Death Valley and the 2016 Super Bloom

You may have heard about the super bloom happening right now in Death Valley. But what really makes it so special? Well, first, it only happens once every decade. The last wildflower super bloom in Death Valley was in 2005. And second, it can only occur under near perfect conditions, which depend on: well-spaced rainfall throughout winter and spring, lack of harsh, drying winds, and sufficient warmth from the sun.

This El Niño year in drought-ridden California has been criticized for its lack of consistent rainfall. From our apartment on the beach, I see firsthand what El Niño looks like – a cloudy sky that rolls in from the Pacific in the early hours of the morning and then clears up by noon each day like clockwork. Sometimes it comes with an insane fog that reaches us even on the 14th floor of our building, making it impossible to see anything below or around our balcony. But still, not much rain. Here is what El Niño often looks like before noon:

El Nino California
El Niño from our 14th floor balcony
El Nino Long Beach California
El Niño receding from Long Beach

Yet despite the lack of rainfall we’ve seen in the greater Los Angeles area, there seems to have been enough to nurture this year’s Death Valley super bloom.

Death Valley Desert Gold
Desert Gold wildflower (Geraea canescens)

When we first heard about the super bloom, it was just barely too late to catch the peak of it. We made a day trip out on a Wednesday, just after a weekend storm had wiped out huge amounts of the wildflowers. However, they were still sprinkled throughout the park, and cast a very beautiful sheer blanket of yellow across the red rocky desert.

Although the majority of wildflowers spread across Death Valley were the sweetly fragrant Desert Gold, we were also able to spot patches of purple and white throughout our drive. Each time we came across a new splash of color, I hopped out of the Jeep and snapped a photo. There were usually three or four other cars clumsily pulled off to the side to snap photos as well. The wildflower patches would sneak up on us pretty quickly, and were impossible to pass by without taking a moment of awe. It seemed a miracle these little beauties could grow out of such dry desert soil.

Desert Gold and Notch-leaf Phacelia (Phacelia crenulata) Wildflowers
Desert Gold and Notch-leaf Phacelia (Phacelia crenulata) wildflowers

Despite the rare occurrence of this super bloom, the park was not too crowded that day. Perhaps because it was a Wednesday, or maybe it was due to the fact that the rainstorm had already wiped out so much of the bloom’s former glory. Either way, we were thankful for the free rein to move about the park without much foot traffic getting in the way.

Death Valley Super Bloom 2016
A “field” of Desert Gold and Desert Dandelions (Malacothrix glabrata)
Death Valley Super Bloom Desert Gold
The view off the side of Daylight Pass Road

Once we had taken in the wildflowers, we were still super stoked to see the rest of the park. Neither of us had been to Death Valley National Park before, and we only had a day to get through all of it (we’re pretty experienced by now at beasting our way through National Parks). With only a few choices to prioritize, we started our day trip with Badwater Basin.

Badwater Basin Death Valley
The lowest point in North America

We were excited to finally reach the lowest elevation point in all of North America, a basin 282 feet below sea level. The basin was absolutely breathtaking. It seemed like you could walk through it forever and still never reach the other side. What struck me most was the roaring of the wind if you turned your head in just the right direction – it sounded like a plane was landing right overhead. I imagined how frightening it would be to find yourself out in the middle of the basin alone at night, the only living thing for miles. I think I’d rather be in a jungle full of unknown creatures than completely alone in this wasteland.

Of course in March, the basin wasn’t very hot. But in the summer it can reach up temperatures as high as 134ºF, so hot that birds have been known to just drop dead mid-flight over the basin (Death Valley – Am I right?). It also has the greatest evaporation potential in the United States, as in a 12-foot-deep lake of water could dry up within a year in Badwater Basin.

Badwater Basin Death Valley
Walking through the salt flats

The name, Badwater Basin, became clear as we looked out across it. The whole area is covered in salt flats that look like a turbulent ocean of water. The basin is known to flood sometimes, but water never lasts long in the valley.

Badwater Basin Death Valley
A closeup of the “bad water”
Badwater Basin
A panoramic view of Badwater Basin

After a good hour and a half of walking into the basin and back, we decided to move on. With only a few hours of daylight left, we chose to head straight for Dante’s View. However, luckily for us, Artist’s Drive and Palette were on the way. Though we didn’t spend long there, it was a beautiful sight to see – the only color to grace the park besides the wildflowers!

Artist's Palette Death Valley
Artist’s Palette
Artist's Drive Death Valley
Artist’s Drive

After Artist’s Drive and Palette we had only an hour or so left of daylight. With the lack of traffic and a little bit of speeding, we were able to make it to Dante’s View before sunset. This was my favorite part of the park, as I’m a total sucker for good views. Maybe it was the lack of cellphone service that limited distractions, but I felt I could sit there for hours just having a think. I was pretty obsessed with all three books of Dante’s The Divine Comedy in college, and Dante’s View, overlooking the Black Mountains, bestowed upon me the mixed senses of foreboding and purpose I imagine Dante felt with Virgil, with so much vastness ahead to capture. My camera didn’t do the view justice, but the photos are beautiful nonetheless. We were even able to catch some mid-level elevation wildflowers – this time Desert Gold Poppies.

Dante's View Death Valley
The trail up to Dante’s View
Dante's View Death Valley
A panoramic shot of Dante’s View
Dante's View Death Valley
Desert Gold Poppies (Eschscholzia glyptosperma) at the top of Dante’s View
Dante's View Death Valley
Dante’s View at sunset
Dante's View Death Valley
Obligatory “I was here” Death Valley photo

After a day of blazing through the park, we headed out on our 4-hour trek back to Long Beach. It’s amazing how each National Park we’ve seen has been so remarkably different. It is impossible for me to say which of them I enjoyed more. I can only affirm that all of them have left me feeling astounded that such enormous treasures of nature can all exist together in one country. Each park takes me to another planet of miracles, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to experience the incredible diversity of the United States, both of nature and people I meet along the way. As my dad always says, “The world is a beautiful place.”