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From Galt to the Bay, wildflowers are bursting with color in pastures and state parks

Here is your guide to finding, photographing and identifying the gems that provide Californians with a few weeks of dainty beauty

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Posted: Saturday, April 17, 2010 12:00 am

On the James Bar Trail that starts at the end of a steep, one-lane road near Pardee Reservoir, water in the brook trickles over mossy rocks and beside lush foliage.

A lone wild turkey wanders the treaded path until it flies over a thick walls of greenery. Along the path are dabs of purple and yellow and white and red wildflowers — gentle reminders that spring is here.

Damp with dew and slightly shy after a day of rain, wildflowers paint California after a season of wet weather. They sprout in April and May, grace us with their presence for a few weeks and disappear as though they were never there.

Some people are lucky enough to have them grow in untrampled, unmowed backyards. Others see them reaching toward the sun as they grow on slopes in pastures beside country roads. However, most varieties of wildflowers grow freely in state parks and vernal pools, where slumps in the earth are filled with water and, when they dry out, are perfect homes for the flowers.

California is lucky. "I've heard it estimated that there are between 6,000 and 7,000 (types of wild flowers), but not all are native," said Sara Sweet, restoration ecologist for the nature conservancy, who works with Cosumnes River Preserve and vernal pools in the area.

California's wildflowers grow tiny and large, and come in all colors and patters: White with purple spots, orange and velvety, soft and lavender, bright red and rich and golden.

Chris Swann, the watershed ranger supervisor for East Bay Municipal Utility District expects this year's wildflower season to be a good one.

"We have a smorgasbord of wildflowers," he said, speaking of EBMUD's vast property along the Mokelumne River. "This is a really good year for variety because we had a lot of rain at the perfect time."

One of the best places Swann recommends to view wildflowers is on James Bar Trail past Valley Springs. Though it's still early in the season, dainty flowers dotted with early-morning dew sprout beside the slow-moving creek and on the hills. Poppies, shy and cold, have yet to open up before the sun's warmth hits them, but their petals are still radiant with that rich golden yellow that makes the California state flower so special and breathtaking.

While they are blooming for all to enjoy, wildflowers are something you shouldn't wait to see.

"They come and go in the early part of the summer," Swann said. "You don't want to plan it out and keep planning it out. It's really important to seize the moment."

Where to go to see flowers

Cosumnes River Preserve

While Cosumnes River Preserve has always been an ideal place to go for a close-to-home stroll through nature, it is also a great place to experience the area's wildflower burst. Sara Sweet, restoration ecologist, who works at the preserve, has noticed yellow Goldfields have recently opened up in the meadow around the path near the canoe launch. They close up for cold or rainy weather, but their golden yellow color is bright as the day's temperature rises and the sun shines.

California buttercups — about a foot tall with many flowers on each plant — are blooming along the River Walk Trail at the preserve. Red maids can also be seen on this trail. Sweet says they are actually growing in the trail in the oak savanna east of the railroad tracks.

Downingia, with its white back and purple spots, are often seen in wildflower season near the wooden platform off of the Lost Slough Wetlands Walk, a loop trail, across from the preserve's parking lot. There is a span of about two weeks when wildflowers like these grow thick and bright. This trail is also home to blossoming California buttercups.

Sweet says the sharp-eyed wildflower enthusiast will also be able to find miniature lupine along both of the trails. It's about 4 to 8 inches tall, depending on the fertility of the site where it is growing.

Visit the Cosumnes River Preserve to stroll the trails and discover wildflowers and other aspects of nature.

The Cosumnes River Preserve is located at 13501 Franklin Road in Galt. For information, visit or call 916-684-2816.

Vernal Pools on Howard Ranch Trail

The vernal pools at the Rancho Seco Howard Ranch Trail provide the flower lover with carpets of wildflowers. Vernal pools — usually maintained and under private ownership — tend to exist on grasslands along the Eastern edge of the Central Valley. Once shallow, water-filled areas of grasslands dry out, wildflowers grow thick in bright colors that spread across the open land.

Take a frame-worthy photograph

Do you love wildflowers, but can't seem to capture their brilliance on film?

Try to perfect your camera skills with these tips from three News-Sentinel photographers:

It's all about depth of field

Use a shallow depth of field (a narrow plain of focus) to set the flower apart from its surroundings by making the background fall out of focus. If you have a point-and-shoot camera, set it on the macro setting (flower symbol) to achieve this effect.

If you want the flower to really pop, set a piece of contrasting-colored poster board a couple feet behind the flower. This will take the flower out of its natural setting, but also make the image pop with color.

Carry a spray bottle. A little bit of mist goes a long way.
— Dan Evans

Don't fear the wide lens

Use the widest lens possible. In so doing, that allows you to get very, very close. If you get close enough where the petals are almost touching the lens, you can move the camera slightly to get some fantastic perspectives of the angles that will just blow your mind. The closer you get, the better.

If you shoot off of a tripod, you can get a tighter aperture and depth of field.

The early morning sun is wonderful, and the late afternoon sun is wonderful because you get that nice glow of the sun.
— Jerry Tyson

Change lenses, positions

My favorite lenses for shooting close-ups are the 50 mm 1.8 and 70-200 2.8. They allow you a shallow depth of field that makes what's behind your subject to blur. It puts the focus on the subject.

My favorite times to shoot foliage are early morning, late afternoon and any time after a rain.

Change your positions to get unique angles. Try standing above, lying on the ground and from underneath to get a new perspective.

Have fun.
— Jennifer M. Howell

Sweet recommends those wanting to view wildflowers this season visit Howard Ranch.

"The topography is gentle, but beautiful," she said. "You get really stunning views."

The 7-mile hike, led by preserve naturalists, begins by winding around Rancho Seco Lake and then travels onto a flat terrace, where there are vernal pools and a grassland habitat.

Cosumnes River Preserve docents offer free guided tours of wildflowers at Howard Ranch. The tour is free, but there is a $5 parking fee. Visit for tour dates and times.

To get to the Howard Ranch trailhead, enter Rancho Seco as normal, but turn left before crossing the dam. Follow the dirt road to the end, where there is a parking lot.

For more information about Howard Ranch or more vernal pools in the area, visit or call 916-684-2816.

James Bar Trail

If you are up for a drive and day of hiking, visit the James Bar Trail to see wildflowers growing along the Mokelumne River and Pardee Reservoir. Taking Highway 12 past Valley Springs, anyone with a trail use permit can stroll along the gentle creek, viewing flowers in all colors and varieties, from monkey flower to lupin and Indian paintbrush. You may also see wild turkeys and a variety of bright green foliage.

The trail is part of the EBMUD, and guests can take wildflower hikes by themselves, though guided tours are sometimes offered.

Trail use permits are now $2.50 for the day and $10 for the year. They may be purchased online at, under the recreation tab.

For more information about Sierra Foothills trails, visit

Mount Diablo State Park

Though it may be a little bit of a drive, Mt. Diablo State Park in the Bay Area is one of the best places to see wildflowers in California. Along the extensive trails, there are more than 400 types of plants and wildflowers growing, including Chinese house, California buttercup, California poppy and Indian paintbrush.

The entrance fee is $10 per car. Admission to Mitchell Canyon and Macedo Ranch is $6 per car.

For information on hikes, walks and tours, visit



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