Silver Lupine | Credit: Chuck Graham

I was following my nose. The combination of two wild fragrances was intoxicating. That incredible scent lured me into Scorpion Canyon, where tributaries of multiple side canyons flowed into the craggy gorge on Santa Cruz Island.

The sweet aroma of island ceanothus and silver lupine was thick in the air, wafting in and around the rocky, honeycombed canyon. Pacific green tree frogs croaked mightily throughout the seasonal arroyo. A shy island fox peeked around the corner of a blooming lemonade berry bush as I watched from behind spindly stocks of swaying blue dicks.

Credit: Courtesy

After the heavy winter rains of 2022-23 consistently soaked the windswept marine terraces and serpentine-like canyons of the islands, the Northern Chain has sprung to life. Purples, oranges, yellows, whites, and pinks have brightened the unique island biomes.

Scorpion Anchorage on the southeast fringe of Santa Cruz is the main hub of the Channel Islands National Park, and even before visitors reach the largest isle off the coast via Island Packers, spring color can be seen from one mile away. The towering cliffs on either side of the mouth of Scorpion Canyon are bursting with giant coreopsis and golden yarrow blooms. Dormant for most of the year, they come to life in late February, and this year, due to significant rain throughout March, they are continuing to bloom well into spring.

Once at the mouth of Scorpion Canyon, California brittlebush and island morning glory are prevalent just beyond the pier. However, the greatest variety of wildflowers is up the canyon past the lower and upper campgrounds.

Credit: Courtesy

Besides the island ceanothus, three species of lupine abound on either side of the lower portion of the Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail and up the canyon proper. Silver lupine is blooming in big, full clusters that are very visible from the trail and up the canyon. Stinging lupine is a pinkish/purple flower with little hairs that sting to the touch. Arroyo lupine is a deeper purple. Both of those species are a little harder to locate, but they are there.

Staying in the canyon provides excellent looks at heathy stocks of blue dicks waving gently in the northwest winds funneling down the rugged canyon. Largeflower phacelia and desert wishbone-bush are harder to locate, but they are alongside the gurgling, seasonal arroyo.

It’s still early for some island flora. Santa Cruz Island liveforevers are just coming up out of the rocks. Island poppies, golden yarrow, and Santa Cruz Island silver lotus are just beginning to show, and their peak bloom is still weeks away.

Island buckwheat and Humboldt lilies haven’t shown yet, but by mid-May they should be found in and around the canyon. Colorful bushels of island paintbrush are also on the way.

Credit: Courtesy

Another good place to look for wildflowers on Santa Cruz Island is the North Bluff Trail. That route leads to dramatic overlooks such as Cavern Point and Potato Harbor. It’s easier hiking than in Scorpion Canyon. The Pelican Trail at Prisoners Harbor, just another 20-minute ride west, is also excellent.

Expect many flowers to last longer into the spring and even summer. Part of this is due to winter rains lasting toward the end of March. The other major factor, though, is fog drip. Rain is not the largest water input across the Northern Channel Islands; it’s substantial fog that is consistent beginning in May and persisting into the first part of summer, which should extend the wildflower bloom. However, fog can persist any time throughout the year. I’ve seen San Miguel Island buckwheat blooming in October. So, some species of island flora can bloom more than once per year.

With that combination of moisture, expect vibrant blooms for the months ahead. And the wildflowers on the islands are only a ferry away.

Correction: The Santa Cruz Island liveforever, a species of Dudleya, was not removed from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species List, as an earlier version of this story stated. It is proposed to be delisted, with the final ruling expected later this year.


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