While Death Valley blatantly exposes its geology, it is shy in revealing its flora, both thanks to its average of 2 inches (5 cm) of rain per year. Death Valley is a land of extremes. In December, the air temperature can be 85 degrees F (29 degrees C) in Badwater, which is about 280 feet (85 meters) below sea level. And yet, 20 miles (32 km) away, Telescope Peak, 11,049 feet (3368 meters) above sea level: the highest point in the park can be hit by a snowstorm. In fact, Death Valley is the lowest, hottest and other places in North America.
Despite 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 favor of Death Valley with respect to plant diversity. First is its wide range of elevations, which makes it attractive for a wide range of plant types.
That change in elevation from Badwater to Telescope Peak is twice the change in elevation of the Grand Canyon. The other factor is that the park is so big. With 3.3 million acres (approximately 1.3 million hectares), it is 1-½ times the size of the state of Delaware.
The typically dry environment of Death Valley is a product of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the west. When storms arrive from the Pacific through California, they generally travel from west to east. These mountains west of Death Valley squeeze most of the moisture from the clouds. After the storms pass through the Mount Whitney area, the western slopes of the Panamint Mountains squeeze even more moisture. On the east side of the Panamint Mountains, where Death Valley is located, the now dry air warms as it descends into Death Valley. This heating causes any moisture that reaches the ground to evaporate quickly and adds to the high temperatures of the Valley. Some estimates have an annual Death Valley evaporation rate of around 150 inches (381 cm), which means that a lake approximately 12 feet (3.7 meters) deep would dry in a year.
Like the rest of California, Death Valley has a distinct winter rainy season and a dry summer season. This is known as the Mediterranean climate (similar to southern Italy, Greece and Spain, and the North African coast). And how rainy the winters of California can be deeply affected by a phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean called El Niño. This is when a large portion of the ocean is warmer than average, which leads to a higher than normal evaporation and, in turn, to a higher than normal rainfall in California. While that can cause flooding and landslides, it can also lead to spectacular displays of wildflowers in the Death Valley that park rangers call “superbloom.”
Historically, the winter of 1998 brought 5 inches (12.5 cm) of rain to Death Valley, which generally receives about 2 inches (5 cm) of rain in a year. Wild flowers that do not bloom every year appeared and the most typical were particularly profuse. It became known as the “flourishing of the century” and became national television news. Death Valley had many more visitors that year than usual. In fact, the 1999 calendar year has the highest record of Death Valley visits with more than 1.2 million.
How good a flowering season will be depends not only on the amount of moisture that the rainy season brings, but also on how nature distributes that moisture. The 1998 season was excellent, not only because it rained more, but also because the rain spread over time. The other determining factors for a good flowering season are sufficiently hot temperatures, but not too hot, and the lack of dry winds.
When you go, make your first stop at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, along State Route 190, where you can ask the rangers how well and where the wild flowers bloom. Since the visitor center is close to half of this huge park, you probably already have a good idea for when you arrive. The visitor center offers several field guides to help you identify desert wildflowers. A garden full of native vegetation in the front can help you see what flowers are blooming and how they look before embarking on your own search.
You can also learn how plants have adapted to this hostile environment. First, most species are annual, or more specifically, ephemeral ephemeral. They escape the dryness of Death Valley only when they grow and bloom when there is enough moisture available. They spend the rest of the year as seeds, until the humidity returns.
Second, the common creosote bush illustrates another desert adaptation. Less smaller leaves grow that have less surface area to lose moisture, but then cover the leaves you have with a waxy substance to further reduce moisture loss.
The cactus shows a third adaptation to desiccation, whose leaves have become thorns to deflect the sun’s rays and the mouths of thirsty and marauding animals. Photosynthesis takes place in the pads of a cactus, not in its “leaves.”
Furnace Creek Village would be a good base camp for your explorations. For motorhome travelers, connections are available here, as well as at Panamint Springs, a private hotel complex on the western edge of the park, and at Stovepipe Wells Village, a more centrally located motel complex north of Furnace Creek.
The flowering season in Death Valley begins at the lowest elevations at the southern end of the park. It begins in mid-February and continues until mid-April. The lowest elevations are the salt flats of the Badwater Basin, which was filled by Lake Manly 650 feet (198 meters) deep during the last Ice Age, but a warmer climate dried it. Salinas do not admit plants, but the adjacent valley floor and alluvial fans do. Alluvial fans are triangular deposits that wash from canyons and accumulate for eons. They are the desert version of a river delta.
The best areas to see this early flowering are near the visitor center along State Route 190 around the Furnace Creek Inn; in Jubilee Pass on State Route 178 at the southern end of the park; and on Daylight Pass, along State Route 374 that connects with Beatty, Nevada. Drive south from Furnace Creek on State Route 178, observing the color between the alluvial fans on your left and in the valley on your right. For a year of El Niño, fans both north and south of Furnace Creek turn a distinctive yellow of desert sunflower flowers (scientific name Gerea canescens ) Growing with desert sunflowers in alluvial fans is an interesting whitish flower commonly called gravel ghost ( Atrichoseris platyphylla ), although our field guides gave it the pedestrian name of tobacco grass. Its common name comes from the fact that its hirsute stems can give these flowers a disembodied appearance while floating on gravel.
Perhaps the most popular desert flower of all in Death Valley is the Desert Five-Spot. Its pinkish-purple petals form a balloon around a source of stamens. Each petal has a burgundy stain inside. We found them throughout Artist & # 39; s Drive, just south of Golden Canyon, and at the southern end of the park at the ruins of Ashford Mill and Jubilee Pass.
Don’t miss 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 focuses on borax underground mining. It also contains exhibits of the famous teams of 20 mules that took borax from Death Valley. To get to know that time, visit the ruins of Harmony Borax Works, just north of the Furnace Creek camp. When you are ready to return to the main road, be sure to exit through Mustard Canyon, a one-way trip on small hills of yellow minerals.
From the beginning of April to the beginning of May, flowering progresses north and upward from 2,000 to 4,000 feet. The Mesquite Springs camp can be your base of operations at the northern end of Death Valley.
A pleasant walk at any time, especially when flowers bloom, is around the Ubehebe crater. The crater measures 490 feet deep (159 meters) and 2,400 feet (732 meters) in diameter. It was created by a tremendous explosion of steam heated by magma that dispersed debris for miles around. You can walk to the bottom of the crater along a path that basically goes down. A trail west of the parking lot leads around the crater and nearby smaller craters. We found a good variety of flowers, including the golden desert 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 Castle, at a height of 3,000 feet (914 meters). The unfinished pool in front of this mansion was carpeted with golden evening primrose.
Scotty’s castle is named after Walter Scott, better known as Death Valley Scotty. He was a seeker and show pilot of the Wild West 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 air of the valley improved his respiratory ailment, and decided that 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 built a shelter in Grapevine Canyon called Death Valley Ranch. They chose the location due to the abundant spring water available there. The mansion cost more than $ 2 million but was never completed. The Park Service offers life history tours scheduled regularly throughout the home. Scotty Castle was flooded by a flash flood in 2015 and will not be open to the public until 2019.
The end of April at the beginning of June marks the last flowering period of Death Valley. These flowers can be found in areas of more than 4,000 feet (1219 meters), in the Panamint Mountains, the highest places in the park. At this time of the year, the weather is more comfortable in the mountains anyway, since valley temperatures can reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius), and average 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 Celsius) in summer.
Those in a four-wheel drive vehicle with ground clearance can extend their search for wildflowers to the many Death Valley crossing 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 wildflower displays early in the season. Greenwater Valley Road is a fun crossing road that is almost 30 miles (49 km) long; It connects the Dante vision area with State Route 178 near the Salsberry Pass.
Death Valley has five dunes within its limits. Take the road at the north end to Eureka Dunes to have the opportunity to see the highest sand dunes in the state and the second highest in North America. The dunes also house several unusual species of plants, including evening primrose Eureka Dunes. The most famous and visited dunes of Death Valley, since they are right next to the road and Stovepipe Wells, are the sand dunes of Mesquite Flats, often called the dunes of Death Valley. These dunes were used in the opening sequence of the old television series “Kung Fu,” starring David Carradine.
While it is true that any above-average rainy season can bring its share of problems, it surely brings its share of blessings in the form of a profusion of wild flowers. Seeing the normally scarce wild flowers of Death Valley that bloom between rocks and mineral deposits is special every year, but seeing it during a superbloom is very special. Be sure to check the alluvial fans and canyons, and head to the mountains. You will be rewarded with a colorful desert in bloom: the yellow of the sunflowers of the desert, the gold of the desert and the golden poppies; the white of the gravel ghosts and the spiny poppy; the red of the California hedgehog and fuchsia cactus; and the purple of phacelia and desert of five points.