Spectacular wildflower meadows and colorfully dotted rolling hills turn the Southern California landscape from burned brown into vivid scenery, all courtesy of the wet El Nino rains. As if a landscape painter slipped with his color palette and threw all colors onto his painting at once, the brilliant colors compete for your and the bees’ attention. I am not sure about the bees, but humans swarm all over, humming while enjoying the colors.
If you travel in California, you can easily plan a detour that takes you past a wildflower viewing area. Even if you have no immediate travel plans, the wildflowers are a worthy travel destination in their own right. The bright colors will lift your mood and reinvigorate you after the long rainy or snowy winter.
How to get there
Highway 58 and Highway 46 are two scenic connectors between CA-101 and I-5 in Southern California. Highway 46 continues beyond CA-101 to connect with the California Coastal Highway CA-1. I often take these roads to get away from the dull driving on I-5, gladly accepting a longer but more exciting trip. Both roads connect Bakersfield with Paso Robles. Highway 58 runs a few miles south of Highway 46.
Interlake road is a scenic detour from Highway 101 between Lake San Antonio and Lake Nacimiento. If you travel south, take Lockwood San Lucas Road west (Lockwood Paris Valley Road exit). Turn left at the T-intersection onto Interlake Road. Turn right at the next T on Nacimiento Lake Drive and follow the road signs back to Highway 101.
Large Wildflower Meadow on Highway 58 and Shell Creek Road:
Highway 46 and 41:
Interlake Road (Wildflower Detour):
How to photograph Wildflowers
Wildflowers along Highway 58
I took the photograph at the top of the article at the intersection of Highway 58 and Shell Creek Road, where I found a giant meadow of mostly yellow flowers. Hiking around, I discovered a patch of California Poppies that broke up the endless carpet (image above). The “bug-perspective” of the image above and the image from Interlake Road (below) are my favorites.
Another good composition is to overflow your entire frame with them. The repetitive pattern of the image above could be an excellent backdrop for a derivative work.
Colorful patches of flowers add interest to other compositions as well. The two large patches complete the picture of the vineyard workers. I purposely framed the photograph to leave out the sky above, which gives a more balanced picture. You need to stay alert to notice these compositions. I sped around a corner and flew past this picture in a split second. It took a few more seconds to register and another mental effort to step on the brake. I often get driving lethargy, especially during long distance drives. After a long day’s drive, I become less willing to pull over, let alone pay attention to compositions.
The wildflower routes are most likely part of a longer driving route. It will cost you more effort than usual, since the journey is the reward this time!
Wildflowers along Highway 46
Wildflowers bloom along Highway 46 as well. I have not found a large meadow with the same variety of flowers as I did on Highway 58. Many large patches of California Poppies were a great distance behind fences on private property. Since the poppies start to bloom later, I still expect them to make worthy subjects later in April.
Use a telephoto lens instead and find a nicely shaped hill, or ridge. The yellow and orange hues of the hills and the blue skies are complementary colors and thus, work well together. I chose a nearly 50/50 split between earth and sky in the image above, emphasizing the equal importance of the two.
Look for a pullout and do not just park at the side of the road. I often saw the Highway Patrol out in force on this route.
Scenic Detour on Interlake Road
Another wildflower route leads through the mountains northwest of Paso Robles. I found a lot of variety here. The mixture of flowers will keep this area interesting for a long time.
For the “bug’s view image” above, I used a wide-angle lens and manually pre-focused it for optimum depth of field. I used aperture priority and a very small aperture that let me maximize depth. Combined with the wide-angle lens, I could achieve a very large depth from one inch to infinity.
When I buy a new camera or new lens, I usually spend some time at home with a tripod, a ruler, and a notepad. I take several series of test-shots in aperture priority mode and pre-focus to different distances, jotting down the settings (focal distance and aperture). The goal is to find out where you should focus to make close objects sharp while keeping the sharpness at infinity (great distance). You also need to test at what aperture your camera starts to lose sharpness.
If this is too technical for you, simply dial in f/16 and focus on 1m (3ft) with a wide-angle lens on your SLR. Some Canon cameras have an A-Dep mode, which automatically tries to optimize depth of field by keeping focus on all camera focus points at the same time. If you have that option on your camera, it is also a good choice.
Best Time of the Day and Best Season
You can create good photos any time of the day at any of the locations. The Wildflower season is between late March and late April and varies depending on the temperature and precipitation.
The time you will need mostly depends on the driving distance. Use an online route planner like Bing Maps or Google Maps to determine the impact on your route. Since all locations are visible from the road, the impact for photography is minimal.
- Wide-angle lens
- Macro Lens and Tripod
- Reflectors and Flash Diffusers
- Medium telephoto lens
All the places described in this article are visible from public access roads free of charge.
Many of the wildflowers are on fenced private property, which means you cannot get to the flowers directly. Since I often prefer wide-angle compositions with the wildflowers very close, this means finding a spot where the flowers reach all the way to the fence.
Please do not enter private property without authorization! There are penalties for trespassing. Keep driving until you find a spot that suits your needs.
- Guadalupe Dunes
- Point Sal State Park
- Pismo Beach
- San Luis Obispo Mission
- Morro Bay
- La Purisma Mission near Lompoc
- Montana de Oro State Beach
- Hearst Castle (San Simeon)
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