Spring getaway to California’s flower fields

California’s Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch explode into 50 acres of spring color, visible from Highway 1.

SoCal ocean to desert: A flower power vacation  

Photos & feature by Lisa Meyers McClintick
Rows of sherbet-orange blossoms march to the right, sloping toward a hillside of bubblegum pink, ruby red and sunny yellow.
Giant ranunculus blooms offer a colorful feast for winter-weary eyes.
Immersed in 50 acres of flowers, I could be Dorothy on the way to the Emerald City, minus the sleepy effect of poppies. Instead of shimmering green buildings on the horizon, I see the glimmer of ocean beyond strip malls and the Pacific Coast Highway to the west and purple shadows of mountains to the northeast.
The Flower Fields of Carlsbad, Calif., have drawn spring visitors to northern San Diego County for decades. The giant Tecolote ranunculus blooms look like the love child of poppies and peonies: vibrant color, delicate stems and full-bodied blooms dense with silky petals.
They blaze brightly on the hills above the coastal highway, inspiring detours for more than 60 years every March through mid-May.
“There’s something about being surrounded by all this color that’s just magical,” says Lisa Merriam McClure, a former Minnesotan and now a Californian who lives up the coast in San Clemente.
For me, this March vacation during 2011’s slog-it-out winter is inspired not so much by the need for warmth as the need to nourish eyes hungry for more than grays and whites. We’ve dedicated a long weekend to a 90-mile road trip that starts with the Flower Fields on this sunny coastline, climbs through cool mountains and drops into the desert—each place erupting with its own palette of spring color.
One of life’s miracl
Renewing a friendship
Lucky for us, we’re celebrating a rebirth and renewal that goes deeper than the seasons. McClure and I haven’t seen each other for 20-plus years, yet we slip back into a steadfast friendship built on sleepovers, family vacations, summer camp and the misadventures of junior high. We laugh how alphabetical locker assignments originally brought us together, and somehow carried into adulthood. Meyers and Merriam each married and became McClure and McClintick. It baffles us, too.
Just as joyous as this long-overdue reunion is traveling with Lisa’s three-month-old daughter, Kate. It’s a magical age: ears as translucent and delicate as newly emerged leaves, steady gazes infused with wonder, tiny hands that make your heart skip.
Lisa, Kate and Lisa
Kate’s a miracle, too, arriving as Lisa turned 42 and had given up hope for a baby.
We hold out my camera and try snapping a self-portrait with flowers unfurling behind us. Kate stares at the lens as if she knows how momentous this is.
Beach cities to mountain town
The ocean calls to us in every shade of sun-infused blue. That’s not to say it’s warm. Zipped into a wet suit, the water numbs my bare feet and squeezes out a few colorful gasps of shock. Lisa married an enthusiastic surfer, and I feel compelled to try my luck on a board.
I apparently did great for a first time out, making it to a standing position on one of my first attempts. But surfing mostly feels like those rough stretches of life. Wait, wait, wait for it. Miss your timing. Take a clumsy fall. Haul yourself back up. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Hiking down to the surf beach near San Clemente
“People think surfers are so mellow,” Lisa says, but most are high energy until waves hammer them into bone-weary submission.
After our dreamy stroll through flower fields and along beaches, it seems wrong to turn our backs on the ocean. But we’re in the mood to explore, to see someplace new and leave busy coastal cities behind. We ditch a traffic jam and pick our way east through suburbs until they’re gone.
We climb, hugging mountain curves with motorcyclists, bicyclists and convertibles, likewise soaking up scenery.  The valley drops below us. Roadsides blur with the hazy lavender of wild lilacs and smatterings of orange poppies.
The drive from Carlsbad to the mountains near Julian.
It’s only 60 miles from the coast, but Julian, pop. 3,000, feels like another world. Apple orchards with clouds of white blossoms and vineyards flank this historic mining town tucked into piney mountains. Daffodils dot wooded roads, and homey whiffs of apple pie, dumplings and pastries waft into the narrow Old-West downtown. A horse and buggy clip-clops past, and a giggling group of girls tries to sell us a cat.
Fog and drizzle roll in as darkness falls and we find our way to a cabin at Pine Hills Lodge, a log resort built 100 years ago. We bundle Kate into a dresser drawer with blankets as our makeshift cradle. Then we fire up the heat, climb into bed, and reminisce about sleepovers in Prior Lake and pay homage to Lisa’s mom, who died a year before Kate was born.
Pine Hills Lodge
I can’t imagine becoming a first-time parent without my mom in the wings. I try to fill a little of the huge gap left by Lisa’s mom. I delight in rocking Kate to sleep and keep Lisa company during middle-of-the-night nursing or fussing.

The next morning, we fill up on quiche at Julian’s Candied Apple Pastry Company. We’ve had our requisite pie and choose one of their chocolate bomb cakes to go. It alone could inspire a return trip. The cake becomes roadside lunch—along with an honor system bag of grapefruit—bought 30 miles to the east in the Anza-Borrego Desert. Like the contrast between beach and mountains, this section of Southern California’s Colorado Desert also feels like its own world.

Julian, Calif., can grow daffodils & apples.
Desert blooms dazzle
 Yawning, scrubby flatness leading to Borrego Springs has that vacant “Are we lost?” feeling. But the sky’s blue, the sun is warming our arms, and we discover we’re in good company as we pull into a busy parking lot at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The largest of California’s state parks and a bit off the beaten path, it’s a less-crowded option to Palm Springs to the north.
It’s been a dry year, and most of the park is brown. But near the visitor center, which is dug into the earth, irrigated areas coax succulent blooms from cacti. Hummingbirds dart in and out of tubular orange blooms on a blue elf aloe. We stroll by and admire hot pink flowers on beaver tail cactus, translucent yellow on a prickly pear, and a fiery orange on claret cup cactus.
Anza-Borrego Desert blooms
We reluctantly pull away from the soothing landscape of desert and mountains and head for downtown San Diego. It’s another scenic route, meandering through the Cuyamaca Recreation and State Park district our last night together. We watch the sun turn the harbor pink then share a milestone together: feeding Kate her first serving of rice cereal.
We click through our photos, smiling again at baby faces, beach shots and brilliant blossoms. Best of all is discovering a friendship can be like spring flowers after a long winter. They both burst into bloom just when you need something to celebrate.
Strolling the paths at Anza-Borrego State Park, California.
Carlsbad-Julian-Borrego Springs Road Trip
What to do
Carlsbad Flower Fields,  ($11 per adult; 1-760-431-0352; www.theflowerfields.com). The season usually runs from March through mid-May, open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (1-760-767-5311; www.parks.ca.gov) in Borrego Springs has 600,000 acres, with desert plants usually blooming between January and March. Call the wildflower hotline, 1-706-767-4684.
Where to stay
Pine Hills Lodge ($80-$190; 1-760-765-1100, www.pinehillslodge.com) offers lodge rooms and cabin rooms tucked into the woods outside Julian. There’s a brunch on Sunday.
Bailey Woodpit BBQ
Orchard Hill Country Inn ($195-$375; 1-800-716-7242; www.orchardhill.com) offers a more upscale option in Julian with 22 lodge and cottage rooms, plus breakfast.
Candied Apple Pastry Company (1-760-765-2655, www.candiedapplepastry.com) serves fresh breads with spreads such as artichoke-feta plus salads, but the star is the tempting array of desserts. Cases display pear lavender and caramel apple tarts, raspberry almond pastries, sourdough crostini chips for snacking, or the signature apple-blackberry pie with a woven crust.
Candied Apple Pastry Company

Bailey Woodpit Barbecue (1-760-765-3757, www.baileybbq.com) smokes Texas-style meats served with a rustic-cut slaw and washed down with cider, beer or local wine.

More info
San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau (1-619-236-1212, www.sandiego.org).
Here’s to a 1980s friendship that’s still going.

Lisa Meyers McClintick

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