5 spring wildflower hikes in Sonoma County
The vernal equinox on March 20 this year marked the official first day of spring, and signs of the season are everywhere in Sonoma County. The most vivid of those signs are the flowers we see everywhere, from the pink and white blossoms of fragrant fruit trees along our streets to the fields by Highway 12 and Occidental Road brimming with yellow mustard flowers to the less common flowers blooming in our parks.
Spring always brings that proverbial breath of fresh air, that promise of rejuvenation for weary spirits. Especially this year, after our long pandemic winter, getting outside brings much-needed relief.
Sonoma County’s wildflower season lasts from late winter into summer. Whether you hike on your own or join a socially distanced COVID-19-safe group, here is a brief sampling of our wealth of choices for viewing wildflowers that will all too soon be gone.
Sonoma Valley Regional Park
Sonoma Valley Regional Park lies just off Highway 12 in Glen Ellen, about halfway between Santa Rosa and Sonoma. In the center of scenic Sonoma Valley, its 202 acres offer several miles of trails, including the paved, accessible 1.2-mile Valley of the Moon Trail curving alongside a stream through dense oak woodland. This links to unpaved trails up surrounding hillsides and ridges for looped hikes and breathtaking vistas.
This critical component of the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor allows animals to cross the valley floor safely. Visitors can see the landscape regenerating since October 2017’s wildfire burned substantial undergrowth and some trees. The lichen-draped oak canopy remains largely intact, and spring brings amazing wildflowers.
Buttercups, white milkmaids and dainty white baby blue eyes are dotted along the Valley of the Moon trail. A gentle slope climbs the Cougar trail, flanked by deep blue hound’s tongue, hot pink vetch and fuzzy yellow cut-leaf sanicle. This leads to meadows by Damselfly Pond and ducks and Canada geese. Views stretch across the bucolic valley to the Mayacamas Mountains and southeast all the way to Mount Diablo.
Foothill Regional Park
Foothill Regional Park is nestled in the East Windsor foothills of the Mayacamas. Its 211 acres include sweeping views of Windsor and north-central Sonoma County, grassy meadows and rich oak woodlands. The 2019 Kincade fire left visible scars; now burned oaks are crowded with acorn woodpeckers. This land is also experiencing vibrant post-fire regrowth.
Spring’s glory abounds on rolling hillsides covered with buttercups and hound’s tongue. You might also see Douglas iris, both purple and yellow cut-leaf sanicles, magenta shooting stars, fields of rosy sand-crocus, diminutive yellow sun cups and madrone in spectacular bloom.
Picnic tables and benches are scattered throughout nearly 7 miles of trails of varied terrain, with several options ranging from the challenging climb up Alta Vista trail to the accessible Three Lakes trail. Visitors can combine the trails into hikes of different lengths, like the Westside-Oakwood-Meadow-Three Lakes loop. Three ponds host birds like grebes, Canada geese and red-winged blackbirds.
Sugarloaf Ridge State Park
Sugarloaf Ridge State Park offers some of the most magnificent views around, on a clear day out to the Sierras, San Francisco Bay and Mount Saint Helena.
Significantly impacted by the 2017 and 2020 wildfires, most trails are now reopened, thanks to the repair and cleanup work of volunteers. Visitors have a rare opportunity to observe the recovery of twice-burned land: native grasses and trees are resprouting and delicate yellow whispering bells are returning for the second time in three years. These native “fire follower” flowers peak in March to April. Spring wildflowers also include penstemon, trillium and the rarer golden fairy lantern and brownish fritillaria, a bell-shaped checker lily. Later blooms bring scarlet larkspur, farewell-to-spring, golden monkey flowers and yellow star thistles.
The Nature trail is a half-mile (in one direction) ADA-accessible trail from the day use parking lot to the White Barn parking lot. The Meadow trail’s gravel fire road leads to a stream and is generally passable by most wheelchairs, for about three-fourths of a mile. Connect this to the Hillside trail for a looped 2-mile wildflower scavenger hunt.
Sonoma Coast State Park
Sonoma Coast State Park’s Kortum Trail along our spectacular coastline is especially gorgeous in springtime. With long sandy beaches, offshore rock formations, rugged headlands and sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, the trail runs from Wright’s Beach north to Blind Beach, near Jenner.
Ravens and vultures ride wind currents off the cliffs, while willets and godwits dig at the shore and gulls, cormorants and pelicans dive into the water for fish. Visitors can watch spring’s gray whale migration, when these gentle leviathans move north with new offspring to their Alaskan summer feeding grounds.
The trail’s accessible Segment 3 meanders three-fourths of a mile out and back from Carlevaro Way to Wright’s Beach, along coastal bluffs and slightly inland. The Shell Beach segment, a quarter-mile aggregate base trail, goes from the Shell Beach parking lot to an overlook on Shell Beach. These bluffs and dunes support hardy native shrubs, grasses and in spring, numerous species of native wildflowers like California poppies, yellow and blue lupine, sea pink, Indian paintbrush, western wallflower and verbena.
Pepperwood, on a Mayacamas ridgeline in northeast Santa Rosa, is a 3,200-acre nature preserve focused on conservation research and science education. Hosting over 900 species of plants and animals — including pumas, coyotes, California newts and Sierran tree frogs — the preserve has just reopened to the public for socially distanced guided hikes, including to view unparalleled springtime wildflower displays.
Oak woodlands shade edible native miner’s lettuce. Such plants thrive on disturbances, like the wildfires that burned much of Pepperwood, and the preserve’s resident cattle herd grazing and helping seed and fertilize the landscape.
Slender butter-and-eggs flowers also thrive on disturbance. Pepperwood’s plants support entire ecosystems, and this toadflax species serves pollinators like some of California’s 1,600 bee species and the long-tongued sphinx moth. Minuscule dwarf plantain, with maroon-splashed ivory petals, feeds native Bay checkerspot butterfly larvae.
Enchanting bird’s eye gilia — pale violet-tipped petals with powder-blue pollen — are sprinkled throughout the meadows. Blue-eyed grass, an iris relative, blankets the hillsides alongside fuzzy clusters of native cream sac. Creamcups glow among ghostly burned trees and brilliant green grasses, signifying spring’s renewal.