Among California park rangers and desert-hiking explorers, the Death Valley super bloom is a near-mythical event. The wildflower bloom occurs only under very specific conditions, with the last one seen in 2005. However, does the natural display live up to the incredible hype? In terms of awe-inspiring desert photography, few things arouse as much excitement as the Death Valley super bloom. The event is characterized by waves of dusty gold, purple, and white wildflowers as far as the eye can see. When it happens, the response is absolutely enormous. Hotels are already booked until mid-April, with callers checking in daily for cancellations. Rooms are being taken for up to $600 apiece, with the nearest vacancies located miles away. Camping is probably your best bet at this point; Death Valley offers several camping grounds, some free, such as Wildrose and Thorndike, some with a nominal fee, like Furnace Creek.
The Death Valley super bloom is how the desert vegetation has adapted to the region’s harsh conditions. In Death Valley, the survival strategy is not persistence, but patience. Few things are built to survive long in the desert; instead, the wildflowers ‘wait’ until that halcyon moment, then bloom en masse in a phenomenal flood of life. By blossoming simultaneously in such large numbers, the wildflower fields can hope to attract pollinators such as bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies that don’t normally venture into Death Valley.
The Death Valley super bloom requires an unusual amount of heavy, constant rainfall in the autumn months. These rains serve to wash away the outer coating of the wildflower seeds, which lie dormant for years at a time. If the area receives at least a half inch of rain, the seeds can sprout and begin setting down root networks that will explode in colorful petals in the coming months. The region normally gets only 2 inches of rain per year, with harsh dry winds blowing through to evaporate every shred of moisture available.
Last October’s abnormally heavy desert rains brought 3 inches of rain in just five hours, which many predicted would precipitate this year’s Death Valley super bloom, the first since 2005. The super bloom occurs in waves of blossoms instead of all-at-once. That being said, the event has been ongoing since mid-February, and the sprouts at lower elevations are already past their prime. Reports from March 9th indicate that a stretch of intensely hot weather, followed by a dry windstorm, have destroyed much of these lower elevation blooms, leaving little left for the casual observer.
As of March 19-20th when these photos were taken, that certainly seems to be the case. These images are from Artist’s Drive, Badwater Basin Road, and the road to the Mesquite Sand Dunes, and clearly show the thinned-out fields after the reported heat and dry winds. There are absolutely still signs of life, but the prime of the Death Valley super bloom seems to have passed. In fact, looking online, it seems like this year’s super bloom was a bit overhyped, and unfairly so: a lot of images used by media coverage of the event are actually from the 2005 super bloom. It’s a tremendous shame, but it looks as though we might need to wait another decade to see what the super bloom is really all about.
If you’re still interested in trying your luck with the 2016 Death Valley super bloom, the National Park Service has provided a useful map of the remaining super bloom fields, and is current as of March 16th.