Death Valley in Bloom
While Death Valley shamelessly exposes its geology, it is coy in revealing its flora, both thanks to its average of 2 inches (5 cm) of rainfall per year. Death Valley is a land of extremes. In December the air temperature can be 85 degrees F. (29 degrees C.) at Badwater which is about 280 feet (85 meters) below sea level. And yet 20 miles (32 km) away, Telescope Peak, at 11,049 feet (3368 meters) above sea level – the park’s highest point can be buffeted by a snowy gale. In fact, Death Valley is the lowest, hottest, and driest place in North America.
In spite of this dryness, this park is home to 1,000 species of plants, including 23 species that grow nowhere else. A couple of factors work in Death Valley’s favor concerning plant diversity. First is its wide range of elevations, which makes it appealing to a wide range of plant types. That Badwater to Telescope Peak elevational change is twice the elevation change of the Grand Canyon. The other factor is that the park is so huge. At 3.3 million acres (about 1.3 million hectares), it is 1-½ times the size of the state of Delaware.
Death Valley’s typically dry atmosphere is a product of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the west. When storms roll in from the Pacific across California, they usually travel from west to east. These mountains west of Death Valley wring most of the moisture out of the clouds. After the storms pass the Mount Whitney area, the western slopes of the Panamint Mountains squeeze out still more moisture. On the eastern side of the Panamint Mountains, where Death Valley is located, the now-dry air heats up as it descends into Death Valley. This heating causes any moisture reaching the ground to evaporate quickly and adds to the Valley’s already high temperatures. Some estimates have Death Valley’s annual evaporation rate around 150 inches (381 cm), which means a lake of about 12 feet (3.7 meters) depth would dry up in one year.
Like the rest of California, Death Valley has a distinct winter rainy season and a summer dry season. This is known as a Mediterranean climate (similar to southern Italy, Greece and Spain, and the northern coast of Africa). And how rainy California’s winters are can be profoundly affected by a phenomenon out in the Pacific Ocean called El Niño. This is when a huge portion of the ocean is warmer than average leading to higher than normal evaporation and in turn to higher than normal precipitation in California. While that can lead to flooding and mudslides, it can also lead to spectacular wildflower displays in Death Valley that the rangers call a “superbloom.”
Historically, the winter of 1998 brought 5 inches (12.5 cm) of rain to Death Valley, which usually receives about 2 inches (5 cm) of rain in a year. Wildflowers that don’t bloom every year appeared and the more typical ones were particularly profuse. It became known as the “bloom of the century” and made national television news. Death Valley had far more visitors that year than normal. In fact, the 1999 calendar year has the highest record for Death Valley’s visitation at over 1.2 million.
How good a flowering season will be depends not only on how much moisture the rainy season brings but on how nature doles out that moisture. The 1998 season was a great one, not just because there was more rain, but also that the rain was spaced out over time. The other determining factors for a good flowering season are sufficiently warm temperatures, but not too hot, and a lack of drying winds.
When you go, make your first stop at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center off State Route 190, where you can ask the rangers how well and where the wildflowers are blooming. Since the visitors center is near the middle of this huge park, you’ll probably have a good idea already by the time you arrive. The visitors center offers several field guides to help you identify the desert wildflowers. A garden filled with native vegetation in front can help you see which flowers are blooming and what they look like before you strike out on your own quest.
You also can learn how plants have adapted to this harsh environment. First, most species are annuals, or more specifically, short-lived ephemerals. They escape Death Valley’s dryness only by growing and flowering when enough moisture is available. They spend the rest of the year as seeds, until moisture returns again.
Second, the common creosote bush illustrates another desert adaptation. It grows fewer, smaller leaves that present less surface area from which to lose moisture, but then covers what leaves it has with a waxy substance to reduce further moisture loss.
A third adaptation to desiccation is shown by the cactus, whose leaves have developed into thorns to deflect the sun’s rays and the mouths of thirsty, marauding animals. Photosynthesis takes place in the pads of a cactus, not its “leaves.”
Furnace Creek Village would make a good base camp for your explorations. For motorhome travelers, hookups are available here as well as at Panamint Springs, a private hotel resort on the western edge of the park, and at Stovepipe Wells Village, a motel complex more centrally located north of Furnace Creek.
The flowering season in Death Valley begins at the lower elevations at the southern end of the park. It begins in mid-February and continues to mid-April. The lowest elevations are the salt flats of Badwater Basin, which was filled by the 650-foot (198 meter) deep Lake Manly during the last Ice Age, but a warming climate dried it up. The salt flats do not support plants, but the adjacent valley floor and alluvial fans do. Alluvial fans are the triangular-shaped deposits that wash out of the canyons and build over eons. They’re the desert version of a river delta.
The best areas to view this early bloom are near the visitor’s center along State Route 190 around the Furnace Creek Inn; at Jubilee Pass on State Route 178 in the southern end of the park; and at Daylight Pass, along State Route 374 connecting to Beatty, Nevada. Drive south from Furnace Creek along State Route 178, watching for color among the alluvial fans to your left and in the valley floor to your right. During an El Niño year, the fans both north and south of Furnace Creek become a distinct yellow from the blooms of the desert sunflower (scientific name Gerea canescens). Growing with the desert sunflowers on the alluvial fans is an interesting whitish flower commonly called gravel ghost (Atrichoseris platyphylla), although our field guides gave it the pedestrian name of tobacco weed. Its common name comes from the fact that its wiry stems can give these blooms a disembodied appearance as they float above the gravel.
Perhaps the most popular desert flower of all in Death Valley is the Desert Five-Spot. Its pinkish-purple petals form a globe around a fountain of stamens. Each petal has one burgundy spot on the inside. We found them along Artist’s Drive, just south of Golden Canyon, and in the southern end of the park at the Ashford Mill ruins and at Jubilee Pass.
Don’t miss out on the other attractions near Furnace Creek. At the Borax Museum, learn about the history of the mineral for which Death Valley is most famous. The museum concentrates on the underground mining of borax. It also contains exhibits of the famous 20-mule teams that hauled borax out of Death Valley. For a taste of that era, visit the Harmony Borax Works ruins just north of Furnace Creek Campground. When you’re ready to return to the main road, be sure to leave via Mustard Canyon, a one-way drive through small hills of yellow minerals.
From early April to early May, the blooming progresses northward and upward in elevation from 2,000 to 4,000 feet. The Mesquite Springs campground can be your base of operation at the north end of Death Valley.
A nice walk anytime, especially when flowers are blooming, is around Ubehebe Crater. The crater measures 490 feet deep (159 meters) and 2,400 feet (732 meters) in diameter. It was created by a tremendous magma-heated steam explosion that scattered debris for miles around. You can hike to the bottom of the crater on a trail that basically heads straight down. A trail to the west of the parking lot leads around the crater and to smaller craters nearby. We found a good variety of flowers, including desert gold poppy, and some especially good specimens of desert trumpet. This member of the buckwheat family has an inflated upper stem, hence its scientific name, Eriogonum inflatum.
From a purely floral perspective, the most impressive sight we saw during our visit was at Scotty’s Castle, at an elevation of 3,000 feet (914 meters). The unfinished pool in front of this mansion was carpeted with golden evening primrose.
Scotty’s Castle was named after Walter Scott, better known as Death Valley Scotty. He was a prospector and Wild West show rider who spread rumors of a gold mine in Death Valley. He managed to interest Albert M. Johnson, a Chicago millionaire, to invest in his claim. When Johnson came to see the mythical mine, the dry valley air improved his respiratory ailment, and he decided he liked the area, gold mine or not.
Scott and Johnson became friends. Beginning in the late 1920s at the suggestion of Johnson’s wife, who also visited the area, they constructed a retreat In Grapevine Canyon called Death Valley Ranch. They chose the location because of the abundant spring water available there. The mansion cost more than $2 million but was never completed. The Park Service provides regularly scheduled living history tours through the home. Scotty’s Castle was inundated by a flash flood in 2015 and will not be open to the public until 2019.
Late April to early June marks the last of Death Valley’s flowering periods. These blooms can be found in areas above 4,000 feet (1219 meters), in the Panamint Mountains, the highest spots in the park. By this time of year, the weather is more comfortable in the mountains anyway, for valley temperatures can reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius), and they average 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 Celsius) in summer.
Those in a high-ground-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle can extend their wildflower search to Death Valley’s many backcountry roads. Echo Canyon, from State Route 190 two miles southeast of Furnace Creek, and Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Road, which starts next to Stovepipe Wells, offer especially good early-season wildflower displays. Greenwater Valley Road is a fun backcountry road that is almost 30 miles (49 km) long; it connects the Dante’s View area to State Route 178 near Salsberry Pass.
Death Valley has five dunes within its boundaries. Take the road at the north end to Eureka Dunes for a chance to see the highest sand dunes in the state and second-highest in North America. The dunes are home to several unusual species of plants, too, including the Eureka Dunes evening primrose. The most famous and most visited of Death Valley’s dunes, since they’re right next to the highway and Stovepipe Wells, are the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, often called the Death Valley Dunes. These dunes were used in the opening sequence of the old television series, “Kung Fu”, starring David Carradine.
While it’s true that any above-average rainfall season can bring its share of problems, it sure brings its share of blessings in the form of a profusion of wild flowers. Seeing Death Valley’s normally sparse wildflowers blooming among heat-seared rocks and mineral deposits is special any year, but seeing it during a superbloom is extra special. Be sure to check the alluvial fans and canyons, and head into the mountains. You’ll be rewarded with a colorful desert in bloom: the yellow of desert sunflowers, desert gold and golden poppies; the white of gravel ghosts and prickly poppy; the red of hedgehog cactus and California fuchsia; and the purple of phacelia and desert five-spots.