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In Death Valley, A Carpet of Colorful Life

A last minute trip to see rare wildflower super bloom was well worth the long haul

Years ago, when I first read about the desert “super blooms” that explode some of the world’s most arid places into riots of colorful flowers, catching a glimpse of the rare phenomenon immediately jumped to the top of my bucket-list. The contrast between a stark desert landscape and fields of wildflowers seemed too amazing to miss. So, two weeks ago, when I learned that Death Valley National Park was abloom with more than 20 species of wildflowers, I knew I had to see it.

Photo of Death Valley Super BloomPhoto by Zoe Loftus-Farren Desert gold wildflowers blanket rocky field in Death Valley National Park in late February.

Thankfully, my sister and a friend were eager to join me for a weekend adventure to desert, which made the nine-hour drive from the San Francisco Bay Area more bearable. After a late-night motel stop to get a few hours of sleep, we arrived in the park mid-morning, eager to set our sights on the super bloom.

As soon as we saw the fields of golden wildflowers set against blue skies and red hills, we knew the drive had been worth it. 

Photo of Death Valley Super BloomPhoto by Zoe Loftus-Farren A field of desert golds in Death Valley’s Badwater Basin.

According to park officials, the surreal super blooms take place about once every 10 years in Death Valley, when conditions are just right. The last one occurred in 2005. This year, unusually heavy October rains — which triggered a 1,000-year flood event in the park — drenched the typically dry landscape, allowing native seeds that had been lying dormant for years to spring to life.

“We’ve gotten great rainfall,” says Linda Slater, a Death Valley park ranger. “So the wildflowers are blooming, and we anticipate that they will continue for a couple months.”

Photo of Death Valley Super BloomPhoto by Zoe Loftus-Farren A less common desert five-spot, one of the other 20-plus wildflowers coming to life in the park.

Death Valley, which straddles California and Nevada and is known for being the driest and hottest place in North America, boasts a smattering of wildflowers most years. Slater says it would take an especially dry year to leave the valley devoid of flowers. But it’s the scale of the super bloom that sets in apart. “I saw all those same species last year, I just saw 10 times as many this year,” she says.

Photo of Death Valley Super BloomPhoto by Zoe Loftus-Farren Desert gold alongside desert sand verbena.

For several weeks now, the desert golds have been blanketing the valley floor in fields of yellow — they were by far the most prolific flowers during my late February camping trip, an inspiring sight to tired travelers. According to Slater, these bright wildflowers, also known as desert sunflowers, have begun to dry up a bit. But that doesn’t mean the super bloom is over. As desert golds begin to fade, the bloom will migrate up the canyon walls to higher elevations, and other species like golden evening primrose and monkeyflowers will take over.

That means there’s still time to catch this fleeting event. The camping isn’t ideal — more likely than not, you’ll find yourself adjacent to an army of RVs — and if your experience is anything like ours, you’ll leave the park a bit overheated and caked in yellow pollen. But even if you haven’t been eagerly awaiting the super bloom for the past decade, there’s really no question the trek is worth it. As Slater says, “Come on and see it. It is beautiful.”

Zoe Loftus-Farren
Zoe Loftus-Farren is associate editor of Earth Island Journal. In addition to her work with the Journal, her writing has appeared in Civil Eats, Alternet, Salon.com, and Truthout, among other outlets. She also holds a law degree from Berkeley Law, where she studied environmental law and policy.

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