While a rare event like the 2016 “super bloom” may be a headline grabber, other spring blooms in Death Valley National Park are still worth seeing—if you know where and when to look. In more normal years, when scarce rainfall, baking sun, and hot dry winds are the norm, it helps to know how to spy these seasonal gems. We turned to expert Alan Van Valkenburg, a longtime park ranger who lived in this desert region for over 25 years, for his insider tips on finding Death Valley wildflowers.
1. Start in the south. According to Van Valkenburg, spring typically starts in the lowest elevations at the south end of the park, with flowers like desert gold and gravel ghost starting to bloom as early as mid-February. The bloom then rolls northward as the season warms. (Hot days can cut blooming short, while rain events can extend it.) The park’s higher elevations (top elevations are over 11,000 feet) are the last places to unveil the annual show. “Most seasons run through April or early May,” says Van Valkenburg, who suggests checking the park’s guide, updated seasonally, for latest news on wildflower blooms.
2. Get out of your car. When a super bloom sweeps across the valley, it’s easy to take in vistas of colour from the comfort of your car. But in more normal years, blooms may require a little sleuthing on foot. But there is magic in walking into a hushed canyon and spying wildflowers clinging to rock walls or sprinkled along the edges of a desert wash. So go ahead, get out of the car and enjoy. For the most timely suggestions for walks or hikes that provide access to spring wildflowers, check with the park’s visitor center at Furnace Creek.
3. Bring a plant guide. While it’s fine to just call them “pretty flowers,” it’s also cool to actually know what you’re looking at with the help of a good guidebook. Van Valkenburg suggests picking up the full-colour brochure, Wildflowers of Death Valley National Park ($2.50), at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center bookstore. The Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center, just south of Lone Pine at the junction of U.S. 395 and State Highway 136 (40 miles from the park’s west entrance), also has excellent guides and helpful staff.
4. Watch your step. Don't crush five flowers to take the perfect Instagram of just one. Plus, steering clear might keep you more comfortable too. “Many desert plants, including some wildflowers, have a defensive mechanism,” Van Valkenburg explains. “For example, a pretty purple wildflower called notch-leaf phacelia can give you a bad rash, much like poison oak.”
5. Go at different times of day. Your view of the same area could change dramatically depending on when you go. “Desert five-spot doesn’t open until late morning, poppies unfurl only in direct sunlight, and blooms of brown-eyed evening primrose open afresh at dusk, bloom all night, then turn pink and wilt by mid-morning,” says Van Valkenburg.
6. Join a guided walk. Ranger-led wildflower walks are scheduled regularly throughout the spring bloom; check in at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, or check the online schedule for details.