I was in Monterey when I first heard about the impressive blooming going on in Death Valley. As you may have guessed from the name, you don’t really expect anything that needs a lot of water to thrive in all of that sand. For the last decade, or so, you would have been right. But this year, thanks to a storm in October, the wildflowers have returned. If you are hoping to catch sight of some of them before the desert heat drives them firmly into the higher elevations, I have some tips that might make your quest for blooms a success.
I should start by saying that the experience was not quite what I expected. I had this image of the vast fields of flowers that you see in places like Amsterdam in my mind. I’m not sure why. The two places could not be more different. I was expecting to see a dense blanketing of flowers as far as the eye can see.
But it was still beautiful. High heat and desert winds took out the blooms that had been enticing tourists in the previous weeks in the lower elevations. So, we paid attention to the reports, asked some questions, and adjusted accordingly.
What we saw and where we saw it
We saw our first smattering of color as we went north on Mud Canyon (not far from Stovepipe Wells Village) on March 12. The hearty flowers were swaying in the breeze right along the road. At first, it was just a dot or two of color. Slowly, the flowers started to appear in larger clumps. Desert Gold and Golden Evening Primrose dominated the scene, but as we came closer to Beatty Cutoff we began to see thriving blooms in purple (Notch-leaf Phacelia, I think) and white (perhaps DesertChicory).
At each major point, we got out of the car and tip-toed with great delicacy around the blooms taking care not to crush any under foot – after all, the goal is to enjoy them, not trample on them in an effort to get a picture. We figured that the patches were the main growth spots until we neared the southern point of Beatty Cutoff. Here we found the field of gold (and smatterings of white) that we had heard tales of. While a bit tricky to photograph because the blooms are mixed in with the desert landscape, it is a sight to behold.
It is here where we started to slow down. Despite the people, you don’t really feel like people are “staking out” the best spots for photos. What we largely saw were people delighted by the spectacle and being respectful both of the other people and the environment.
From Beatty Cutoff, we joined 190 on an eastern path to leave the park. While we assumed that most of the blooms had died off in this area, there were actually a fair number of significant fields of flowers still visible all along the eastern portion of 190.
This all happened on March 12th, and if you know anything about desert climates, you know things can change quickly. The National Park Service has done a fantastic job of adding wildflower reports to their website. They appear to update about once a week, or whenever there are significant changes.
More Tips for Making Your Wildflower Search a Success
Talk to the Rangers When You Pay
There is a fee to enter Death Valley National Park. It is currently $20 to drive through it (less if you bike), and they give you a ticket to display on your car (making it very obvious if don’t have one). They give you a map, and when we visited, they were giving detailed information about where the best flowers could be spotted. This will be the most up-to-date info you can get.
Wear Layers and Sunscreen
It’s Death Valley. The sun is extremely strong even when the weather is not warm. But let’s face it, the weather has already hit 90 degrees there at least a couple of days, so that consistent scorching heat is coming soon. Your best bet is to wear layers to guard against the differences in evening/morning temps and the mid-day heat, and to liberally apply that sunscreen. I’d also recommend a hat, particularly if you are hiking or walking into the fields.
Consider Parking and Walking
There are many pull-off points along the roadways, but you may want to consider parking in one place and then walking down to catch the various points of interest. Even if you just pick a spot along Beatty Cutoff, you will have numerous points to visit before you run out of flowers to see. If you do drive, be prepared to pull over often as the colorful wildflowers catch your eye.
Be Careful Where You Step
Not only is the ground uneven, sometimes rocky and filled with surprises, it is also filled with beautiful things like Desert Holly, which can be easily crushed under foot. It has more subdued colors, and can often be missed in the rush to get to the more colorful sights.
Be Prepared to See Many, Many People
My image of Death Valley has always been as a serene, nearly empty place. It’s the kind of spot where you might not see another car for very long stretches. This is not the case right now. There were lines at the pay stations, and we were never alone at the flowering spots. Having said that, the desert still has a way of washing a sense of quiet awe over people, and I’m happy to say that despite the numbers, the place retains this almost mystical appeal.
Many Roads are Still Closed
While the upside of the storms in October is that the wildflowers are blooming, the downside is that there are several roads that are still closed. Scotty’s Castle, Badwater Road and the 178 continuation/Wild Rose are all closed, at least to some extent. Take that into consideration when planning your routes!
And now for a special tip –
One of the most impressive patches of wildflowers we saw, was actually outside of the park itself. We spent the night in Nevada, and wound around Shoshone and Tecopa Hot Springs during our return to California. On the Old Spanish Trail Highway just before 127, we encountered a nearly carpeted area of wild, gold blooms in a field off the road. That was March 13th. How long they will last is anybody’s guess, but if you are on the southeastern side of Death Valley, it may be worth a side trip to take a look.