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Winter rains bring floral displays each spring throughout San Diego

Spring Flowers in Mission Trails Regional Park

A bed of blue dicks hidden in the grasslands.
A bed of blue dicks hidden in the grasslands.
  • Winter rains bring vibrant, colorful floral displays each spring throughout San Diego. For this hike, I walked the Grasslands Loop, which takes hikers close to the Old Mission Dam and up into Oak Canyon.
  • Distance from downtown San Diego: 14 miles
  • Hike length: 4.3 miles • Difficulty: Easy • Season: January – April


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It was a brisk afternoon and the sky was a deep blue with a few wispy clouds stretched far above, their long thin shadows falling on the lush, green grasslands as they gently swayed in the breeze. All was calm and beautiful in the heartland of Mission Trails Regional Park.

Though many knew me as an experienced adventurer who had traveled across many lands, I found myself in poor health. A nasty illness had taken hold of me, leaving me weak and weary. After weeks of bedrest, I was homesick for the great outdoors and, feeling a hint of strength returning to me, distant trails played like home movies in my mind’s eye and I felt compelled to do something strenuous to prove that I had recovered. And so, dressed in my normal hiking attire of short shorts and a thin shirt I walked outside where I was confronted by my first test, the wind. Normally I run hot like a furnace, but with nothing to stoke my spirit the past few weeks, the slightest breeze cut deep and my bones began to chatter.

“Odd,” I thought while continuing to my car. But then the wind traced a long, icy finger over my skin and my arms and legs broke out into gooseflesh. With a sigh, I headed back inside three more times. First to put on a pair of pants, then a thicker shirt, and finally a fleece jacket. Bundled for the Arctic, my doe-eyed hope to climb a tall peak had withered, and feeling delicate and easily winded I settled for a slow stroll through Mission Trails.

The Santee entrance to the park looked like a backcountry auto show. A series of sporty SUVs were parked in marching formation in the dirt parking lot and along the main road. The newer cars were shiny, bulky, and kitted with all the backcountry trappings you could need while the older cars were covered in sun-stained national park stickers and gray “I support KPBS” license plate frames. As I parked my car and began toward the grasslands, cool air bit into my lungs and I limped toward the trailhead with tears in my eyes.

Despite my condition, I was determined to continue my journey. I wanted to see some familiar peaks and I hoped that their beauty would lift my spirits. As the trees retreated and I stepped into the grasslands, I marveled not at the vastness of the landscape and the rolling hills nor the green grass that swayed in the breeze, but all the little things that I unknowingly missed while trail running with my earbuds in. Crickets chirped, frogs croaked, and birds clicked, cawed, and sang to one another in the distance. The longer I walked and listened to this symphony of voices the more I felt a sense of peace wash over me.

However, my illness was taking a toll. I wheezed with every step and my head throbbed with pain. I shambled along the trail, feeling weaker and weaker as the 60-year-olds passed me by, then the 70-year-olds, and eventually an 80-year-old clutching a stumpy wooden cane.

Blue Dicks, Bush Monkey Flower, California Golden Violet

As I rested along the side of the trail, I realized that I wasn’t alone. Looking up at me was a tiny white flower no bigger than my pinky nail. And it wasn’t alone. Near it were other tiny white flowers and near them were purple flowers, and orange ones, and countless other colors. Each species of flower had a distinct shape, some had petals like exploding stars, others fanned out like playing cards in a gambler’s hand, and others looked like saucers and cups. As I looked at each flower, they would bob in the wind, as if to wave in its own unique way. Later I would come to learn some of their names, so allow me to introduce a few. I met San Diego sunflowers that glowed like the afternoon sun and denseflower Indian paintbrush that blossomed like a bouquet of flowers, but the flower that made the biggest impression were the great beds of blue dicks that rose above the grasses on long, leafless stems and danced in the wind without a care in the world.

Blue-Eyed Grass, Denseflower Indian Paintbrush, Parish's Nightshade

Despite the ordinariness of the day, I was filled with wonder and awe at the beauty of these hidden flowers. I knew that I was witnessing something special that I had not the patience to see with good health. And so, I pressed on, stopping to kneel before every new flower I met to say hello and appreciate its delicate beauty. As I did, some kind people stopped to make conversation while a few friendly dogs rolled over onto their back wanting belly rubs. The trail, which I often jogged wordlessly and without thought, had unfolded before me to reveal its majesty.

Strigose Lotus, Sea Muilla, Wild Morning Glory

By now, my illness had taken its toll and I was moving slow. But I was determined to see more of the native flowers, to take in their beauty and appreciate all that the grasslands had to offer. And so, with my last ounce of strength, I pressed on, searching for golden poppies and all the other beautiful flowers that grew there.

The sun had gone down red behind the mountains ahead of me and their shadows crept over the grasslands, blotting out the last few slivers of light that clung to the flowers. I knew that my journey was at an end. And so, I said goodbye, promising either to return the next time that I grew sick or decades from now when the ripeness of youth had waned and old age robbed me of everything but my delight for scenery.

I had seen the beauty of the grasslands in a new light. It wasn’t that I had changed my perspective by slowing down and feeling a deep connection to the land and its flowers, but that I had gained perspective. Despite the frustrations of my illness, I had found a new sense of peace and wonder in this wild and beautiful place.

And so, with a heavy heart but a sense of gratitude, I started back. Twilight was about me as I crept below a canopy of willows and coast live oaks. The wind moaned in the branches while the leaves whispered. My eyes struggled to adjust to the quickening darkness and I groped about with my feet so as not to trip on a tree root or slide in the mud. After a time, the moon peaked out from behind the clouds and the dewy undergrowth sparkled in the silver moonlight to help guide me home. As I did, I knew that I would carry the memory of my journey with me.

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A bed of blue dicks hidden in the grasslands.
A bed of blue dicks hidden in the grasslands.
  • Winter rains bring vibrant, colorful floral displays each spring throughout San Diego. For this hike, I walked the Grasslands Loop, which takes hikers close to the Old Mission Dam and up into Oak Canyon.
  • Distance from downtown San Diego: 14 miles
  • Hike length: 4.3 miles • Difficulty: Easy • Season: January – April


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It was a brisk afternoon and the sky was a deep blue with a few wispy clouds stretched far above, their long thin shadows falling on the lush, green grasslands as they gently swayed in the breeze. All was calm and beautiful in the heartland of Mission Trails Regional Park.

Though many knew me as an experienced adventurer who had traveled across many lands, I found myself in poor health. A nasty illness had taken hold of me, leaving me weak and weary. After weeks of bedrest, I was homesick for the great outdoors and, feeling a hint of strength returning to me, distant trails played like home movies in my mind’s eye and I felt compelled to do something strenuous to prove that I had recovered. And so, dressed in my normal hiking attire of short shorts and a thin shirt I walked outside where I was confronted by my first test, the wind. Normally I run hot like a furnace, but with nothing to stoke my spirit the past few weeks, the slightest breeze cut deep and my bones began to chatter.

“Odd,” I thought while continuing to my car. But then the wind traced a long, icy finger over my skin and my arms and legs broke out into gooseflesh. With a sigh, I headed back inside three more times. First to put on a pair of pants, then a thicker shirt, and finally a fleece jacket. Bundled for the Arctic, my doe-eyed hope to climb a tall peak had withered, and feeling delicate and easily winded I settled for a slow stroll through Mission Trails.

The Santee entrance to the park looked like a backcountry auto show. A series of sporty SUVs were parked in marching formation in the dirt parking lot and along the main road. The newer cars were shiny, bulky, and kitted with all the backcountry trappings you could need while the older cars were covered in sun-stained national park stickers and gray “I support KPBS” license plate frames. As I parked my car and began toward the grasslands, cool air bit into my lungs and I limped toward the trailhead with tears in my eyes.

Despite my condition, I was determined to continue my journey. I wanted to see some familiar peaks and I hoped that their beauty would lift my spirits. As the trees retreated and I stepped into the grasslands, I marveled not at the vastness of the landscape and the rolling hills nor the green grass that swayed in the breeze, but all the little things that I unknowingly missed while trail running with my earbuds in. Crickets chirped, frogs croaked, and birds clicked, cawed, and sang to one another in the distance. The longer I walked and listened to this symphony of voices the more I felt a sense of peace wash over me.

However, my illness was taking a toll. I wheezed with every step and my head throbbed with pain. I shambled along the trail, feeling weaker and weaker as the 60-year-olds passed me by, then the 70-year-olds, and eventually an 80-year-old clutching a stumpy wooden cane.

Blue Dicks, Bush Monkey Flower, California Golden Violet

As I rested along the side of the trail, I realized that I wasn’t alone. Looking up at me was a tiny white flower no bigger than my pinky nail. And it wasn’t alone. Near it were other tiny white flowers and near them were purple flowers, and orange ones, and countless other colors. Each species of flower had a distinct shape, some had petals like exploding stars, others fanned out like playing cards in a gambler’s hand, and others looked like saucers and cups. As I looked at each flower, they would bob in the wind, as if to wave in its own unique way. Later I would come to learn some of their names, so allow me to introduce a few. I met San Diego sunflowers that glowed like the afternoon sun and denseflower Indian paintbrush that blossomed like a bouquet of flowers, but the flower that made the biggest impression were the great beds of blue dicks that rose above the grasses on long, leafless stems and danced in the wind without a care in the world.

Blue-Eyed Grass, Denseflower Indian Paintbrush, Parish's Nightshade

Despite the ordinariness of the day, I was filled with wonder and awe at the beauty of these hidden flowers. I knew that I was witnessing something special that I had not the patience to see with good health. And so, I pressed on, stopping to kneel before every new flower I met to say hello and appreciate its delicate beauty. As I did, some kind people stopped to make conversation while a few friendly dogs rolled over onto their back wanting belly rubs. The trail, which I often jogged wordlessly and without thought, had unfolded before me to reveal its majesty.

Strigose Lotus, Sea Muilla, Wild Morning Glory

By now, my illness had taken its toll and I was moving slow. But I was determined to see more of the native flowers, to take in their beauty and appreciate all that the grasslands had to offer. And so, with my last ounce of strength, I pressed on, searching for golden poppies and all the other beautiful flowers that grew there.

The sun had gone down red behind the mountains ahead of me and their shadows crept over the grasslands, blotting out the last few slivers of light that clung to the flowers. I knew that my journey was at an end. And so, I said goodbye, promising either to return the next time that I grew sick or decades from now when the ripeness of youth had waned and old age robbed me of everything but my delight for scenery.

I had seen the beauty of the grasslands in a new light. It wasn’t that I had changed my perspective by slowing down and feeling a deep connection to the land and its flowers, but that I had gained perspective. Despite the frustrations of my illness, I had found a new sense of peace and wonder in this wild and beautiful place.

And so, with a heavy heart but a sense of gratitude, I started back. Twilight was about me as I crept below a canopy of willows and coast live oaks. The wind moaned in the branches while the leaves whispered. My eyes struggled to adjust to the quickening darkness and I groped about with my feet so as not to trip on a tree root or slide in the mud. After a time, the moon peaked out from behind the clouds and the dewy undergrowth sparkled in the silver moonlight to help guide me home. As I did, I knew that I would carry the memory of my journey with me.

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