Spring on Daffodil Hill
For a few weeks each spring, a quiet country lane in Amador County explodes with flowers, tourists and traffic so heavy the California Highway Patrol has to manage it.
The spot is Daffodil Hill, a 7-acre hillside garden aglow with hundreds of thousands of blooms planted by six generations of one local family. Over time it’s become one of the more unlikely tourist destinations in the state.
In March and April, thousands of people make the winding trek into the Sierra Nevada foothills. They come by the carload and busload, from as far away as Reno and San Francisco. A busy spring weekend can fill the surrounding meadows with acres of vehicles.
“We depend on Daffodil Hill. It brings in a lot of tourists,” Kristen Betton, the manager of one of Amador County’s popular wine tasting rooms, said Wednesday. She walked along a flower-lined path with her twin 5-year-old daughters, Audrey and Jillian, both dressed in pink.
Like other visitors, Betton said she grew up coming to Daffodil Hill and now brings her own children, who enjoy the property’s roaming peacocks, including one that’s all white, as much as the flowers.
“What’s special are the memories created, the traditions ... and the peacocks,” she said.
The memories extend to the late 1800s for the family that has long owned Daffodil Hill.
That was when Arthur and Lizzie McLaughlin bought the hillside and surrounding ranchland, near the village of Volcano, from an aging Dutchman named Pete Denzer. Denzer had planted daffodils to remind him of his native Holland, according to a written family history.
Lizzie McLaughlin prized the flowers and divided and replanted their bulbs each spring. Her children planted more flowers every year in her memory, and by the 1940s visitors began stopping by in March and April to admire the spectacle.
Arthur and Lizzie McLaughlin’s great-grandchildren are the current owners. They plant thousands of bulbs annually.
This year, brothers George Ryan, Martin Ryan and Michael Ryan – along with their wives, children, grandchildren and friends – planted about 17,000 bulbs, said George Ryan, an attorney in nearby Jackson.
Martin Ryan is the Amador County sheriff, and his brother Michael Ryan is the county treasurer-tax collector.
The family only plants new bulbs to save themselves double the workload, George Ryan said.
“We don’t dig up and divide,” Ryan said. “In our simple math, that’s two holes (instead of one). Seventeen thousand holes is a lot of holes.”
New and existing bulbs push up more than 400,000 flowers depending on weather, family members said.
Admission is free, as it has always been, though visitors can put donations into yellow kettles scattered around the property. A stand sells postcards, key rings and other keepsakes that help fund the yearly bulb purchase and pay for taxes and upkeep.
“My folks and grandparents came from the old days, when if you had something, you shared it,” Ryan said. “My mother said we’re never going to charge admission. We promised our folks, and they promised their folks, and they promised their folks.”
Wednesday was opening day 2016 at Daffodil Hill, and more than 1,000 people walked the ranch’s red dirt paths.
“I haven’t sat down since we opened at 10 a.m.,” said Joe Marrama, 76, who manned the souvenir booth. He said he’d been working at Daffodil Hill for about 10 years, since he retired to Amador County from the Bay Area.
Visitors walked slowly, gazing at the flowers, peacocks and two donkeys. The sun shone warmly at 3,000 feet. The old wooden barn, cabins and log fences added to a feeling of going back in time.
Most visitors maintained a kind of reverent silence. Many snapped photos and introduced their children and grandchildren to Daffodil Hill.
John O’Keefe, 71, of Lockeford, said he started visiting Daffodil Hill when he was 12. He and his wife Pam went on one of their first dates there, a picnic. Now they bring their grandchildren, Kelley, 5, and Kashel, 3.
“He’s enjoying the rocks,” John O’Keefe said as the 3-year-old happily picked up pebbles and more or less ignored the flowers.
Though the daffodil display was impressive last week, only a fraction of the hill’s flowers had bloomed, longtime visitors said.
“This is stunning, but come back in a week or two and you’ll be amazed,” Pam O’Keefe said.
Keith La Belle, a retired Amador County undersheriff who oversees parking, said the number of visitors on a sunny weekend can also be amazing. More than 5,000 people show up on the busiest days, he said.
“CHP runs the traffic,” La Belle said, pointing to the sleepy rural crossroads where cars drive into the grassy parking lots.