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Attractive to the eye and soothing to the smell

Seeing poppies everywhere? No, you're not in Oz but Lancaster.

Posted: March 21, 2008 2:11 a.m.
Updated: May 22, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Local artist Jane Pinheiro was a tired conservationist who worked to save the 1,775 acres of prime poppy-growing land on the Antelope Valley floor, a short drive from the Santa Clarita Valley.

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John C. Fremont, as a member of the elite Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, crested the hills of Tehachapi on April 15, 1844, and rode his horse down toward the Antelope Valley floor.

Behind him was an entourage of more than a hundred mules and horses that stretched out for more than a quarter of a mile with the Army scouts and Mexican vaqueros riding herd on the cattle.

Fremont rode south with gently rolling foothills on his right and the unremitting desert on his left that seemed to stretch limitlessly as far as the eye could see.

He wrote, "A hot mist lay over it today, through which it had a white and glistening appearance; here and there a few dry-looking buttes and isolated black ridges rose suddenly upon it."

Fremont plodded toward a band of bright color in the distance.

After a day's ride, he wrote that he and his followers "came among the fields of flowers ... which consisted principally of the rich orange-colored poppy, mingled with other flowers of brighter tints. ... Several Antelopes were seen among the hills, and some large hares."

Golden poppies stretching as far as the eye can see draw of thousands of visitors to the state's only poppy reserve - the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, 15101 Lancaster Road, 15 miles west of Highway 14.

Year of golden dreams?
After two miserable years of meager showings, the question remains: Will this be the year of golden dreams?

"We can only hope," said Jean Scott, interpretive specialist with the California Parks system. "We have 1,755 acres of the most consistent poppy-growing land in the state, as well as owl's clover, lupine, goldfield, cream cups and coreopsis. At the end of January, we had over nine inches of rain. Our biggest year for wildflowers was in 2005 when we had 16 inches."

The question is not only if that was enough rainfall, but if it came at right time. The park people know that in a year of little rain, there's a meager showing of plants across the sere, desert landscape.

Last year, when only one inch of rain fell, the rangers counted only 58 plants - that's not species - that's individual plants.

If you want to see poppies, how can you check before you head out?

Three ways:

  • Call the direct number for wildflower viewing that's updated as conditions change: (661) 724-1180.
  • Go to the Web site Click on "Visit a Park" button at the top, choose Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve.
  • On local radio, AM 1610 broadcasts updates and other information about the various parks.

As of March 15, the 2,000 square foot Jane S. Pinheiro Interpretive Center at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Named to honor the woman who spearheaded the drive to save the poppy fields, the center, which is a green building, is built into the hillside. It uses passive solar heating and is designed to reduce the heat from the sun.

Inside the visitor center, which is staffed by volunteers, you'll find a short orientation video, wildlife and wildflower displays and a gallery of Jane S. Pinheiro's detailed watercolor paintings framed and donated by the Lancaster Women's Club.

There's a gift shop that features unique poppy and wildflower-oriented items, books, jewelry and many wonderful items for children. While the reserve is open year round from sunrise to sunset, the visitor center and activities are only available during the spring.

Guided tours are offered for the duration of the wildflower season.

When giving tours, Scott, whose love of the desert came about when she went camping in Joshua Tree National Park during the biggest wildflower bloom of the century, shares her love of the desert.

Year of golden dreams?
"Most visitors drive through the desert only thinking of it as dry sand and weeds, but it's so much more," Scott said. "It has a very intricate habitat with so many things that survive in this harsh climate. I also love to include the cultural history in my tours such as telling that the land around the Poppy Reserve was originally burned by Native Americans specifically to create a grassland," said Scott, who graduated with a major in biology from UC Santa Cruz.

On the northwest side of the park is a tuff quarry that provided cement for the Owens River Project. Wagon trains stopped at Fairmont Butte, on the northwest side. Many settlers came up to start ranching operations for almond orchards, pears and dry farming of onions and alfalfa.

"In good years of plentiful wildflower blooms, busloads of wildflower-loving people arrive," she said. "They come from as far away as Korea, China, Germany, and all over the USA. Senior groups come in droves to enjoy the flowers."

If you've never been to the Poppy Reserve, keep in mind that this is not a tame, well-ordered botanical garden. For the handicapped or those in wheelchairs, there is a shallow grade up to the center made for wheelchair accessibility. Also, a short section of the path into the field of flowers is paved for wheelchair use.

The able-bodied can trek on eight miles of trails carved through fields of wildflowers that support the lives of small animals and snakes.

If you see a rattler or a Mojave Green snake, what do you do?

"If you see a snake, back up slowly," Scott said. "Treat them with respect. They are an important part of the habitat because they control the rodent population."

Her other suggestions include:

  • Come during the week, it's less crowded.
  • Come in the early morning because the wind comes up in the afternoon and poppies close.
  • Leave your dogs at home. Dogs are not allowed on the trails. There are no shaded areas in the parking lot, so don't plan on leaving your animals in your car.
  • Stay on the trails. If not, you'll be trampling and destroying the plants.
  • Bring your own food if you want to use the picnic area. The center does sell water.

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve - Directions
From Santa Clarita, take the I-14 north to Avenue I exit and then go west 15 miles. Avenue I becomes Lancaster Road. You'll see the reserve on the right. The address is 15101 Lancaster Road, Lancaster.

  • Tours - Guided group and school programs may be arranged by calling (661) 942-0662.
  • Cost - Fees during wildflower season are: passenger parking, $5 per vehicle, or $4 with seniors (62 and over); small buses (9-14 passengers), $50; large buses (25 or more passengers), $100.
  • Nearby events - The Lancaster Poppy Festival runs April 19-20, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. each day, at Lancaster City Park, 43011 N. 10th St. W. Some 50,000 visitors attended the event set in the 55-acre park. Performances include American folk, Cajun, acoustic guitars, Grammy nominee Lee Ritenour, jazz, magic shows, Jest-in-Time Circus of Fools, Exotic Animal encounter and carnival attractions. Vendors include arts & crafts, business vendors, flower & farmers' market and an international market. Fee: Adults (13-61) $8, children (6-12) $5, Children (5 & younger) free, seniors (62+) $5. Park across the street from the park on 10th St. West.

Bonnie D. Stone is the author of "San Andreas Ain't No Fault of Mine," the official guidebook to the Antelope Valley. For restaurants and motels in the area go to


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