Explore Arizona

Wildflower Scenic Drives and Hikes around Arizona

From The Arizona Republic

Feb 23 2015

The 2015 wildflower season looks to be a banner year in many spots if the desert can resist being too deserty.

Conditions were primo early on. Prolific and well-timed rains swept across the state through the fall and early winter. Temperatures warmed up and the stage was set for a spectacular season. Except the temperatures keep going up, and that's the fly in the ointment.

The showstoppers of wildflower season are Mexican goldpoppies. Each year, flower chasers wait with bated breath to see how many of these shiny divas will appear. Unfortunately, poppies don't handle heat very well. Too many above 80-degree days can lessen the number of blooms and curtail the flowering duration.

Two reliable poppy-viewing locations are Lost Dutchman State Park and Picacho Peak State Park. A moderate heat wave around Valentine's Day tamped down expectations at Lost Dutchman. Yet temperatures at Picacho remained cooler, so park rangers are enthusiastic about their poppy display, which should peak in the coming days.

In any case, I declare 2015 the Year of the Brittlebush. I went on a scouting trip in mid-February and saw masses of silver-green mounds of brittlebush covering slopes. The brittlebush is the workhorse of desert flowers, showing up no matter what. This spring they are fat, sassy and everywhere. Endless clumps of sunburst bouquets will erupt across the desert. Other colorful perennials — globemallows, penstemons and desert marigolds — also are poised for a good season.

No matter how things unfold, spring is always a gorgeous time to explore the desert. Here are scenic wildflower drives to point you in the right direction.

U.S. 60: Apache Junction to Globe

After exploring Lost Dutchman State Park, drive east on U.S. 60. You'll see a mix of poppies, lupines and phacelia as you skirt the southern flanks of the Superstition Mountains. Brittlebush, desert marigolds and globemallows take center stage as the road climbs through Gonzales Pass.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park sits in the shadow of Picketpost Mountain near mile marker 223. The 323-acre park shelters a series of gardens so lush it's hard to believe they're composed of desert plants. Thanks to an irrigation system, the park has an abundance of wildflowers every spring. It's a good place to learn to identify blooms you'll be seeing in the wild.

Continuing east, U.S. 60 makes a steep, winding ascent through Devil's Canyon with its towering stone pillars before arriving in Miami. The old mining town rolls out a golden carpet. Poppies are everywhere, growing along the roadside, in the median, in vacant lots and pushing up through cracks in sidewalks. In the 1940s, the Women's Club gave away packets of poppy seeds as a beautification project, and the community still reaps the benefits.

Finish in historical Globe, with plenty of shopping and dining options.

State Route 79: Florence Junction to Oracle Junction

As soon as you turn south on State Route 79 from U.S. 60, you're greeted with a display of poppies. But the standout here is a grove of globemallows that continues for 16 miles to Florence. They're mostly pink, a less common variety than the orange-flowering globemallows.

South of Florence the road is designated Pinal Pioneer Parkway, an arrow-straight highway slicing through scenic desert upland with a forest of saguaros, Dr. Seussian chain-fruit chollas and a carpet of wildflowers. There are several pullouts, and the Tom Mix Memorial offers a roadside rest area with ramadas and picnic tables. A stone statue commemorates the movie star near the spot where he died in a car crash in 1940.

The road ends at Oracle Junction. For a great wildflower hike, turn right on SR 77 and continue a few miles to Catalina State Park. Two large washes keep the park slightly cooler, thus delaying what's expected to be a superb flower display until mid-March. Look for poppies, lupines, penstemon and owl clover on the Sutherland Trail.

Bartlett Dam Road

Photographer Joanne Sigrist says her favorite place to shoot wildflowers is Bartlett Lake because of the abundance and variety. The 13-mile dirt road quickly leaves suburbs behind and winds past rolling hills to the sparkling lake cradled by mountains.

In mid-February I spotted fairy duster, chuparosa and a few renegade poppies. Slopes were covered with brittlebush preparing to pop. Some of the best flower sightings are along North Lake Road.

State Route 74

The 31-mile stretch of highway from Interstate 17 west to U.S. 60 flashes across mostly undeveloped desert and is often ablaze with wildflowers in the spring.

It also provides access to Lake Pleasant Regional Park, where a spectacular season is anticipated. It seems like every hillside in the park was a mass of brittlebush. Heaviest concentration of poppies, along with lupines and blue dicks, can be found on Pipeline Canyon Trail, especially from the southern trailhead to the floating bridge a half-mile away.

3 more options

  • Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive is a paved 8-mile loop in Saguaro National Park East in Tucson. It has great views and multiple hiking options.
  • The Apache Trail (SR 88) is a stunning and occasionally harrowing 48-mile-long journey as it leaves Apache Junction and traces a chain of lakes along the Salt River. Part of the road is graded gravel, suitable for most cars.
  • Ajo Mountain Drive is a 21-mile loop of graded gravel in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. It showcases a dandy display of poppies, lupines, blue dicks, chicory, tackstem and owl clover.

Where to look for wildflowers

To see up-to-the minute photos of what's blooming in Arizona State Parks, check out Ranger Cam 2015. It's at azstateparks.com/RangerCam2015.

To see what's blooming in Maricopa County Parks, find the parks' flower pages onFacebook or Pinterest.

For flowers around the Southwest, check out Desert USA's regional report atwww.desertusa.com/wildflo/wildupdates.html.

Lost Dutchman State Park: $7 per vehicle. 480-982-4485,azstateparks.com/Parks/LODU.

Picacho Peak State Park: $7 per vehicle. 520-466-3183,azstateparks.com/Parks/PIPE.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum: $10, $5 for ages 5-12. 520-689-2811,azstateparks.com/Parks/BOTH.

Catalina State Park: $7 per vehicle. 520-628-5798, azstateparks.com/Parks/CATA.

Bartlett Lake: $6 per vehicle. 480-595-3300, www.fs.usda.gov/tonto.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park: $6 per vehicle. 928-501-1710,www.maricopa.gov/parks/lake_pleasant.

Saguaro National Park: $10 per vehicle. 520-733-5153, www.nps.gov/sagu.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: $8 per vehicle. 520-387-6849,www.nps.gov/orpi.

This article was originally published in The Arizona Republic.