Death Valley in Spring: What's up with the Superbloom?
For the second spring in a row, the word Superbloom is being bandied about with a hashtag. Years of drought followed by the winter we'd all been waiting for have combined to create the biggest wildflower phenomenon in recent memory. SoCal families do not need to venture far to find fabulous wildflower hikes this month. Some pretty impressive waterfall hikes are in easy range as well. But what if you want to venture far? What if you've always been curious about that not-so-hospitable chunk of desert along the California Nevada state line that is Death Valley?
This national park is actually one of my favorites, and I have extolled the joys of visiting Death Valley with kids before. It is an exceptional, dramatic place; other deserts seem lackluster dust bowls by comparison. The vistas and variety would be hard to exaggerate. By all means, go to Death Valley. But if you're going for the Suberbloom, there are a few things you ought to know.
Aficionados of this extraordinarily moisture deficient ecosystem are understandably excited about the once-a-decade or so phenomenon of an extreme wildflower display. It really is hard to wrap one's mind around flowers poking out between boulders and borax. Delicate buds fluttering in a breeze between dust devils and tumbleweeds provoke a bit of eye rubbing. But if what your heart craves in springtime is fields of splendid blooms creating a carpet of color, then go to the flower fields at Carlsbad Ranch. Go to the California Poppy Reserve.
What happens in Death Valley after an El Niño winter is unquestionably beautiful, but it's subtle. Enormous expanses of rock and dust somehow host sprigs of life, and thin golden flowers lean into the wind. From one direction, they are all but invisible. From another, they are delicate miracles, fluttering in the dusty breeze.
And then, along the trails and roads, an occasional purple handful of blooms peeks out. Or a dry bush, on second glance, turns out to be covered in tiny white buds. A funny little cactus covered in a puff of incongruous orange hair—a succulent someone really ought to name the Trump cactus or I will—pops up along the side of the road. There are spring treats hidden in plain sight for anyone who cares to slow down and look.
And, for Death Valley, this is a super bloom. A Trump cactus leaning over a tiny purple bud with nothing but sand as a backdrop is worth stopping to photograph.
Death Valley is all-around worth the 5-hour drive. For the fields of borax, the startling little prehistoric fish fighting extinction by laying eggs in fast-drying mud, the miles of untouched dunes swept clean every night, the hikes up hills made colorful by a perfect variety of rocks, and the serenely quiet lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. Drive there for the crazy high temperatures beneath snow capped mountains and dark, dark starry nights. For the tales of 49ers who never made it out alive. For all this, yes, go to Death Valley.
But don't go just for the Superbloom.
Originally published March 29, 2016 and updated for 2017