Death Valley, California - There are unusually dense displays of wildflowers in several areas of Death Valley National Park. Triggered by a series of storms in October, the current flower display is the best the park has experienced in a decade.
Death Valley is the hottest place on Earth and the driest place in North America, averaging about two inches of rain per year. These extreme conditions make it difficult for most plants to survive. Most of the time, the lower elevations in the park appear stark: a landscape of salt flats, sand dunes and rocky mountains vegetated by a few hardy shrubs and small trees.
Rain in cooler months triggers wildflower seeds to sprout, some of which may lay dormant for years until just the right conditions occur. Wildflowers bloom each spring in Death Valley, but the density of flowers, extent of the area covered by flowers, and variety of plants varies a lot based on rainfall and temperature.
A series of unusual storms in October dropped locally heavy rainfall in several areas of the park. The most rain fell in places without official rain gauges, but the National Weather Service estimated that over 3 inches of rain fell in just 5 hours in one area of the park. This autumn soaking was followed by enough winter rain to cause a large-scale wildflower bloom.
October's storms also caused flash floods which damaged park roads and the historic district at Scotty's Castle. Most roads have been repaired and re-opened, including most recently the very scenic Twenty Mule Team Road. Major roads that remain closed are: Scotty's Castle Road (8 miles in Grapevine Canyon), Badwater Road (from Ashford Mill to Shoshone over Jubilee Pass) and Lower Wildrose Road. Repairs to utilities and historic structures at Scotty's Castle could take a few years.
The current bloom in Death Valley exceeds anything park staff has seen since the 2005. Some people are calling it a "super bloom," which is not an official term. Park Ranger Alan Van Valkenburg has lived in Death Valley for 25 years and said, "I'm not really sure where the term "super bloom" originated, but when I first came to work here in the early 1990s I kept hearing the old timers talk about super blooms as a near mythical thing–the ultimate possibility of what a desert wildflower bloom could be. I saw several impressive displays of wildflowers over the years and always wondered how anything could beat them, until I saw my first super bloom in 1998. Then I understood. I never imagined that so much life could exist here in such staggering abundance and intense beauty."
The previous super blooms of 1998 and 2005 occurred in El Nino years. El Nino can affect Death Valley by shifting the track of winter and spring storms into the area, increasing rainfall during flower season.
Matching previous patterns, this year's wildflower bloom started in elevations below 1,000 feet in the southern end of the park. Typically, the peak of the bloom will move northward and upwards in elevation over the course of the spring. The bloom in lower elevations is likely to continue at least through mid-March, with flowers at higher elevations possible later in the spring.
One area that is currently particularly spectacular is about 10 miles south of Badwater on Badwater Road, where Desert Gold is growing so thickly it appears as if the alluvial fan were painted yellow. Nice displays of white and purple flowers are visible along the Beatty Cutoff Road. Park Ranger Alan Van Valkenburg described the bloom, "The hills and alluvial fans that normally have just rocks and gravel are transformed by huge swaths of yellow, white, pink, and purple. At first glance you are blown away by the sheer numbers of flowers, then on closer inspection the diversity of species will draw you in."
While broad areas of color can be viewed from the road, another way to appreciate the flowers is to walk among them. Some flowers are commonly called "belly flowers" because it is easiest to appreciate their beauty by getting down to ground level. With over twenty species of flower in bloom currently, everyone can find their favorites. Many park employees identify the beautiful Desert Five-Spot as their favorite, an elusive flower that consists of five pink-purple petals in a cup-shape, with a large red spot on each petal. Another engaging flower is the Gravel Ghost, which has leaves that blend in flat against the gravel and has a white flower that appears to float about a foot or two above the ground on a very thin stalk.
Superintendent Mike Reynolds said, "Right now is the best time to visit Death Valley in over a decade! The flower display is astounding and this is a rare time to experience one of the most incredible displays Death Valley has to offer. We don't know how long the bloom will last so come now!"
Park roads, campgrounds and hotels are all busy currently with the increase in visitation triggered by the wildflowers, so visitors should plan accordingly. All flowers should be enjoyed in place, as picking wildflowers or removing them from the park is illegal and reduces other visitors' enjoyment.
Park rangers are posting regular updates about wildflowers to www.nps.gov/deva and www.facebook.com/DeathValleyNP. A 3-minute wildflower video is online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJbcWFTBn08.