Growing up in Alberta I always feuded with winter, a cantankerous, disagreeable season that seemingly lasted forever. As a snowbird, I take great delight in rambling around the desert in shorts and T-shirt searching for signs of wildflowers.
Many people consider Arizona to be a land of two seasons, summer and the absence of summer. But us snowbirds know better. Spring is the most glorious of seasons in the Desert Southwest, with days of glorious sunshine, azure skies, and carpets of wildflowers. Round these parts, we often start getting whiffs of spring in January and it goes full bore through much of February and on into May. Chew on that, Old Man Winter.
Unless you’ve actually visited the Desert Southwest, any mention of the region probably conjures up images of an arid wasteland devoid of life. Nothing could be further from the truth: the landscape is, in fact, full of life—and when the desert blooms you will want to be there.
This amazing transformation usually happens by mid-March, but only during the years when winter rains have been the right amount and springtime temperatures the right range of degrees. When that occurs, a dry and seemingly lifeless desert springs to life in a glorious tapestry of purple, white, yellow, orange, and green. More than 600 species of flowers, plants, and shrubs join the spectacle with their short-lived but profuse blossoms.
While El Niño storms laid the groundwork for a spectacular wildflower season, the heat wave during February may impact Mexican gold poppies as don’t handle excessive heat well. It’s a brief window, so you need to pick your spots. Here are four of my favorites:
A gorgeous network of trails, from easy to brutal, makes this park between Phoenix and Tucson a must-stop in spring, no matter what the flower forecast. The centerpiece spire of Picacho rises 1,500 feet in a sudden thrust from the desert floor and can be reached via the Hunter Trail, a ridiculously steep climb that will have you pulling yourself along cables. Pack gloves if you’re planning to tackle this beast.
No such effort is required to enjoy the wildflowers that splash across the lower mountain flanks and can be seen from the road and picnic areas. Other good sightings can be found on the easy Nature Trail and moderate Calloway Trail. The park has received above-average rainfall but warm February temps slowed poppy growth. Yet a couple of good storms could produce a spectacular March.
We visited Picacho twice last spring and caught good poppy displays through late February and a colorful assortment of globemallow, brittlebush, and desert marigold in March. The big annual Civil War re-enactment takes place March 19-20.
Pinal Pioneer Parkway
If you’re driving between Phoenix and Tucson, turn off Interstate 10 at Casa Grande, head east to Florence and cruise along the 42-mile Pinal Pioneer Parkway (SR-79) and watch the show outside your window. Mexican goldpoppies, orange desert globe mallow, fuchsia desert verbena, indigo lupine, magenta penstemon, and crimson chuparosa sprout up along the roadside. Take a picnic break at the Tom Mix memorial, dedicated to the Western movie star who died at this spot in 1940.
All over the Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park near Superior—but especially in the Wildflower Meadow of the Demonstration Garden—visitors can take in the colors of Mexican gold poppy, desert marigold, orroyo lupine, globe mallow, penstemon, and lots of other species.
Members of the Arizona Native Plant Society lead regularly scheduled wildflower tours through the botanical garden and visitors can take wildflower photography classes through April.
The second largest lake within Arizona, Lake Pleasant, with 10,000 surface acres, is surrounded by low desert hills that are often covered with wildflowers. Join a park docent for a guided wildflower hike at this regional park northwest of Peoria.
The heaviest concentration of poppies can be found on Pipeline Canyon Trail, especially from the southern trailhead to the floating bridge a half-mile away. The bridge is also guarded by some extremely robust globe mallows the size of landscape shrubs. Colors should peak in late February to mid-March.
When I walk in the desert the birds sing very beautifully
When I walk in the desert the trees wave their branches in the breeze
When I walk in the desert the tall saguaro wave their arms way up high
When I walk in the desert the animals stop to look at me as if they were saying
“Welcome to our home.”
—Jeanette Chico, in When It Rains