Death Valley National Park wildflower trip: Artist Drive at sunset

For the last adventure of my second day at Death Valley National Park, visiting to see the spring wildflower bloom, I planned a short but scenic drive along a road called Artist Drive, located along Badwater Rd south of CA-190. A one-way loop, the entrance is at mile 8 and the exit is at mile 5. I’m certain the road is one-way for safety reasons: it’s virtually impossible to drive this road without stopping several times to get out of your car and enjoy the beautiful and colorful formations!

In fact, the area is visible for many miles along Badwater Rd. As soon as you get off Badwater Rd and start driving along Artist Drive you automatically slow down to take in views that are literally continuous for the 6 or so mile length of the road. My plan was to begin the drive late in the afternoon and basically stay for the sunset. The hills line the Death Valley basin facing west, so they are beautifully illuminated by the late afternoon sun. I began a little over one hour before sunset, with the sun playing hide-and-seek with light, scattered high clouds.

photo of approaching the colorful formations at the beginning of Artist Drive

Approaching the colorful formations at the beginning of Artist Drive

At the left of the photo the ground has a faint golden hue due to the many desert gold (Geraea canescens) flowers in bloom. I stopped a couple of times to look more closely at the flowers. At one stop I found purple mat (Nama demissum), brown-eyed evening primrose (Camissionia claviformis), cryptantha, and caltha-leaf phacelia (Phacelia calthifolia) in close proximity. Here is a close-up of some purple mat, considered a belly flower, with blossoms that are just a few mm across.

photo of purple mat along Artist Drive

Purple mat along Artist Drive

This map shows the area; note the one-mile scale at the lower right. Badwater Rd is about 50 feet below sea level, and Artist Drive climbs up to nearly 1000 feet elevation in the first 2 miles before undulating along the base of the hills and eventually returning to the exit at Badwater Rd.

photo of map of the area around Artist Drive

Map of the area around Artist Drive

About 1 mile in I noticed quite a few cars pulled over to the side of the road with people getting out to walk around, so I did likewise, with my short exploration shown in orange on the map. After a short climb there was a lovely view to the southeast; I’m pretty sure that Dante’s View is in the background, with an elevation of about 5500 feet.

photo of view toward Dante’s View

View toward Dante’s View

This area was about 400 feet above the valley floor, so there were nice views of across Death Valley, with the Panamint Mountains in the background on the west side of the valley basin.

photo of Death Valley floor from Artist Drive

Death Valley floor from Artist Drive

There were more wildflowers here, including some gravel ghost (Atrichoseris platyphylla).

photo of gravel ghost

Gravel ghost

The road continues along the base of the hills, with new formations coming into view. In some areas the road was close enough to formations to see the rough texture, somewhat like pock marks, created by uneven erosion.

photo along Artist Drive

Along Artist Drive

Before long I made another stop to look at wildflowers, as a larger-size shrub had caught my attention. It is encelia, either brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) or Acton encelia (Encelia actoni).

photo of encelia: brittlebush or Acton encelia

Encelia: brittlebush or Acton encelia

Nearby there was some caltha-leaf phacelia (Phacelia calthifolia).

photo of caltha-leaf phacelia

Caltha-leaf phacelia

Another larger, eye-catching shrub was pygmy cedar (Peucehyllum schottii), also called desert fir or desert pine, which is unusual in a couple of respects. First, there is only this one species in the entire genus. Second, it is neither a cedar nor a fir nor a pine, even though it looks rather like an evergreen; instead, it is in the aster family.

photo of pygmy cedar

Pygmy cedar

Elsewhere nearby there was some lesser mojavea (Mohavea breviflora).

Soon some of the formations were taking on more unusual coloring, including some green.

photo of colorful formation along Artist Drive

Colorful formation along Artist Drive

Perhaps 3.5 miles along Artist Drive there is a side road signed Artist Palette. I had not fully done my homework so I did not know what this was; but I thought I should check it out. I’m glad I did, since it is surely considered a highlight of the drive! Artist Palette is a section of the hills with an extensive palette of colors due to different types of rock and chemical interactions with salts and water.

In lieu of taking a panorama shot with my camera, I stitched together two shots. Near the center of this composite picture there are several people (click on the picture to enlarge it). Apparently there is a way to hike out there, though it would surely be inadvisable to be out in the middle of the formation at sunset without a headlamp.

photo of Artist Palette

Artist Palette

It was now only about 15 minutes before sunset and I was hoping to see the rest of Artist Drive in daylight, so I continued around the loop. Here is a nice view of the nearby hills, with exceptionally warm colors due to the illumination by the late afternoon sun.

photo of late afternoon sun-illuminated hills

Late afternoon sun-illuminated hills

I did stop several more times to appreciate the changes in the hills’ coloration as the sun began to set over the Panamint Mountains on the west side of Death Valley. Just before sunset you could see the shadow line float up the hillside. This picture was taken just a few minutes before sunset.

photo of approaching sunset along Artist Drive

Approaching sunset along Artist Drive

A few minutes later the shadow line was high on the hills.

photo of last sunlight on the hills along Artist Drive

Last sunlight on the hills along Artist Drive

I timed my return to Badwater Rd perfectly, as the last sunlight was fading into dusk. It was a perfect ending to a wonderful day of sightseeing and hikes at Dante’s View, Zabriskie Point Badlands Loop, and Golden Canyon Trail.

A few minutes later, as I passed through Furnace Creek, a few scattered clouds glowed pink for a short time after sunset, then faded. After dusk I drove, once again, up Daylight Pass Rd to my hotel in Beatty, NV, completing a 155-mile day. The following day I would drive to the north part of Death Valley for more adventures.

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One Response to Death Valley National Park wildflower trip: Artist Drive at sunset

  1. Pingback: Jumbo Grade Trail | trailhiker

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