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California Rambling: Motoring in March

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From page A4 | March 04, 2013 | Leave Comment

Merced River Canyon 2

Merced River - Clear skies intensify the color of redbud and poppies in the Merced River Canyon. Photo by John Poimiroo

Once, while traveling abroad, I responded to a woman’s question by saying I lived in California.  She continued, “Oh!  I love California. It’s so green, like Ireland!” I answered, “Ah, you must have visited in March.” She exclaimed, “But yes!  How did you know?”

March is California’s month to be green. Our hills are flocked with tones of bright Harlequin, Kelly and  Emerald velvet that roll to shadowed flanks dressed in dark hunter green.  Slopes that enjoy full sun get speckled with orange, yellow, pink, blue, white, red and purple wildflowers. Newly budded oaks cluster among them, their branches laden with dark Brunswick green, their outlines gilded by sunlight.

California’s spring greenery is best seen by riding above the ground, in a balloon, small aircraft, motor coach or train. Higher up, you can look out across the land and see its contours, vernal pools, meandering streams, the dimensions of its vineyards, orchards and farmlands. Though, if you’re up for motoring in search of the state’s best March colors, consider these routes.

Interstate 5, between Sacramento and Santa Nella, skirts the Stones Lake National Wildlife Refuge, vineyards, pastureland and orchards of pink, white and rose fruit and nut trees as it travels south past the Sacramento River Delta and Diablo and Coast ranges. A large part of the route has been designated a State Scenic Highway for its views of  the California State Aquaduct which provides water for 25 million Californians and 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland. Springtime color is lovely along the route, though it’s not a typical drive unless connected to other areas known for their spring color, such as the newly designated Fort Ord National Monument near Monterey or Gilroy Gardens.

The Merced River Canyon (Highway 140) between Briceburg and El Portal provides a dazzling show of orange California poppies that climb south-facing canyon walls from mid- to late March. The Hite Cove Trail, eight miles west of El Portal at historical Savage’s Trading Post, is a favorite for wildflower hikes beside the South Fork of the Merced River. The best wildflower viewing is found in the first two miles of the trail, until the trail descends to the river. Though, if you continue to hike its 4.5-mile length, you’ll reach the ruins of an abandoned mining settlement. This hike is best from March to mid-May, before it begins to heat up in the canyon. Begin in Mariposa, then drive up the canyon to El Portal for the best views. A bonus is that you end the drive at the west entrance to Yosemite National Park.  Although Yosemite Valley doesn’t bloom until May, in March the waterfalls are roaring and it’s much easier to secure accommodations in Yosemite Valley or El Portal.

Another colorful drive is north along State Route 99 to Chico. This route passes through orchards of prune trees covered with rose-colored blossoms and white-blossomed walnut trees. A riot of yellow mustard grows amidst the fruit and nut trees.

Legend has it that Franciscan Padre Junipero Serra scattered black mustard seed as he traveled north through California founding 21 mission churches in the late 1700s. The following spring, he followed the yellow trail he’d spread when traveling south. Serra’s mustard can still be seen growing along the mission trail the Spanish missionaries tread which they called the “El Camino Real” (U.S. 101).  Look for it among the orchards along Highway 99 and on excursions through the Napa and Sonoma wine countries along state Highways 29 and 12.

One of California’s great wildflower viewing areas is Carrizo Plain National Monument, 100 air miles north of Los Angeles. This great basin of grasslands and native plants, managed by the BLM, is best viewed from mid-March to mid-April. During that time, seemingly endless populations of bright yellow pincushions, lavender parry’s mallow, orange San Joaquin blazing stars, purple owl’s clover, scarlet buglers and blue tansy phacelia cover its bowls, hillsides and plains, as far as the eye can see.

The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve offers another impressive display of wildflowers. This State Nature Reserve is located on California’s most consistent poppy-bearing land. Mixed among the poppies, which vary in color from ruby red to orange to yellow, are purple owl’s clover and lupine, goldfield, cream cups and coreopsis. At the western edge of the Mojave Desert near Lancaster, the poppy reserve begins to bloom in mid-March, with typical peak occurring mid-April. This year, however, a dry winter is indicating a later peak, according to park officials, who predict it could peak as late as early May.

Closer to home, the planted narcissus of Daffodil Hill are a popular springtime outing, as thousands of the yellow and white jonquils bloom along paths from mid-March to mid-April. Some 300 varieties of daffodils grow on a 4-acre farm owned by the McLaughlin family, since 1887. The McLaughlins started planting bulbs then and continue to plant some 6,000 new bulbs each year. It is estimated that over 300,000 bulbs bloom each spring. Following the bloom, Daffodil Hill goes back to being a working ranch.

Death Valley National Park seems an unlikely place to find delicate wildflowers, though from February through May several blooms occur. In March, visitors can see desert gold, golden evening primrose, gravel ghost, Bigelow monkeyflower and desert five-spot coloring alluvial fans and foothills within the park’s lowest elevations.

The show, though lovely, is short-lived. In wet years, the desert blooms are spectacular and though no one could mistake this part of California for Ireland, it is a visual treasure well worth motoring to see.

More wildlife viewing information is found at www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/prog/recreation/wildflowers.html and http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=627.

John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.

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