Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park

'A fantastic bloom' at Death Valley: Hottest, driest spot in North America teems with flowers

April 19, 2010, 8:45 am

Don't let the name fool you. From Salsberry Pass to Scotty's Castle, this place is alive with wildflowers.

What experts are calling the third best  bloom of the past 20 years is peaking right now, painting large swaths of Death Valley in yellow and purple and pink.

The wildflowers emerged late and are lasting longer than they usually do in the hottest, driest spot in North America, thanks to consistent rain and unusually mild conditions so far this year.

More than 3 inches of rain has fallen since Jan. 1 at the park's official weather station in Furnace Creek, where the average annual rainfall is less than 2 inches.

Most years, the park 100 miles west of Las Vegas barely experiences any kind of bloom.

"This," said park ranger Terry Baldino, "is a fantastic bloom."

It's also something of a surprise.

As little as two months ago, park officials were predicting only a moderate crop of wildflowers. Then the rain kept coming and the weather stayed cool, at least by Death Valley standards.

Triple-digit highs are not unusual in April, but temperatures have barely topped 90 so far this month.

Charlie Callagan is the ranger and naturalist who helps write the regular wildflower reports that appear on the park's website.

He said the historic blooms of 2005 and 1998 "stand in a category of their own," but this year's display is not far behind.

Once-bare hills along Artists Drive now teem with flowers.

The road into the valley from Beatty is dotted with bright pink beavertail cactus blossoms.

Some of the largest concentrations of blossoms can be found in the southern part of the park, along California Highway 178 from Ashford Mill to Jubilee Pass, where the air smells like the inside of a flower shop.

The plants there are "not as high as 2005, but they're almost as thick," Callagan said.

Visitors also will find "significant fields of desert gold" all along the 50-mile stretch from Furnace Creek to Jubilee Pass, he said. "This is very widespread. All the alluvial fans are carpeted."

The desert gold is the most abundant flower in the park, but hundreds of different wildflowers can be found in Death Valley's vast and varied landscape, which extends from the depths of Badwater, 282 feet below sea level, to the 11,049-foot summit of snow-capped Telescope Peak.

Other common varieties include the pink and white sand verbena, the ground-hugging purple mat, the bright yellow golden evening-primrose, and a phacelia whose purple blossoms can produce a skin rash that rivals poison oak.

A big bloom like this almost certainly draws more people to the park, Baldino said, but it's hard to pinpoint how large the impact might be.

"Typically, spring break is pretty busy for us, and it was," he said. "So how much is applicable to the flowers as opposed to (people) just wanting to get somewhere warm for spring? I don't know."

Phil Dickinson isn't sure either, and he is the director of sales and marketing for the 290-room Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort.

He said they're booked almost solid into early May, but he doesn't know how much of that to attribute to the bloom.

"I guess maybe I'd have to be a botanist to do that," he said.

Callagan can't put numbers to it either, but it's obvious to him that "many of the visitors here now are here because of the flowers."

The serious bloom chasers are easy enough to spot. They're the ones "down on their hands and knees with their cameras," he said.

"We came down from Reno because we're sick of winter," said Kathy Forshey-Trabert, as she and her husband, Tom Trabert, checked out a patch of flowers alongside a road known as the Beatty Cutoff.

Actually, the couple has been making spring visits to Death Valley for about 10 years.

When there is a bloom going on, it's the perfect place to indulge their unusual hobby, which combines distance running and wildflower photography. Basically, they stop and take pictures of the blooms they see on their runs, then they try to identify them.

They spotted 20 to 25 varieties of flowers on Thursday alone.

"As you drive through, you think it's just yellow and purple, but it's not," Forshey-Trabert said.

"You start looking, and it's incredible how many tiny, tiny plants there are," Trabert added.

Peter Mason took a detour through Death Valley to see the flowers on his way back to Los Angeles from a convention in Las Vegas.

He decided to make the trip after he read glowing reviews of this year's crop on a website where people post their own reports on desert wildflowers.

"I usually come out when there's a big bloom, not every year," he said.

Mason also stopped in Death Valley to try out a new toy: a device that uses an ordinary camera to take dozens or even hundreds of pictures and then digitally stitches them together into large, high-resolution panoramic images.

He said this year's bloom is definitely not as large as the "spectacular" one in 2005, "but it's close."

Callagan said the bloom is probably at or slightly past its peak on the valley floor, but the display should continue to spread up the hills and mountains surrounding the park.

The hotter it gets, the sooner the flowers will fade.

If triple-digit temperatures hold off for a little while longer, Callagan said, "we're probably going to see worthwhile flowers for the next couple weeks."

And the longer you stand in one place, the more you're likely to see, said Mason as he packed up his camera gear.

"You just have to slow down and look," he said. "The desert is just alive."