No doubt, you have already read about the “super bloom” that is underway in Death Valley. From the Los Angeles Times, to Scientific American, to the CBS Evening News, media has been talking about the historic wildflower bloom of this year, the likes of which have not happened since 2005. We were fortunate enough to have planned this stop on our pilgrimage to here way back before the “bloom” began and it was possible to get a campsite.
To cut to the chase – it is spectacular. We were not familiar with most of the wildflowers that we encountered on our visit, so the Visitor’s Center at Furnace Creek was our life-saver. I am going to share as many of the pictures as I can throughout this blog.
To put it in perspective, Death Valley holds many records. It set the record for the hottest temperature ever recorded in the United States (134 back in 1913), the lowest point in North America (282 feet BELOW sea level in Badwater Basin), and driest place in North America, averaging less than two inches of rain per year. In October, the weather station at Furnace Creek received 1.3 inches of rain, 13 times the average monthly rainfall.
It’s hard to wrap your head around that, so think about it. Back in Keene, the average monthly rainfall in October is 4.3 inches and the equivalent would be over 55 inches – wow!
The impact of all this rain was severe in the Valley. There were extensive flash floods, road closures, debris, stranded visitors, and damage to structures, some of which, like Scotty’s Castle, are still closed. The silver lining in the rainfall was the record bloom.
On our various hikes we passed beautiful displays at a variety of elevations. The campground at Furnace Creek sits at 180 feet BELOW sea level and here, notch-leaf phacelia and tiny white asters were in bloom. Along the Beatty Cutoff road, higher in elevation, golden evening primrose (seen in the header above) and brown-eyed evening primrose bloomed. At the 5,000 feet elevation at Dante’s View, we found desert paintbrush ready to burst into brilliant color. And all along the main drive through the Valley, fields of desert gold, gravel ghost, sprinkled with pebble pincushion, and beavertail cactus. I became completely obsessed about finding the glorious little desert five-spot wildflowers along trails. Sometimes we would discovered clusters of bouquets along the road and marveled at the resilience of the tiny blooms.
Many desert wildflowers have adapted to the desert environment by developing a protective coating on their seeds that prevent them from germinating unless there is a really good chance of survival – which means lots of water. Many of these seeds remain dormant for many years, even decades, and patiently wait for the conditions to be just right. The rains of October provided the right conditions and viola, a gorgeous spring resulted. There was much more to see at Death Valley beside the spectacular bloom and Peter, the amateur geologist, was infatuated with the formation of the Valley and it’s basin and range.
We attended a talk by geologist, Dr. Tanya Atwater (known for her work on the San Andreas fault) who talked about the incredible activity that went on in the earth’s history to create this place. From faults, to uplifts, to volcanos, to stretching the earth like taffy, it was amazing to hear and then see what she talked about as we hiked around the park. Our hikes took us to Salt Creek where we saw tiny pupfish swimming in the shallow and saline creek waters that will inevitably evaporate later in the summer heat, condemning multitudes to their ultimate demise. We visited abandoned mines where Chinese workers scraped crystals of salt (called cottonballs) that contained boron and other minerals from the salt beds, producing what became known as “white gold” (borax) from the Valley floor.
Death Valley is a place of great mystery and power. We learned that about a million people visit the park each year, about 25% of the total visitors to Yellowstone, but roughly three times the number who make their way to Big Bend National Park. Death Valley is the largest area of designated national park wilderness in the lower 48 and it’s not possible to see much of it in the four days we were there. But we came away in awe, fully satisfied that we had experienced something extraordinary and wondrous.
Peter and Liz continue their pilgrimage to here, leaving Death Valley with great stories and new t-shirts commemorating 100 years of the National Parks, as they travel the country in their Airstream.