies.
Blooming poppies.

Like a Monet Painting

But it is the flowers that bring the visitor, the vivid orange California poppy that sways in the breeze, making one feel as though you have entered a Monet painting, as mile after mile of moving color wraps itself around you.

When the wind picks up the fields seem to sway in rhythm with it.  Watching this wind make colorful waves over the hillsides, gave me the feeling of being on a boat in the center of the ocean

My wife and I meandered for over three hours, taking in spectacular views in all directions, stopping for breaks on the benches provided along the way, and taking photos that require no shop to retouch the colors.  Billowing white cumulous clouds in a cerulean sky provided a worthy backdrop to the landscape.

Field mice scampered in and out of our feet as we walked, and more than one hawk cast its shadow over us as it patrolled the skies overhead in search of those very same mice.

The trails were packed with people of all ages, some in strollers, others in wheel chairs, and all easily negotiating the well maintained walkways.

A rattlesnack hiding along the trail.
A rattlesnack hiding along the trail.

A Tiny Rattler Along the Trail

As warned we did run into a tiny Mojave green rattler, curled and rattling alongside the trail, but it posed no problem as a docent called the ranger and the snake was quickly relocated unharmed, further into the foliage where it could bother no one.  It was, in fact, quite a treat to see one of our local predatory snakes up close in the wild.

I went in late May and was told that most of the flowers were already gone, but if that was the case, then I am going early next year as I cannot imagine there being any more flowers than we saw.

There are public restrooms and drinking fountains at the interpretive center, but visitors are advised to wear a hat, use sun block, and to carry water with them on the trails.  Snacks are also a good idea as the nearest food is in Lancaster, 15 miles away.

Wheelchairs are available if needed, but limited in number, so call ahead to reserve one. There are warning signs for the rattlesnakes along the trails, and visitors are urged not to wander off the trails into the flowers for photos.  If you stay on the trail, you will be in no danger whatsoever.

Pets are not allowed on the trails unless it is a service dog, and there is no shade to leave them in the parking lot.

This Poppy preserve is a perfect day trip from the big city, easily doable in four to five hours.

How to get there: From Los Angeles, take interstate 5 north to highway 14 and head towards Mojave.  Once in Lancaster take the West Avenue I exit and turn left.  Follow the road as it curves and you will start to see the color orange in the distance.  Avenue I becomes Lancaster Road after a few miles, so just stay on it until you arrive at the center.
15101 Lancaster Road
Lancaster Calif.
Phone: (661) 942-0662.
There is also a hotline to call during the spring months for additional information, (661) 724-1180.

There is a day use fee that may vary year to year, so call ahead.  Park is open year round from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00p.m.

James Michael Dorsey

James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, award winning author, and lecturer who has traveled extensively in 45 countries. He has spent the past two decades researching remote cultures around the world.He is a contributing editor at Transitions Abroad and a frequent contributor to United Airlines’ inflight magazine.