Finn-Olaf Jones Official Website: Articles and Stories
  home | click here for articles | contact
Mar 04, 2005
In Death Valley, a Technicolor Season - The New York Times

In Death Valley, a Technicolor Season

A NEW VISTA Desert gold sunflowers are among the wildflowers that are thriving already near Jubilee Pass in Desert Valley.
J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times
A NEW VISTA Desert gold sunflowers are among the wildflowers that are thriving already near Jubilee Pass in Desert Valley.

CROSSING over the Jubilee Pass on Route 178, drivers expect to encounter the monochromatic wasteland of Death Valley National Park unfurling before them. But these days they see something very different: Technicolor plains of primroses, larkspurs, poppies, verbenas, lilacs, orchids, phacelias and other wildflowers. It raises the question of whether Death Valley even deserves its name.

The same rains that have brought mudslides and destruction in one of California's wettest seasons on record have also brought an early and spectacularly kaleidoscopic spring to Death Valley.

"We were shocked when we saw this," said Lew Friedman, a visitor from Old Chatham, N.Y., as he stood before a fragrant carpet of gold sunflowers that curved over the desert floor toward the Black Mountains. "It certainly doesn't seem like Death Valley," his wife, Jackie, said. "It smells like a floral shop."

The coyotes and the tiny kit foxes that have the run of the valley during the summer months, when 120-degree weather deters human visitors, are now out of sight. Instead, on a recent day when temperatures in the 60's prompted the wearing of a jacket, the usual silence of the valley was broken by a constant hum that at first seemed impossible: the sound of bees pollinating flowers that had sprung from the basalt.

"This could well be the bloom of the century," said Tim Croissant, a National Park Service botanist. "We have many years where we don't see any blooms at all, which makes this all the more extraordinary."

The wildflower bloom this year began in early February, as much as two months sooner than in normal years. As the early spring moves into the national park, the southern part of Death Valley, much of which is below sea level, is awash in a sea of flowers. The upper valley is a pointillist landscape of opening buds. And as the season progresses, the plants farther up the surrounding mountains will also start blossoming, extending the wildflower season into May or even June.

Death Valley averages less than two inches of rain a year, but in the past seven months it has received more than six inches, on pace for a high since record-keeping began well over a century ago. The rains were so extreme that last August, flash-flooding washed away part of Highway 190, one of the main roads into the valley, killing two people and closing the park for 10 days. The highway is not scheduled to reopen until late April.

Death Valley's narrow roadways are heavily bordered by thick paths of flowers, as if each roadside mile had been highlighted with a full set of crayons. "When the Park Service grades the roads, they're inadvertently spreading plants," Mr. Croissant explained. "These disturbance areas become prime areas for growth."

The valley was given its name by a party of forty-niners who stumbled into it while seeking a shortcut to the California gold fields in the winter of 1849. They found a spring they called Furnace Creek, whose warm waters sustained them while they looked for a way through the mountains that hemmed in the valley. Bogged down by bad terrain and hunger, it took them more than a month of deprivation before they were able to escape the valley. Ascending from the vast, barren moonscape, one of them reportedly turned around and said, "Goodbye, death valley."

The name stuck.

VISITING Death Valley as it bursts forth in full botanic glory, one can't help wondering what the forty-niners would have named the place had they arrived in springtime rather than in winter. This sort of speculation comes easier while floating in the spring-fed pool of the Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort, built on the spot believed to have sustained the forty-niners. The spring - its waters are a constant 83 degrees on the valley floor - also sustains an adjoining 18-hole golf course, at 214 feet below sea level the lowest in the world.

Not far from the golf course live the descendants of the people who made their homes in the area more than a millennium before the forty-niners arrived. Some four dozen members of the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe now live in trailers and adobe houses in a 314-acre swath of desert that is part of their reservation.


There were many uses for these plants," said Mike Shoshone, who grew up in the valley and now works in road construction for the park service. "You wouldn't know if you didn't know what to look for, but there's lots of food here."

Chia and mesquite seeds and cottontail roots were once vital food staples for the Shoshone. They wove distinctive baskets from willow and sumac shoots and decorated them with the horned-shaped pods of the unicorn plant. When it became hot in the summer, the Shoshone would move to the mountains and live off nuts gathered from pinyon trees.

The Shoshone had some 1,200 species of plants to choose from in the area, 23 of which exist only in Death Valley. Some of these endemic plants are so rare that they are found only in an isolated patch of desert, like the stunning Eureka Dunes evening primrose, whose drooping white and pink petals flower across the giant sand dunes in the northern end of the park.

The sheer surrealism of Death Valley's current appearance is overwhelming. The normally black walls and terraces of the basalt hills in the valley are now etched in yellow and white flowers, giving the terrain the appearance of a photo negative. Clusters of chias with their strangely shaped purple flower float above the desert floor like a vision from Dr. Seuss. Drab-colored shrubs are entwined in what appears to be screaming-orange-colored silly string: dodder vines hitching free rides for the nutrients of their captive hosts.

And then there's the enormous lake that suddenly appeared. "This is the first time I've ever seen Lake Manly," said Alex Cabana, who works in the park, referring to the 90-mile-long lake that covered Death Valley 10,000 years ago but that today is normally dry desert flats. "Legend has it, it only shows up every hundred years." The winter water run-off has collected in Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level and the lowest place in the Western Hemisphere, creating a vast reflecting pool extending more than 100 square miles from the eastern roadbed to the base of the Panamint Range on the western side of the valley. Although the temporary lake is only a few inches deep (two and a half feet at its deepest point), a group of park rangers recently took the rarest of trips: a canoe excursion across Death Valley.

Adding to the surrealistic atmosphere are the frequent appearances of fighter jets from the nearby training bases making low-altitude maneuvers at supersonic speeds. The recent spectacle of two gray F-16's engaged in ear-splitting mock combat over the desert floor was a vivid reminder that much of the original "Star Wars" was filmed here.

UNLIKE New Englanders and Midwesterners, in whose regions fall foliage is a big part of the tourist industry, Californians do very little to promote an interest in desert blooms. After all, this is a state whose most evocative plant, the palm tree, was imported. Moreover, the uncertainty over whether any desert blooms will occur is enough to discourage tour operators from planning events around wildflower viewing.

"We never know until December what's going to happen," said Toni Jepson, manager of the Furnace Creek Inn. "And even then we can't be sure. The desert is a fickle place."

As a result, Death Valley doesn't see the glut of tour groups and buses that clog Vermont and New Hampshire country lanes during foliage season. Instead, most visitors to Death Valley come at their own speed, and they can enjoy the vast flowered plains without worrying too much about other tourists appearing in their viewfinders. It's still one of the most desolate places on Earth, and the vast isolation is its prime attraction.

For the time being, that isolation comes in many vibrant hues.

The Joshua Tree in Bloom, and Other Desert Flora

SOUTHERN California's unusually wet winter has caused an unusually rich flowering in several of the state's desert areas.

Digital West Media maintains a Web site that provides frequently updated overviews and field reports on California desert wildflowers:

The California Native Plant Society is a nonprofit organization that studies and preserves California's native plants. Its Web site is full of interesting descriptions and photographs of local desert wildflowers:

DEATH VALLEY To obtain information about when and where the best blooms are occurring in Death Valley National Park, or for information on the daily wildflower walks conducted by the Park Service, call (760) 786-3200 or visit

OWENS VALLEY Owens Valley is one valley to the northwest of Death Valley, but it is startlingly different in terms of scenery and wildflowers. Not only does the Owens Valley have beautiful high desert plains with the snow-clad Sierras as a backdrop; it also has the picturesque Gold Rush town of Independence, which still looks like the set of a cowboy movie.

Because Owens Valley is 3,000 feet above Death Valley, the desert bloom usually occurs a few weeks later. This year, the wildflowers are expected to peak in April and May. For more information, call the ranger station at the Interagency Visitor Center (760) 876-6222 or visit

JOSHUA TREE As with Death Valley, Joshua Tree National Park is witnessing a spectacular early spring. On the western side of the park, creamy white blossoms are beginning to appear atop Joshua tree cactuses. When they come into full bloom, these clusters of cactuses, some of which reach heights of 15 feet, resemble natural candelabras, an unforgettable sight against the desert background.

The Joshua tree is expected to be in bloom through April. Other cactuses will be in bloom all the way into May. The national park also features many of the same desert wildflowers that exist in Death Valley, but because Joshua Tree is at a higher elevation, the blooms are expected to peak a few weeks later. For visitor information for the park, call (760) 367-5500 or go to

ANZA-BORREGO DESERT STATE PARK A two-hour drive east of San Diego takes you to the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego, where winter rains have brought an outstanding wildflower bloom. The park is aflame in desert sunflowers, brown-eyed evening primrose, lupines, mustard, Spanish needles and popcorn flowers. The higher elevations should be in bloom within two or three weeks, and beavertail, hedgehog and barrel cactuses are expected to be in bloom from the end of March until June. Wildflower information: (760) 767-4684 and


back to top