If you're an urban hiker planning a trip to Los Angeles, your timing is just right — above-average winter precipitation has set the region up for what could be an especially memorable wildflower season.
If you’re a fan of fresh air, and you have plans to visit Southern California between now and mid-May, congratulations — your timing is outstanding. Los Angeles has been doused by plentiful winter rains (167 percent above average by early February, even more since), infusing its surrounding hillsides, mountains and shires with an almost surreal jolt of color, sprouting shades that in some places approach highlighter green.
The color surge includes much of the ocean-hugging Santa Monica Mountains west of L.A., where in November the devastating Woolsey fire scorched nearly 97,000 acres, including many premier hiking destinations, and damaged or destroyed 1,643 structures — it was the seventh most destructive wildfire in California history.
All that rain has set in motion what could be an especially memorable wildflower season throughout the region, from the renowned Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve an hour north of the city to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park 150 miles southeast of downtown, where talk of a rarely witnessed “super bloom” has grown from a whisper to a near cacophony.
So don’t exclude hiking footwear when packing for an upcoming trip to Los Angeles — in fact, hiking could be a reason to schedule one.
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“Spring is the best time of year to hike in Southern California,” says Casey Schreiner, the L.A.-based founder and editor of the website ModernHiker.com and author of Mountaineers Books trail guide “Day Hiking: Los Angeles.” “Based on the rain we’ve had so far, I think this spring will really be nice.”
It was already nice in late January when Schreiner and I wandered among the rounded hills and undulating pasturelands of the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve, a 5,600-acre former ranch at the far western edge of the San Fernando Valley, where Victory Boulevard, a busy 25-mile east-west urban corridor, dead-ends, and evidence of California’s classic Mediterranean/coastal mountain ecosystem abruptly reappears.
The site lies just miles from the flashpoint of the Woolsey fire (cause still not yet determined), where wind-driven flames raced across the landscape on an unstoppable path to and over the 10-lane Ventura Freeway (U.S. Route 101) and south more than 20 miles all the way to the Pacific.
Signs of the fire’s impact were intermittently evident — one grove of blackened native oaks was a dispiriting sight — yet the prevailing, even unavoidable, impression was wave after bucolic wave of greenery. Much of the color, admittedly, was generated by nonnative plants, but anyone expecting to see a scorched-earth tableau was in for a surprise.
“I’m not a fire expert by any means,” Schreiner said, “but based on the fires that I’ve seen and the landscape that we’re in, which is mostly sage scrub and chaparral, it looks like the fire did not burn superhot, and the landscape is recovering like it should be given that we’re on track for a good or above-average rain year.”
Schreiner, a native-plant gardener/enthusiast whose inner right forearm displays a tattoo of California sagebrush, stooped to examine the interior of a surviving sagebrush that rose out of blackened undergrowth.
“I’ve already seen some chemise and some sagebrush that look dead but is re-sprouting from charred wood areas,” he said. “A lot of the coast live oaks and valley oaks are singed at the bottom but green at the top. You can definitely tell a fire swept through here, but many oaks still have lots of green leaves and re-sprouting branches. That’s not a guarantee they’ll survive, but at least they’re not 100 percent dead.”
Mark Mendelsohn is a vegetation and wildlife biologist with the National Park Service at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA), a remarkable quilt of preserved landscapes at times intermingled with multimillion-dollar properties.
Established in 1978, largely the result of small yet vigorous preservation efforts, 48 percent of the SMMNRA’s 150,000-plus acres are privately owned. It stretches roughly 50 miles from near the Getty Center in West L.A. to Point Mugu State Park in Ventura County and contains more than 500 miles of hiking trails.
Like many outdoorsy folks, Mendelsohn despaired when so much land and hundreds of structures (including the park’s Museum Research Center at Rocky Oaks and its irreplaceable archives) burned so quickly. He is heartened by the comeback story the landscape is beginning to write.
“This was the fire that we were always fearing,” Mendelsohn said. “It did a tremendous amount of damage. In many places it burned all aboveground plant materials. In others it left just skeletons of shrubs and trees, and in others caused just a lighter burn.
“Before the rains it looked very black, very dark, very moonscapey,” he said. “But those of us who have done work with fire ecology, we know that with rain, plants do come back. So I was hopeful that we would have a good winter of rains, and that’s what it is turning out to be. Sure enough, the plants are really coming back.”
Fears of a bleak spring have faded. “On the contrary,” Mendelsohn said. “It’s going to be good or very good in terms of natural beauty, and the animals will be there if the plants are there. It should be a pretty time to visit.”
Wildflower displays could be above-average. “We sure hope so,” Mendelsohn said. “The fire brings the opportunity for some species to bloom — fire-followers, as we call them — that we don’t get without fire.
“We’ve got about 10 species of lupines here in the mountains. Some of them come up every year, and a certain number of them are more likely to come up after fires — several species of lilies, shooting stars, deerweed, even a fire poppy.
“Plus we’ve got a whole suite of plants we get in a year with good rain. We’re looking at an abundance of species that will likely come up, especially if we continue to get rains … into March.”
Good places to see them? Mendelsohn recommends Paramount Ranch, a National Park Service unit northwest of lovely Malibu Creek State Park where numerous structures used by the film and television industry were burned. (A campaign to rebuild is underway.) For flower fans, he suggests the Hacienda Trail, Medicine Woman Trail, Overlook Trail and trails in the nearby state park (at Mulholland Highway and Las Virgenes Road).
Schreiner’s picks for spring hikes in the Santa Monicas: Upper Las Virgenes, the meadows of Rancho Sierra Vista/Satwiwa, Topanga State Park (great meadows with wildflowers, he says, “and a nice little waterfall that should be flowing well”) and Escondido Falls.
I explored the north end of Big Sycamore Canyon — itself victim to a major blaze, the 2013 Springs fire — from Newbury Park and scrambled up to 3,010-foot Tri-Peaks (strenuous and rough) to gaze over at the range’s high point, 3,111 Sandstone Peak (closed at the time, now accessible) and assess the fire’s impact from afar.
One slope near its base showed considerable burn scars, while an adjacent slope appeared untouched. This was the farthest west the Woolsey fire pushed. Popular Big Sycamore Canyon was spared, though its greened-up trails today pass many blackened, skeletal remains of trees and shrubs torched by the 2013 fire. Yet the understory is in full rebound mode — a pattern also seen in the Verdugo Mountains above Burbank after a 2017 fire and the San Gabriel Mountains after the monstrous 2009 Station fire.
“Our shrub lands and woodlands tend to take longer to recover,” Mendelsohn said. “Thousands and thousands of acres of shrub lands will take more on the order of five, 10 to 20 years to look like they did before the fire. But some of our grasslands are close to looking the same as they did before the fire. It’s still a beautiful place to see.”
If you go
Casey Schreiner’s guidebook, “Day Hiking: Los Angeles” is available from Mountaineers Books. Other useful resources include the website ModernHiker.com, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area‘s updates on fire-related closures as well as general info, and Southern California Wildflower Watch, which monitors desert- and mountain-flower displays.