The phenomenon is so rare that most people never see it, and it's happening right now. In a spectacular event nicknamed a “super bloom”—last seen in 2005—carpets of wildflowers are sweeping across the hills, badlands, and washes of Death Valley National Park. “It’s very rare to have a good bloom in Death Valley,” says Alan Van Valkenburg, a ranger who has lived in the area for 25 years. “To get a big bloom like this—a super bloom beyond all your expectations—that’s very rare, maybe once in a decade.” Rain is key, and last fall’s flood-inducing downpours (thank you, El Niño) were essential to this year’s epic spectacle.
“If you get a chance to see a bloom in Death Valley, especially a super bloom…it could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” —Park ranger Alan Van Valkenburg
We asked Van Valkenburg for his insider tips on seeing this year’s wildflowers. The bottom line: Go ASAP. “Death Valley really does go from being a valley of death to a valley of life. But that’s so brief. It’s here for a moment, then it fades.” One caveat: Check for lodging in advance—hotels, motels, and campgrounds are filling up fast.
1. Start in the south. The bloom is already well underway at the south end of the park, and it’s rolling north fast. (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 special Wildflower Update 2016 for latest news on the big bloom.
2. Get out of your car. Taking in vistas of color from the comfort of your car is one thing, but there’s magic in walking into a hushed canyon and spying wildflowers clinging to the rock walls, or softly stepping through vast fields of them. So go ahead, get out of the car and enjoy. For the most timely suggestions for walks or hikes that provide access to this year’s flowers, 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-color brochure, Wildflowers of Death Valley National Park ($2.50), at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center bookstore.
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.