nature and wildlife
A river of owl clover and Mexican goldpoppies runs riot through the hills of Saddle Mountain near Tonopah, about 50 miles west of Phoenix.
© George Stocking
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Arizona Wildflower Guide
by Keridwen Cornelius
Nature always seems more wild and vast in the West. Arizona’s own western region is home to more than 1.6 million acres of national wildlife refuges, from lush wetlands quenched by the Colorado River to the bone-dry beauty of the southern badlands. The regions are havens for diverse flora and fauna including neotropical migrant birds, Sonoran pronghorns and the state’s only naturally-growing stand of indigenous palm trees. In most areas, nature rules and tourists are scarce, making these particular refuges havens for travelers as they are for wildlife.
Lost Dutchman State Park6109 N. Apache Trail, Apache Junction
This state park in the Superstition Mountains has practically become synonymous with wildflower watching. Prime times are February to April, with the peak in March. Set out on the Jacob's Crosscut Trail, which can be 4 to 12 miles round-trip depending on your energy level. Keep an eye out for baby pink filaree and fuzzy, mango-colored fiddleneck. Blue dicks, scorpionweed and lupine freckle the trail with purple, but it's Mexican goldpoppies and brittlebush that, in prolific years, curve through lowland areas like the Yellow Brick Road.
Information: 480-982-4485; www.pr.state.az.us/Parks/parkhtml/dutchman.html.
Organ Pipe Cactus National MonumentSouth of Ajo, off State Route 85.
Bring your field guide as you hike through this wilderness, because half the fun is saying the plant names. You'll see the classic Mexican goldpoppy and brittlebush, plus the lovable-sounding bladderpod mustard, which dots the landscape with yellow, and the misleadingly named Esteve's pincushion, with its delicate white petals. Also watch out for shindagger, red maids, desert wishbone bush, popcorn flower, rattlesnake weed, desert anemone and chalk lettuce. The nearby town of Ajo (garlic in Spanish) owes its name to the ajo lily, which has white flowers and a garlicky bulb. Peak blooming season in Organ Pipe is February to May, especially March.
Information: 520-387-6849; www.nps.gov/orpi.
Picacho Peak State ParkSixty miles south of Phoenix, off Interstate 10, Exit 219.
The sere landscape around Picacho Peak gets a splash of citrusy colors come spring, transforming it into one of the best wildflower spots in the state. Set off on the 3-mile Sunset Vista Trail for views of goldpoppies and brittlebush. The ephemeral Mexican goldpoppy is the litmus test for wildflower season: you'll either spot sparse individuals or be blinded by a field of electric orange blooms. The more reliable brittlebush, which resembles a shrub sprouting a bouquet of mini-sunflowers, can blossom from November to May. Your best bet for both, however, is March. While you're there, don't be surprised if you see hundreds of Union and Confederate soldiers — on March 8-9 this year, Civil War enthusiasts will reenact a battle that took place here in 1862.
Information: 520-466-3183; www.pr.state.az.us/Parks/parkhtml/picacho.html.
Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife RefugeFrom Yuma, take I-8 east to Gila Bend, follow State Route 85 south approximately 40 miles to Ajo. The refuge office is on the west side of the highway at the north end of town.
To look at this stark, remote landscape much of the year, you'd hardly expect it to spring to life, well, ever. But starting mid-February and sometimes continuing for months, this wilderness is home to one of the most luxuriant bloomfests in the state. Visit in late afternoon, when dune evening primroses open their large petals, forming fields of milky white dappled with fuchsia clusters of desert sand verbena. Also keep an eye out for critters: this wildlife refuge teems with more than 300 species of animals, and February through May is also the time to train your binoculars toward birds like warblers, swallows, flycatchers and phoebes.
Information: 520-387-6483; www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/arizona/cabeza.html.
Kofa National Wildlife RefugeFrom Yuma, take U.S. Route 95 north toward Quartzsite to the refuge entrance signs.
Known for its resident population of California palms (Arizona's only native palm), Kofa NWR is also a springtime canvas for a palette of wildflower colors. Warm-hued Mexican goldpoppies, brittlebush, bladderpod mustard and fiddlenecks are splashed with a cool spectrum of desert lavender, Coulter's lupine and desert snow. Try the short but steep Palm Canyon Trail to the famous trees or the 7-mile round-trip Kofa Queen Canyon Trail, where you might see constellations of star gilias and Mojave asters. It's a familiar refrain, but the peak blooming window here is February to April, particularly March.
Information: 928-783-7861; www.fws.gov/southwest/REFUGES/arizona/kofa/index.html.
Pinal Pioneer ParkwayState Route 79 from Florence to Catalina
If you're driving between Tucson and Phoenix, turn off the speedy Interstate10, cruise along the 42-mile Pinal Pioneer Parkway and watch the show outside your window. Mexican goldpoppies, orange desert globemallow, 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.
Desert Botanical Gardens1201 N. Galvin Parkway, Phoenix
In wildflowers, as in life, there are no guarantees. Hence we have gardens. Though the DBG can't offer the thrill of an untamed encounter with a field of goldpoppies, the Harriet K. Maxwell Wildflower Trail will satisfy your craving for a multicolored variety of blooms. Flower species that would be elusive in the wild are here, within reach of the paved path. Plus you'll get the opportunity to learn how wildflowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds. During the Flower Power Festival, March 8-9, boost your knowledge about desert blooms, plant societies and eco-friendly services.
Information: 480-941-1225; www.dbg.org.
Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park37615 U.S. Route 60, Superior
Don't know your filaree from your fiddleneck? The Arboretum offers a primer in wildflower identification led by plant taxonomist and Education Director Chris Kline. He'll point out features of various plant families and answer your questions about flower structure. You'll learn that wildflowers are much more than pretty faces, and with your newfound knowledge you'll be ready for a flower-spotting road trip. The two-class series takes place on March 8 and 22. While you're there, be sure to check out the state park's 323 acres of arid plants and desert wildlife.
Information: 520-689-2811; www.pr.state.az.us/Parks/parkhtml/boyce.html.