If you’ve never seen California’s vast and ephemeral displays of spring wildflowers, you’ve been missing out! Now is the time, and I mean NOW! As of Monday, March 10, many areas of the California desert are at peak color and form, and in some places, the flowers are already dwindling due to lack of recent precipitation and climbing temperatures. My friend Harley Goldman is seen at left in Joshua Tree National Park’s Pinto Basin, photographing a vast expanse of Desert Sunflower (Geraea canescens). It was truly a sight to behold and a fragrance for which to die.
If you can bear viewing an almost continuous fifty mile stretch of desert wildflowers, and you have a high-clearance vehicle (4WD recommended) and requisite off-road driving experience and skills, here’s my recommended driving route. Including stops for walks, lunch, and smelling the flowers, this route will take you most of the day to complete. I don’t recommend you rush! The Automobile Club of Southern California (AAA) San Bernardino County map will serve you well on this drive.
Begin your tour just one mile west of Amboy, California (off National Trails Highway/old Route 66) at the Amboy Crater. Here you will find square miles of desert sunflower, as well as great spreads of sand verbena and loads of desert lily. Go for a walk; I also recommend hiking to the top of the crater for a panoramic view. From Amboy Crater, head south on Amboy Road towards Sheephole Pass. As you begin your climb toward the pass, a continuous blanket of wildflowers covers the landscape and also continues down the south side of the pass. About four miles south of Sheephole Pass, head east (and then south) on Ironage Road. You’ll find wildflowers from here all the way to Highway 62. Some of the densest spots are at Ironage Road and Hwy. 62.
From Highway 62 and Ironage Road, head west about six miles to the graded dirt Gold Crown Rd and hang a left (south). Again, vast carpets of desert sunflower stretch before you. If you’re not an experienced off-road driver and/or lack 4WD/high clearance, you may only be able to proceed comfortably for another 5-6 miles. Experienced drivers will head south into Pinto Basin via a rugged and at times steep and exposed road. Wildflowers will be found entirely along the way, and your first view into the vast Pinto Basin will once again reveal many square miles of desert sunflower!
Head south across Pinto Basin via Old Dale Road for about ten miles (good dirt). You’ll see wildflowers through the entire Pinto Basin crossing. Join up with the paved Pinto Basin Road and head south toward the Cottonwood Canyon entrance to Joshua Tree National Park. You won’t even have to look too hard here; the wildflower carpet might very well be thicker here than anywhere. Interstate 10 will be found a few more miles to the south, thus concluding your journey.
If you have only a 2WD and no off-road experience, I recommend exploring Gold Crown Road as far as you’re comfortable, and then turn around and head west on Highway 62 for twenty miles or so to Utah Trail (paved) in Twentynine Palms. Follow the signs into Joshua Tree National Park. After about seven miles, hang a left (south) at Pinto Basin Road and connect with our route above at the junction of Pinto Basin Road (paved) and Old Dale Road (dirt).
This is an amazing route, but you must go now to catch the flowers at their peak. The Desert USA website may also be helpful in planning your day and to determine current wildflower conditions.
I hope you enjoy your wildflower day!