Looking for an alternative to the $100 hamburger? Check out this seasonal attraction located just a few miles from McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, California.
CFI Soyla Tostado (whom you might recognize from Beyond Proficient: Catalina Island) and I recently flew down to Palomar from Zamperini Field in Torrance, California. I love this flight, partly because it was one of my first solo cross-countries during my private pilot training. In terms of navigation, it’s as easy as it gets—keep the ocean on the right on your way down, and on the left on your way back. The airspace, on the other hand, is a little more complex.
While this is a busy area to fly in year-round, weekday mornings are typically quieter, and we were rewarded for getting an early start on the day with relatively open skies. We cruised south along the coast at 3,500 feet, passing by Huntington Beach, Laguna, and Camp Pendleton.
A short 30 minutes later, air traffic control handed us off to Palomar Tower, who cleared us for the right downwind for Runway 24. As we crossed the shoreline, we could see the multicolored rows of flower fields under our right wing.
After landing, we taxied to transient parking. Both Tostado and I had brought outfits more photogenic than our flying clothes with us for the visit, but the only available option to change was a port-a-potty. So instead, we moved the front seats all the way forward and switched off changing in the back of the airplane while one of us kept guard. The high wings of the 172 and some creative maneuvering gave us more than enough privacy, and we walked to the outside world feeling considerably more fashionable.
The Flower Fields requires a pre-purchased, timed entry ticket. Knowing how easy it is to run into surprise delays in general aviation, I bought our tickets after we landed. We went on a weekday and had no problem getting tickets (they are limited to a certain number), though that might be more of a challenge as the season continues, especially on the weekends.
The journey to the Flower Fields could be walkable if you feel like it—it’s only a couple miles away—but we opted to take a 10-minute Uber ride instead. Once we arrived, we scanned our tickets, picked up a map, tried to pick up a stamp booklet (but were told they were for children only), and began to explore.
The huge fields of ranunculus (better known as buttercups) are the main attraction, but there’s more to see than just that. The venue has a county fair vibe but on a smaller, gardening-focused scale. We passed a lemonade stand, an ice cream stand, and a pizza food truck, making a note to return to the pizza for lunch. After taking photos at the Illusion Garden, we walked through the Mediterranean Garden, and past a sweet pea maze and butterfly garden on our way to the rainbow-colored field of ranunculus.
The fields, which have been cultivated seasonally since the 1930s, greeted us with full, beautiful blooms in 13 different colors. It felt like stepping into a fairy tale, or like traveling to the Netherlands (although these were not tulips). The gentle rolling hills created the illusion of flowers continuing beyond the north horizon. To the west, we could see the deep blue Pacific, and even more perfect, we were right under the departure path for Runway 24, and had a great view of all the departing traffic.
You can’t walk directly between the rows of flowers, though there are photo cutouts with fake grass and benches. Signs at these cutouts ask for guests to please be respectful to those waiting and limit their time to a curiously specific 6 and a half minutes. Tostado and I were glad we’d changed—some folks were in full prom-style outfits or in heels and long, flowing gowns. If anything, we felt slightly underdressed!
Once we’d had our fill of photos and flower gazing, we walked over to the Pizza Trolley for lunch. After a morning of flying and walking around in the sun, the fresh, homemade pizza totally hit the spot. The trolley will be there all season and is definitely worth checking out if you visit.
On our way out, we snapped a few more photos and bought matching silver flower rings, and I bought a bouquet of orange ranunculus that I hoped would survive the flight. The fellow at checkout told us to be careful because the water in the bag would spill in our car if we weren’t—I think I passed some sort of pilot ego test by resisting the urge to tell him that we had flown in, actually.
We caught an Uber back to the airport, changed back into comfy flying clothes, and departed to the north. The right-crosswind heading off Runway 24 is 285, and you can follow that all the way to final for Torrance’s Runway 29, which we did. I wasn’t kidding—easiest navigation ever.
All in all, the flight was under two hours, and made for a day very well spent. The flowers stayed safely tucked away in the back seat and survived the flight without a single petal lost. It felt very special to have flowers all the way from Carlsbad in my apartment for the next week. If you’re looking for something different, check it out yourself this spring, and let me know if you go!