Before our visit I pictured Death Valley as a barren land full of sun-bleached oxen skulls, parched tumble weeds and bone dry dirt with cracks like spider webs. Then this changed my mind…
We planned to go through Death Valley in early March simply because that’s how it worked into our schedule. It was to be the last of a string of 6 desert parks (see videos for Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, Saguaro, Joshua Tree) that allowed us to stay relatively warm while camping during the coldest weeks of the winter. And obviously visiting during summer when temperatures regularly pass 120 in the hottest place on Earth (Death Valley holds the world record at 134 degrees) is not very appealing. That we would visit during the typical late winter wildflower was a happy coincidence. That we would visit during a “superbloom” of the best wildflower season in 10 years was a jackpot.
Since we went into the superbloom with no idea what to expect, we wanted to share our 9 Death Valley superbloom tips and experiences so you can make the most of this (no, it’s not gone yet!) or any subsequent wildflower bloom in the park. Because it truly is bucket list material!
- Know your target bloom stage – The first stage is in lower elevations like southern Badwater road south of Badwater Basin. It can bloom in early February depending on conditions. Yellow flowers called Desert Golds blanket the valley in huge fields. Next comes the mid-elevations like Beatty cutoff. It often blooms in late February or early March and features a wider variety of flowers than the southern areas but usually not as thick of fields. The higher elevations bloom last and flowers in the mountains can last into the summer. I think we visited during the transition period from low to mid-elevation blooms. So there’s still plenty left to go this year!
- Act fast or it could be gone – a ranger told us that if we were there 2 weeks earlier, we could have seen the superbloom that started everyone going bananas and that many were calling the best they’d ever seen. As it was, we saw incredibly beautiful and diverse flowers covering huge swaths of the valley around Beatty Cutoff, the east entrance and even around Ubehebe Crater. It’s hard to imagine we may have missed the best and thickest of it a week or two earlier on south Badwater Road.
- Consider the weather forecast – We were surprised to have missed the full force superbloom because the NPS and news articles said it would last until mid-March, and our visit was 5 days in the first week of March. Unfortunately, the 2 weeks before we visited had been unseasonably hot with every day in the 90s. In addition, forecasted rainstorms needed for sustained flower growth never materialized. While we were there there were actually two different storm systems that rolled through. The first produced only insane wind for about 24 hours. Not only did this literally rip our fly apart, but it ripped a lot of flowers apart. The second storm lightly rained off and on all of our last day. Driest place on Earth my foot 😉 (Death Valley only averages 2 inches of rain a year in the valley). Unfortunately we couldn’t stay to see the new blooms that rain hopefully enabled.
- Go on less crowded weekdays – Visiting 59 parks in a year doesn’t give you a ton of flexibility to pick and choose dates. We were at Death Valley from Friday through Tuesday, so we ran smack dab into the weekend surge. The parking lots and visitors center were packed. Even so, it doesn’t take too much hiking to find some spots to yourselves (like we managed at Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch). Weekdays have far fewer people and thus allow for more solitude, more accessible Rangers, less traffic, more campground availability and a more enjoyable general experience.
- Join a flower talk ranger program – Elizabeth may suggest otherwise, but I found the walking and talking as we learned about all the different flower varieties very interesting (She always kids me that I am more into flowers than her). The program was popular and may only be offered certain days like weekends, but it really helped put everything we saw into perspective.
- Camp backcountry, not in Sunset Campground – Our first two nights we stayed at possibly our worst NPS campground yet – Sunset Campground. It was basically a giant gravel lot with over 200 bare sites divided by painted lines. The fact that you were 10 feet from the next camper and surrounded by mostly RVs wasn’t the worst though. Our second day and night at the campground was ridiculously windy for 24 hours. We came back at night after a full day out in the park to see our tent and sleeping bags in a disheveled pile. Apparently the tent was taking a beating and the fly was getting ripped by the wind while we were gone. Our awesome neighbors that we met and hiked with earlier on the day (see our DV People of the Parks) had taken it down for us. After reassembling our tent, the ensuing night of relentless gusting wasn’t much better. When rain forced us to put the fly on in the middle of the night it flapped so loudly we barely got any sleep. Plus our heads and everything we had got covered in a nice layer of dust. Most of the blame goes to the wind storm. But I think we can also call out the flat wind break-free campground with solid rock seemingly half an inch under our entire site that prevented any proper tent staking (and it wasn’t for lack of me trying!). If you are tent camping at Death Valley, I highly suggest driving onto one of the unpaved backcountry roads and pulling off to pitch tent anywhere a mile past the paved road. We did this our last two nights and it was free, more scenic and more peaceful. Otherwise try to reserve a spot at Furnace Creek campground ($18) or snag much smaller first-come-first-serve Texas Spring campground ($12), so you don’t have to settle for first-come-first-serve Sunset ($12).
- Make sure to take in the rest of the park – We loved the flowers, but the rest of the park is spectacular too. We also enjoyed billowing sand dunes, huge volcanic craters, endless salt basins, colorful badlands, winding canyons and perfect sunset vistas.
- Driving through is still worth it – if you don’t have time for a few days, or even a full day, a drive through the park is still well worth it. Most of the best flower fields are right off the road, so you could get spectacular pictures without even opening the door.
- Predict the next superbloom – An unusually wet fall and winter (like they had this past year) is the main ingredient for a superbloom. If you’re considering a trip to Death Valley, maybe call the Visitors Center (760-786-3200) to ask how the conditions have been over the last few months (they say they don’t predict the blooms, but I’m sure they’d tell you if the conditions are right). Also, always check the “Park Alerts” on the Death Valley website to see which roads are closed or washed out. Then you can be the one to break the next big Death Valley superbloom!