Day 1 of my somewhat impulsive trip to Death Valley National Park to see the spring wildflower bloom began with some focused wildflower viewing. The wildflowers were, indeed, glorious. And because most of the wildflowers are endemic to either Death Valley or the Mojave Desert, they were first-time sightings for me. I felt like a kid in a candy shop, delightfully walking around and oohing and aahing at every new find!
I had spent the night at Panamint Springs, which is on CA-190 near the west side of the park at about 2000 feet elevation. From there it was about a 60-mile drive to Furnace Creek, in the heart of Death Valley. I would be constantly reminded about the huge scale of the park: since I overnighted outside the park and had an ambitious plan for visiting various sights, I would end up driving some 150-175 miles per day on average.
My only previous “visit,” if I can even call it that, to Death Valley had been over 20 years prior, as part of an overnight car rallye drive from Santa Barbara to Las Vegas. We had literally done a drive-through – no stops – around dawn. And I vaguely remembered that dawn had happened at least twice, though I didn’t understand the local geography well enough to understand why. Today I would fill in some of that detail. I got up at 6:30am hoping to see the sunrise from Panamint Springs. By the time I threw on some clothes and walked outside, much of dawn had already happened and the sun was just about to come up behind the Panamint Mountains. There was no traffic so I did actually walk out to the middle of the road for this picture.
A little over an hour later I’d had breakfast, loaded up my car, and was ready to set out on my wildflower adventure. The road descends steadily into the Panamint Valley, which is around 1600 feet elevation, before climbing through the Panamint Mountains to Towne Pass just below 5000 feet. After the pass there is a spectacular 5000-foot descent into Death Valley in just 15 miles.
From the moment I left Panamint Springs I was on the lookout for wildflowers by the side of the road. My plan, which turned out to be the accepted behavior, was to – carefully and safely – slow down and pull off the pavement when I saw something I wanted to investigate. After just a few minutes’ driving I noticed a flash of yellow just off the shoulder of the highway and pulled over to take a look. It turned out to be rather a lucky find, in fact. It turns out that there are two primary types of evening primrose in the park: golden evening primrose and brown-eyed evening primrose. The goldens tended to be at higher elevations (1000-2000 feet) and the brown-eyes at lower elevations (under 1000 feet), at least during my visit. When I showed this picture to a ranger at Furnace Creek he immediately said “That’s a good one!” and explained that the two species occasionally hybridize and what I had photographed was, in fact, a hybrid. The yellow color is characteristic of golden evening primrose and the brown spots at the throat are characteristic of brown-eyed evening primrose; see below for individual pictures of each.
Once I’d gotten out of my car to investigate, I could see that there were more flowers than the yellow ones that originally caught my eye. One was a notch-leaf phacelia (Phacelia crenulata), with beautiful purple blossoms on stalks that uncurl as the bloom migrates out toward the tip.
These phacelias were often observed with golden evening primrose (Chylismia brevipes), and there were normal, unhybridized, goldens in the same small area. Notice how similar the normal and hybrid flowers are, except for the brown spots at the throat of the hybrid. I did not notice this distinction until the ranger pointed it out in the pictures I showed him. I wasn’t expecting it, and I was much too excited about the beauty of these first wildflowers. I had no idea what I would see later!
Note that I had not yet even reached the floor of Panamint Valley, perhaps 5 miles from Panamint Springs. I continued down toward the valley floor, enjoying the still-early morning view of the Panamint Mountains to the east.
To the southeast I could see a partially snow-covered peak that I correctly identified as Telescope Peak, some 11,000 feet high. And as I got closer to Towne Pass I noticed a spot from which I could barely see the tops of some Sierra Nevada peaks to the west. As I continued along CA-190 I was interested to note how short the distances were between elevation signs: barely 2½ miles in a couple of cases. That’s about an 8% average grade, which is relatively steep for a main highway. This descent is into Death Valley proper.
At Stovepipe Wells I encountered the first of many signs I would pass announcing sea level elevation.
From the Stovepipe Wells area there is a dramatic view of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. I had not realized that there were any sand dunes that would be accessible enough for me to hike, e.g. not requiring 4-wheel drive to get to a trailhead, so I immediately resolved to return later in my trip for a hike.
From Stovepipe Wells I continued to Furnace Creek, where I planned to stop in at the Visitor Center for more park information – and to determine how I should display my National Parks Senior Access pass. I have to say that this pass was the best $10 I have ever spent at a National Park or Federal Recreation Land! Note that, at Stovepipe Wells and several other key locations in the park, there are unstaffed kiosks where one can pay the regular park use fee if a Senior (or other) Pass is not available.
Between Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek I began to experience the most typical wildflowers of the valley floor’s low elevations. The most prominent is desert gold (Geraea canescens), its common name in Death Valley, also known in other parts of the Mojave Desert as desert sunflower. These cheery flowers seemed to face generally toward the sun, so south-facing slopes were often well-populated.
Along with desert gold there were many brown-eyed evening primrose (Chylismia claviformis), with the brown spots at the base of the white petals representing the eyes.
I should note that many types of evening primrose bloom at night and then, by the end of the next day, the blossoms die. My impression was that the evening primrose blossoms in Death Valley do not die after just one day, as the profuseness of the flowers seemed to make that impossible to sustain over the normal multiple-month blooming period. Rather, the flowers in Death Valley – and presumably elsewhere in the Mojave Desert – have adapted to the unique conditions: When there is water the plants grow and bloom, and when the water stops the plants go to seed and die. The seeds are covered with a waxy substance that requires a certain amount of water to remove and allow germination, so if there is an entire dry year (or several) the seeds are still able to germinate after sufficient rain.
Among the brown-eyed evening primroses I noticed a different-looking plant. While the brown-eyed evening primroses are so-called erect plants, with spreading leaf clusters at the base and flower stalks often more than 6 inches tall, this one was a smaller, shorter, and more compact shape. Also the flowers were completely open in the morning sun and clearly lacked the brown spots. I think it is a shredding evening primrose (Eremothera boothii ssp. condensata).
After my stop at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center I made my way to Badwater Road and turned south. The information on the park’s wildflower page had indicated that Badwater Road was the place to go for the most accessible and spectacular displays, the farther south the better. I was about to discover what that meant! My goal was to drive all the way to Ashford Mill, 46 miles down the road, before turning around to return to the Furnace Creek area with some short hikes along the way.
Before too long I started to see masses of subtle white next to the road. These turned out to be masses of brown-eyed evening primroses.
Past Badwater, which is 17 miles down the road, I began to notice entire fields of desert gold, literally covering square miles of the valley floor. Though there are some brown-eyed evening primrose and notch-leaf phacelias among the desert gold, the gold color clearly dominates.
South of Mormon Point, about 35 miles down Badwater Road, I rather unexpectedly noticed a small area with some standing water from the most recent rain. Here I was able to see a reflection of Telescope Peak, about 20 miles away to the northwest.
In the last 10-12 miles to Ashford Mill I stopped numerous times to explore the wildflowers by the roadside. Near some notch-leaf phacelia I noted some rock daisies (Perityle emoryi), with bright green leaves.
At one place I specifically stopped to check out a couple of larger white flowers on long, perhaps 18 inches tall, leafless stalks. They turned out to be gravel ghosts (Atrichoseris platyphylla), with several layers of pretty, toothed, rectangular-shaped ray flowers. These flowers are also called parachute flowers.
There were also some cryptanthas, or forget-me-nots, perhaps scented cryptantha (Cryptantha utahensis). Apparently there are several types of cryptantha that grow in Death Valley and they are generally very difficult to distinguish.
I also encountered a few plants of pebble pincushion (Chaenactis carphoclinia). These were the only ones I would see – or notice! – during my visit.
A bit farther south I stopped to check out some pink color in a sandy area next to the road. I found desert sand verbena (Abronia villosa) growing in low mats, in some places with brown-eyed evening primrose intermixed.
There were more and more displays of desert gold. Here is an entire hillside covered in gold.
There was one stretch of Badwater Road from which there was an amazing view to the west across a lower-elevation area carpeted as far as I could see in desert gold. The dark hill in the background might be one the cinder hills in the valley.
After reaching the Ashford Mill ruins I turned around and headed back up Badwater Road. Stopping for a flash of purple, I was rewarded by a first sighting of caltha-leaved phacelia (Phacelia calthifolia). The leaves are heart-shaped and easily distinguished from the lobed leaves of the notch-leaf phacelia, though the flowers look similar.
As I continued up the road and approached Mormon Point there was a nice view of the colorful Amargosa Mountains with the floor of Death Valley to the left.
Is this the beginning of a super-bloom year? Only time will tell. In the meantime, by now it was noon and I was planning to stop on my way back along Badwater Road to do a few short hikes, described in the next posts.