On Saturday, April 19th at 8:00 a.m., 11 members of the North Coast Chapter apprehensively monitored the sullen clouds that darkened the sky. After fortifying ourselves with caffeine from a local espresso bar, the plucky group headed south toward the fabled Bear Valley. We had heard about it from Ernie Wasson and Steve Edwards of Tilden Botanical Garden. Bear Valley is a remnant of the Central Valley that John Muir described in the conclusion of his Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf. in April of 1868. He wrote that the valley of the San Joaquin is the floweriest piece of world I ever walked, one vast, level, even flower-bed, a sheet of flowers, a smooth sea,... Like the early central valley, Bear Valley is grazed but it has never been plowed and it has one of the best wildflower shows in northern California. After about 4 hours of carpooling with an approaching storm bringing rain along the way, we reached the Bear Valley road at the intersection of Highway 20 and Highway 16 toward Woodland. With the approaching storm clouds threatening a wash-out and no photos, we decided to make a bee-line to the valley, instead of the leisurely seven miles or so to the valley. We followed the road with Bear Creek on our left, through riparian stream vegetation and invasive Tamarisk. On our right the sloping grasslands became oak woodlands as we approached the main valley.
When we got to the valley we could see where the best Fritillaria show in the country had just past. Late March is the best time to visit to see thousands of gorgeous pink Adobe lilies Fritillaria pluriflora which cover the south end of the valley. The flowers had turned to green fruiting capsules. The main bridge crossing Bear Creek had washed out in the January floods but someone had bulldozed a temporary detour around the collapsed bridge so we were able to continue on to the spectacular heart of Bear Valley.
Various color arrangements shimmered in the valley: in one spot the Woodland contrasted with the Purple Owls Clover; in another area the two-toned Tidy Tips mingled with the striking blue of royal lupine and creamy pink of Whorled Lupine. Large swatches of Goldfields carpeted some pastures, while other places featured a mixed bouquet of Cream Cups, California Poppies, Tidy Tips, and Purple Owls Clover. One of my favorites was the lovely pink Calochortus uniflorus west of the main bridge. We stayed along the main road and right-of-way since this is all working ranchland and private property. With the lack of rain in February and March, this wasnt a particularly great year, but it still had a lot of variety and swatches of color.
Our group headed back up the valley toward Highway 20. There were grand shows of wildflowers under the Blue Oaks that rimmed the valley. Splashes of pink dotted the verdant [poison] oak woodlands with Chinese Houses, Foothill Penstemon, Blue Dicks, Ithuriels Spear, and beautiful pink Allium fimbriatum. We ended the first day at Wilber Hot Springs for the moonlit tubs, a wonderful potluck dinner and we shared the group sleeping room. All in all, it was too quiet a place for a bunch of excited flora fanciers and some of the other guests who had come to the springs for peace and quiet, resented the energy of our lively group.
On the second day of our trip we headed for the serpentine Walker Ridge just west of Bear Valley, that will be described in part two of this story.