When it comes to Southern California road trips with your preschooler, there are two things that are predictably unpredictable: 4-year-olds and Los Angeles traffic.
Promising a tractor ride, though, can make a big difference—at least with the 4-year-old.
My son, Will, and I drove down to Carlsbad, near San Diego, last week to check out the gorgeous blooms at the famous Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch, open to the public this year through May 14. We'd never visited the Flower Fields, which have been colorfully adorning the Carlsbad hillside for decades, and it turns out there's a lot more to see in addition to the pink, orange and yellow hues of Tecolote Ranunculus.
Cue the tractors and the sluice mining.
Offering more than 50 acres of flowers to ogle, including roses, orchids and sweet pea blossoms, as well as a new greenhouse for poinsettia, the Flower Fields has something for even the tiniest horticulturists. My son enjoyed walking right up to the vast flower beds and running up and down the wide dirt lanes that separate large swaths of blooms.
Not only that, but he especially loved the tractor-pulled wagon ride that took visitors on a tour of the colorful landscape, showing us buds yet to bloom and the hillside with flowers planted to look like the American flag. While on the tour, we passed thousands of vibrant flowers, caught a glimpse of the tall sweet-pea maze, as well as the picnic areas and Santa's Playground (an outdoor play space featuring slides, a jungle gym and leaning houses that look as if they came straight out of a Dr. Seuss book).
It's obvious just how much care is put into this gorgeous space.
"It takes nine months to get this place flowering," says Fred Clarke, general manager of the Flower Fields, "so it's a labor of love."
But it's when the doors officially open in spring that's the most exciting time for Clarke, who has managed the fields for 11 years.
"You don't fully get it until you see guests come in, and you just see their faces and their expressions and the way they react to 55 acres of color."
Lucky for the Flower Fields (and the formerly dry Southern California landscape), there was an enviable amount of rainfall in December and January compared with previous years.
"For us, it wasn't really a torrential downpour," Clarke says. "It was those long, drizzly, gray days that worked really good for us. And so our crop has really benefited from that. It might be the best blooming we've ever seen."
A father of two teenagers, Clarke recommends the sweet pea maze for bigger kids and the sluice mine for little ones who can pan for gems.
"Don't be stingy," he says. "Let them go twice."
My son was definitely on board for that, gleefully pouring a pail of sand into a wooden sieve in search of gems. He was so excited to see the green jade and purple amethyst. (Just be sure you tell your kids that it's not candy. Will learned the hard way, when he licked an apparently delicious-looking rose quartz.)
After packing up his gems and playing for a while in Santa's Playground, it was time to head back to L.A.—but not before picking up an extra-large ice cream cone. With sprinkles.