El Niño rains bring desert to life
Seeds that have been dormant for years in Death Valley’s harsh desert environment have burst into bloom this year, bringing the best wildflower bloom in a decade, according to the National Park Service.
A series of unusual storms in October dropped locally heavy rainfall in several areas of the park. The most rain fell in places without official rain gauges, but the National Weather Service estimated that over 3 inches of rain fell in just 5 hours in one area of the park. This autumn soaking was followed by enough winter rain to cause the widespread wildflower bloom.
“I’m not really sure where the term “super bloom” originated, but when I first came to work here in the early 1990s I kept hearing the old timers talk about super blooms as a near mythical thing – the ultimate possibility of what a desert wildflower bloom could be,” said park ranger Alan Van Valkenburg whol has lived in Death Valley for 25 years.
“I saw several impressive displays of wildflowers over the years and always wondered how anything could beat them, until I saw my first super bloom in 1998. Then I understood. I never imagined that so much life could exist here in such staggering abundance and intense beauty,” Van Valkenburg said.
Death Valley is the hottest place on Earth and the driest place in North America, averaging about two inches of rain per year. These extreme conditions make it difficult for most plants to survive. Most of the time, the lower elevations in the park appear stark: a landscape of salt flats, sand dunes and rocky mountains vegetated by a few hardy shrubs and small trees.
The previous super blooms of 1998 and 2005 occurred in El Nino years. El Nino can affect Death Valley by shifting the track of winter and spring storms into the area, increasing rainfall during flower season.
Matching previous patterns, this year’s wildflower bloom started in elevations below 1,000 feet in the southern end of the park. Typically, the peak of the bloom will move northward and upwards in elevation over the course of the spring. The bloom in lower elevations is likely to continue at least through mid-March, with flowers at higher elevations possible later in the spring.
October’s storms also caused flash floods which damaged park roads and the historic district at Scotty’s Castle. Most roads have been repaired and re-opened, including most recently the very scenic Twenty Mule Team Road. Major roads that remain closed are: Scotty’s Castle Road (8 miles in Grapevine Canyon), Badwater Road (from Ashford Mill to Shoshone over Jubilee Pass) and Lower Wildrose Road. Repairs to utilities and historic structures at Scotty’s Castle could take a few years.
Van Valkenburg said areas along Badwater Road and Beatty Cutoff Road have been particularly spectacular.
“The hills and alluvial fans that normally have just rocks and gravel are transformed by huge swaths of yellow, white, pink, and purple. At first glance you are blown away by the sheer numbers of flowers, then on closer inspection the diversity of species will draw you in,” he said.
According to the park service, more than 20 species of flowers are currently blooming.
“Right now is the best time to visit Death Valley in over a decade. The flower display is astounding and this is a rare time to experience one of the most incredible displays Death Valley has to offer. We don’t know how long the bloom will last so come now,” said Death Valley National Park Superintendent Mike Reynolds.
Park roads, campgrounds and hotels are all busy currently with the increase in visitation triggered by the wildflowers, so visitors should plan accordingly. All flowers should be enjoyed in place, as picking wildflowers or removing them from the park is illegal and reduces other visitors’ enjoyment.