I had to take the drive slow on Soda Lake Road. It was a muddy slip-and-slide going off Highway 166 to the dirt road north heading behind Soda Lake. I knew right where I wanted to be with light rain soaking life into already blooming carpets of wildflowers.

No place was hyped more during the Super Bloom of 2019 than the Carrizo Plain National Monument. It began in early March and continued throughout the month. Even though California had received ample amounts of rain and snow, I kept telling myself to be patient and wait. The best was yet to come.

It wasn’t easy waiting a whole month but I’m glad I did. Instagram allowed me to do just that. Most of what was posted were massive, dense carpets of yellow, mainly hillside daisies, but that wasn’t enough to lure me out there. The Carrizo Plain can provide diversity and concentrations of California flora like no other wildflower hotspot in the Golden State, so I stayed put.

And because California still received rain into May, it only prolonged one of the best blooms in recent memory. I reached the Carrizo Plain in April and the grasslands were magnificent. Strange how some years will bring out densities of some species more than others, but after wet winters I can always count on the thick fields of tickseed coreopsis behind Soda Lake off Simmler Road. From miles away I could see its bright yellow patch leaning toward the vernal pools that drain into the grasslands. I just never know what other flowers will accompany those vibrant, yellow blooms. This year it was the much taller, more spindly, Russian thistle—its light lavender color a fine contrast to the tickseed coreopsis. Also accentuating those colors were valley phacelia, so the search was on to find those varieties clustered together.

When it’s wet, Simmler Road is notorious for getting vehicles stuck, but those wildflowers were too good to pass up. Mostly hard clay topped off with a light powder of chalky alkali that blows off Soda Lake when it’s dry, Simmler Road becomes virtually impassable in the rain—tires getting slicked with huge chunks of mud and losing all traction. Those wildflowers though, were intoxicating, so I went for it.

There was a low-hanging overcast ceiling above the Carrizo Plain offering my favorite light for photography. Diffused light doesn’t create shadows and the wildflowers really stand out. I was also finding larkspur and tidy tips behind Soda Lake, but the tickseed coreopsis combined with the Russian thistle was the best of the carpets behind Soda Lake.

As the days wore on and the dewy ceiling of overcast lifted, I was finding high concentrations of wildflowers. Owl’s clover was easily the best I’d ever seen, and it wasn’t even peaking when I was there. Those pinkish magenta blooms were sprouting in huge fields and on hillsides throughout the grasslands with fiddleneck and tidy tips mixed in for contrast.

I walked out to a dilapidated ranch house west of the Saucito Ranch that I’d never been to before. The windmill was still pumping water into the cattle trough to quench the thirst of abundant wildlife. Fragrant bush lupine was plentiful over the surrounding rolling hills. Low-lying baby blue eyes were sprinkled in amongst the fiddleneck, with no one around and just the sounds of western meadowlarks filling the seasonal arroyos with birdsong.

Sunset was approaching, a magical time on the Carrizo Plain. I took off down one of the many nameless dirt tracks into a sweeping carpet of hillside daisies. Storm clouds crept above the Temblor Mountains to the east creating an ominous scene from grasslands to 4,000 feet. I pitched my tent near the base of the flowers and suddenly heard thundering hooves beating across the lush vegetation. A small band of Tule elk, mostly cows, loped eastward then stopped and turned to give me a look. They were at least 100 yards off. They too were enjoying the Super Bloom, because where there is water, there is life.

Adventure and travel writer Chuck Graham lives in Carpinteria and contributes his writing and photography to publications far and wide. For more wildlife photos, visit chuckgrahamphoto.com or follow Graham on Instagram at @chuckgrahamphoto.

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