On the third day of my trip to Death Valley National Park to see the spring wildflower bloom I planned to drive to the northern part of the park to visit Ubehebe Crater. On the way I saw quite a few wildflowers, in some ways similar to the first morning. This post gives a flavor of the variety of wildflowers I saw: several I had seen previously, but a few new ones too.
To try to give an idea of the geographic distances and locations, this map shows the driving path from my hotel in Beatty, NV, to Ubehebe Crater. One of the important points is that the distance was about 65 miles: a reinforcement that the park is big, and many of the interesting things to see are quite spread out. Also, the driving time is about an hour and a half – without stops. It actually took me more like 2 hr 15 min because I stopped so many times to observe and enjoy the wildflowers.
The previous days I had made my way between the Furnace Creek area and Beatty via the Beatty Cutoff Rd, which connects the blue route to the area marked Beatty Junction. This time, since I was planning to drive north, I came all the way down Daylight Pass Rd through Mud Canyon. I should note that the route marked in grey, although comparable in distance and drive time, is actually closed at this time due to a road washout in October 2015 during a storm. As a result, Scotty’s Castle is currently inaccessible.
As I approached Hells Gate, where Daylight Pass Rd and Beatty Cutoff diverge, I had nice views of the Death Valley Buttes and a more distant view of Telescope Peak. To the east there are also nice views of Corkscrew Peak.
Before I reached Hells Gate I saw a yellow-flowering shrub and pulled over to investigate. The shrub was most likely Acton encelia (Encelia actoni). It turns out that another type of encelia, called brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), also grows in the park, but the wildflower page refers to Acton encelia in the northern part of the park. The two types of encelia seem tricky to distinguish unless you know the particular distinguishing characteristics: in this case, have a willingness to break a stem to check for brittleness.
Whenever I stopped the car and got out to look at one wildflower, I checked out the immediate area to see what else might be there. Near the encelia I made a surprising find: red-stemmed filaree, or cranebill (Erodium cicutorium). It was surprising because it is not considered a native plant, either to Death Valley or the Mohave Desert region, or to California. I tend to consider the entire national park to be such a unique and harsh environment that it’s a surprise to find a flower that thrives in other ecosystems. In fact, red-stemmed filaree is widespread across California and in other states as well. The filaree is the light purple-pink flower at the lower right of the picture, and the spiky structures at the upper left and lower center are the seed pods, whose shape is reminiscent of crane bills.
In the upper right there is some cryptantha, possibly scented cryptantha (Cryptantha utahensis). Here is another example, more magnified. The tiny white flowers have yellow at the throat, and the stems are hairy when viewed up close.
Right around Hells Gate I stopped again to check out a prominent flash of purple: notch-leaf phacelia (Phacelia crenulata).
In this area it was both amazing and rewarding to get out of the car and just look around. There was a wide variety of flowers growing in close proximity. Here is a picture that covers just a few square feet, basically on, or just off, the shoulder of the road. When I magnify the picture I can see golden evening primrose (Chylismia brevipes), brown-eyed evening primrose (Chylismia claviformis), notch-leaf phacelia (Phacelia crenulata), red-stemmed filaree (Erodium cicutorium), and cryptantha. There are undoubtedly others that I cannot identify.
It was particularly interesting to see the two types of evening primrose in such close proximity (see below), since I’d happened to find a hybrid the first morning. In general, brown-eyed evening primroses are found at lower elevations and goldens at somewhat higher elevations, but clearly the ranges overlap. Hells Gate is about 2300 feet elevation, I think at the upper part of the range for the brown-eyed evening primrose.
As Daylight Pass Rd descends from Hells Gate into Death Valley via Mud Canyon, there is a nice view of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, with Tucki Mountain and then the Panamint Mountains behind. The yellow patch next to the road is golden evening primrose.
Farther down Mud Canyon, at another stop, I found several shredding evening primrose (Eremothera boothii ssp. condensata) plants. Each plant has a large spreading base of spotted leaves and often several clusters of flowers. In this example there are at least 6 clusters of buds in addition to the blossoms.
Once I noticed golden and brown-eyed evening primroses growing right next to each other in one place, I was on the lookout for other places. I was very interested to see if I would find any other hybrids, like the one I found two mornings earlier. Indeed I did, in at least two or three places. Here is a composite picture to illustrate the range that I found. At the upper left is a golden evening primrose (Chylismia brevipes) and at the lower right is a brown-eyed evening primrose (Chylismia claviformis). Note that the brown-eye is a cream color with prominent brown spots at the base of each petal while the golden is bright yellow, without spots. The hybrid at the upper right is the one I saw two days prior, fairly bright yellow but with distinct brown spots. The hybrid at the lower left is typical of the new ones I found in Mud Canyon as well as along the road toward Scotty’s Castle; it is lighter yellow, but definitely with a yellow tinge along with brown spots.
Once I made it to the lower end of Daylight Pass Rd I turned right to go north on Scotty’s Castle Rd, as shown on the map. This road travels along the base of the Grapevine Mountains and gradually gains elevation as it follows Death Valley Wash. Along the way it passes several alluvial fans at the base of the mountains.
I continued to stop periodically to check out the wildflowers, especially when I saw a flash of a different color from what I’d been seeing. One of the stops revealed my first sighting of broad-flowered gilia (Gilia latiflora). These pretty flowers have pink-light purple petals with blue stamens and a bit of yellow at the throat.
I should note that it is an interesting challenge to drive in a safe manner – and at a reasonable speed – while frequently glancing at the side of the road for interesting, and potentially small, wildflowers. The best solution may be to just stop frequently! Along the way I passed some more encelia and some lesser mojavea (Mohavea breviflora).
I made another stop when I saw what looked like a small cactus in my peripheral vision. It turns out that it’s a beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris).
I had an interesting adventure while walking closer to the cactus to frame my picture. I was paying no attention to the terrain at my feet and essentially tripped into a 1.5-foot high sand berm at the edge of the shoulder. I actually briefly touched my camera on the ground and, of course, stirred up quite a bit of very fine desert sand, which got all over the camera among other places. Unfortunately the camera was on and the lens was fairly well extended, which meant that I got sand all over the outside of the zoom mechanism and on the exterior lens surface. The poor camera made quite a grinding noise when I changed the zoom. I cleaned it as well as I could with a Kleenex dampened with water and by blowing, and stopped taking pictures until I got to Ubehebe Crater. Fortunately, the numerous additional cleanings and exercising of the zoom I performed over the next two days seemed to do a reasonable job of removing the sand.
When I was editing my pictures for this post I made an unexpected discovery: in the lower right portion of the beavertail cactus picture I noticed a different plant that I was able to identify as desert plantain (Plantago ovata). Here I show that section of the original picture, magnified. It’s not in perfect focus, since I was focusing on the cactus, but it was clear enough to make the identification. The basal leaves are distinctive, along with the long stem and finger-shaped head with tiny flowers.
In any case, I continued my drive the rest of the way to Ubehebe Crater. About 33 miles from the bottom end of Mud Canyon is the Grapevine Junction, where the grey route joins the blue route on the map image above. From this junction it is 5 miles to Ubehebe Crater, the site of my first planned hike of the day.