Monday, February 15, 2016

Spring Wildflower Conditions in Death Valley, February 2016

Desert gold and Brown-eyed evening primrose near Lower Warm Springs Road February 10

Lately there has been widespread talk about a potential "superbloom" in Death Valley in 2016, due to the current strong El Nino weather pattern affecting the West Coast.  I've been hoping for a particularly strong season, so I've scouted the park from top to bottom, November to February, to monitor what's growing where.  I approached from the south at Baker and drove through the park from south to north from February 7 - 11, entering on the high clearance Harry Wade Road near Little Dumont Dunes, crossing the Amargosa River, passing Badwater, Furnace Creek, the closed road to Scotty's Castle and exiting to the north through Joshua Flats on Big Pine Road. 
Death Valley's Ashford Mill, much better than 2015
To be clear, it is an above average bloom in that area, with dense areas of wildflowers in patches, with white brown-eyed primrose growing alongside roads and in some washes, and yellow golden evening primrose taking over in some rockier, slightly higher elevations. Purple sand verbena appears in low quantities in some sandy areas. In other areas desert gold is still the most common species, but with less dense blooming.
Many other areas of the park got a lot of rain at least once, but as we drove by Scotty's Castle for example, which suffered a flood of epic proportions, there were almost no signs of green growth. There were few signs up by Eureka Dunes either, although the area clearly received healthy rain. So areas like these either received rain late and are behind Ashford Mill in timing, on track for a bloom no sooner than late March to April or May, or they didn't get enough water after the original soaking to keep germinated plants growing in ample quantities.

Sparse but visible and welcome, near Beatty Cutoff
Thick patches, not continuous, but extending for miles

As recently reported, as of mid-February there is a very good bloom of yellow "desert gold" wildflowers near Ashford Mill, about an hour's drive south of Furnace Creek. It is better than last year's bloom there, which was much-hyped at the time, but frankly in my opinion, didn't match expectations once you arrived there. So take reports with a grain of salt. Some reports may be designed to drive park visitation, room stays and meals sold, photography workshop attendance, or in some cases wildly enthusiastic may come simply out of the media's tendency to hype anything and everything.

In the area north of Furnace Creek alongside the road (CA-190) the blooming is more widespread than last year, but so far less dense than the best locations last year. While the Desert Gold often had multiple branches and blooms in the Ashford Mill area further south, it's less tall and often has only one stalk with a single flower. From the beginning of Artist Drive looking south towards Badwater you can see desert gold, but the density is lower than in past years. There is a sparse bloom near Saratoga Springs but the flowers there were already showing signs of heat stress early last week, and they get more dense further north alongside Harry Wade Road towards Ashford Mill. There's little to nothing happening from Shoshone through Tecopa to Baker alongside CA-127. There were no obvious signs of growth north of Scottys Castle alongside Big Pine Road. Strong initial growth of plants alongside the road to Dante's View apparent back in November has not been followed by more widespread growth just down the hill at Greenwater Valley Road.

So in spite of a sufficient rainfall in many places, we have a normal situation in the broken and sporadic nature of the rainfall in the park, and the timing of follow-on rain events can further affect the health of any bloom that does come.  So while it's an above average year in many areas, it'll still be very helpful to know where to look in this massive park.  Being prepared to reach the bloom locations will be particularly important given that the park only had 700 miles of roads, 2/3 of which are unpaved.  High clearance can be very useful in Death Valley National Park, and 4WD is required to reach some of the better locations. This will be particularly true as the blooming zones move up in elevation in March and April.

So bottom line, the Ashford Mill area is worth a visit if you can get to the park now.  Enjoy generally above average conditions from there through Salt Creek, but don't expect carpets of flowers.  Other areas could see more growth later, especially if there is more rain to give plants just getting started out a boost, but with an average of only 1.93" falling near Furnace Creek in a year, that's not something we can count on, so we may be seeing peak conditions in the most-visited, lower elevations in the park.

I'll be conducting a photography workshop in Death Valley National Park from March 1 - 6, 2016.  I like to offer a more adventurous workshop to show participants many of the unique locations I've discovered while exploring the park dozens of times over the past 12 years, and while researching locations to refer people to when I started writing my "Photographing California - South" guidebook in 2010.  I've found many new locations since the editorial deadline for the Death Valley chapter of that book, so now I'm working on a dedicated Death Valley guide as well.  We may take short hikes up up to 1.5 mile each way, so figure we could walk about 4-5 miles in a day.

For more information on the workshop, see the Death Valley workshop page on my blog:

Sand Verbena and Desert Gold Near Ashford Mill, February 9, 2016