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Death Valley sees extravagant wildflower ‘super bloom’

After unseasonably wet storms rolled through causing damage to areas of Death Valley, there is a silver lining to the otherwise bad situation, a decade's-best wildflower bloom.

Death Valley National Park officials are calling the heavy presence of wildflowers the best that the area has seen in the last 10 years.

Being one of the hottest places on the planet, vegetation has a tough time surviving, let alone thriving, but the flooding rains that fell on the park in October, in addition to a steady amount of precipitation dropping on Death Valley through the winter, has allowed for the visual treat.

Putting the amount of rain the park saw during the fall into perspective, Death Valley averages two inches of rain each year. In October the national park saw up to three inches of rain in some portions of the park in less than five hours.

The resulting widespread wildflower bloom is said to be better than any previous year's bloom since 2005, according to park staff. The unofficial term that they are using to describe the event is, "super bloom."

There have been two other "super blooms" on record, the last one in 2005 and seven years prior in 1998. All three "super blooms" occurred during El Nino weather pattern years.

"I'm not really sure where the term 'super bloom' originated, but when I first came to work here in the early 1990s I kept hearing the old-timers talk about super blooms as a near mythical thing – the ultimate possibility of what a desert wildflower bloom could be," said, Park Ranger Alan Van Valkenburg, who has lived in Death Valley for 25 years. "I saw several impressive displays of wildflowers over the years and always wondered how anything could beat them, until I saw my first super bloom in 1998. Then I understood. I never imagined that so much life could exist here in such staggering abundance and intense beauty."

October's storms also caused flash floods, which damaged park roads and the historic district at Scotty's Castle. Most roads have been repaired and reopened, including most recently the very scenic Twenty Mule Team Road. Major roads that remain closed are: Scotty's Castle Road (8 miles in Grapevine Canyon), Badwater Road (from Ashford Mill to Shoshone over Jubilee Pass) and Lower Wildrose Road. Repairs to utilities and historic structures at Scotty's Castle could take a few years.

As in years prior, the wildflower bloom began in elevations below 1,000 feet in the southern end of the park and in the peak of the bloom will shift northward and up into higher elevations throughout spring.

The bloom in lower elevations should continue through mid-March, with flowers at higher elevations possible later in the spring.

An area that is already in full bloom is approximately 10 miles south of Badwater on Badwater Road, where Desert Gold is growing so densely it appears as if the alluvial fan is painted yellow, while along the Beatty Cutoff Road white and purple flowers are visible.

"The hills and alluvial fans that normally have just rocks and gravel are transformed by huge swaths of yellow, white, pink, and purple," Van Valkenburg said. "At first glance you are blown away by the sheer numbers of flowers, then on closer inspection the diversity of species will draw you in."

Even though the flowers can be enjoyed driving by on the road, visitors can take that experience a step further by walking among them.

There are over twenty species of flowers currently in bloom, with visitors and staff alike having favorites of their own.

Many park employees call the Desert Five-Spot their favorite flower, which is has pink-purple petals in a cup shape, with a large red spot on each petal. Another popular flower is the Gravel Ghost, which has leaves that blend in flat against the gravel with a white flower that seemingly floats a foot or two above the ground on a thin stalk.

"Right now is the best time to visit Death Valley in over a decade," said Mike Reynolds, superintendent. "The flower display is astounding and this is a rare time to experience one of the most incredible displays Death Valley has to offer. We don't know how long the bloom will last so come now!"

With the "super bloom," an increase in visitation to the park has occurred, so visitors should plan accordingly. Although the flowers are enjoyable to look at, taking a memory home with you is not a good idea, as park officials warn that picking wildflowers or removing them from the park is illegal.

Contact reporter Mick Akers at makers@pvtimes.com. On Twitter: @MickAkers

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