Saturday, March 19, 2016

Death Valley Ups and Downs

There's a superbloom on in Death Valley if you haven't heard. So obviously, I had to go. Unfortunately, it appears that every RV owner in America also had to go. And I really don't like RVs. To me, they are a way to go "enjoy" nature while simultaneously ruining it with your unnecessary gas-guzzling vehicle at the same time. And it's nature without nature, since you aren't forced to actually interact with your environment at all.

I did a bit of research but really could not find much on the internet, so I decided to just go. I'd head for the Furnace Creek area, hope to find a campsite even though I'd get there rather late, and ask a ranger for advice. Surely, they'd sell wildflower guidebooks and topo maps and all the rest there. It would be fine.

I drove up the 15 to the 127, then took 190 to Furnace Creek. I pulled in to a place labeled "Furnace Creek Ranch" that was clearly a hotel. With a golf course. WTF? AND IT HAS GRASS. Weren't national parks about protecting the environment?

The people at the hotel desk advised me that the Sunset campground (just up the road) always had space, and even if it filled up, it had an overflow area for tent campers. Perfect. Texas Springs, which is another campground next to Sunset, was full. So said a sign at the entrance to both campgrounds. (Later, I found out that it wasn't full... they post the "full" sign to prevent the traffic jams of RVs crowding the place up on the weekends.)

I had a migraine, and I did not have an easy night sleeping that night. My tent is non-freestanding and it was the first time I've ever had so much trouble getting the stakes in the ground that it just couldn't be done. I found a rock and a log large enough to anchor down two corners, and tied a third to my water bottle, filled with 4 lbs of water. That wasn't very heavy but maybe it would work?

The core of the park seems to be centered along two roads - Highway 190 and Badwater Rd. Within a few miles along the 190, you'll encounter three campgrounds - Texas Springs, Furnace Creek, and Sunset - two hotels, a few restaurants within the Furnace Creek Ranch (a restaurant, a bar, and a buffet), a gas station, the Furnace Creek Welcome Center, and one of the sites you're supposed to see (Zabriskie Point). If you drive just a few miles down Badwater Rd, you reach the parking area for Golden Canyon, which is a popular hiking spot.

I went to the Welcome Center, paid my entrance fee ($20 for one vehicle for up to a week), and set about looking for wildflower guides. Which they did not really sell. They had one book of Mojave wildflowers covering a three-state region, and a pamphlet of Death Valley wildflowers specifically. I went with the latter, knowing full well that the ranger station in Lone Pine is full of books about Death Valley and plotting to buy one on flowers next time I'm there.

Then I asked the ranger for info. He was grumpy. Since word got out about the superbloom, the park has been packed with tourists. Many seemed pretty rude and also not really cut out for dealing with nature. The ranger handed me a page with the same update I'd just read on the web basically saying that the weather killed most of the flowers at the low altitudes, and the ones in the higher elevations had not bloomed yet. It had a caveat that conditions are subject to change without notice, in case any of the park guests were not aware that the National Park Service actually does NOT control when flowers wilt or go to seed (and I had a hunch that some weren't).

The ranger pointed to a map on the back of the page with an area highlighted in yellow. He told me to go there. It's a road along 190 called the Beatty Cutoff. Just go there, that's where the flowers are. I asked if there was anywhere else? No, he said. Anywhere I could hike and see flowers, not from my car? No. He asked if I had an off-road vehicle. No, I told him. Then the Beatty cutoff was the only place I could go.

I asked about hiking. He asked how many miles I wanted to do. 5-10, I said. He gave me a map of Golden Canyon and recommended a 4 mile loop. There was a way to extend it to 6 miles, but he said not to, because it was hot there. Just do the loop - and bring 2-3 liters of water. (I had 4, with capacity to carry 7.)

Anything else, I asked? Dante's View, he said. Do Golden Canyon early in the morning. Dante's View was higher in elevation, so I could hike as far as I wanted there, any time. To any other question I asked, he simply pointed to the park's newspaper and repeated the words "Pages four and five." He said that several times.

I left and hit the flowers immediately. The "Beatty cutoff" he recommended turned out to be two roads that turned off of 190 toward Beatty, NV. After a few miles, the two roads merge, becoming one. As you drive, you go up several thousand feet in elevation, bringing some variation in flower species. The fields of Desert Gold that were blooming several weeks ago have now faded. You can see where they were, and you can even see some yellow. But it isn't what it was.

One note about my photos... I accidentally set my camera to overexpose the photos. I did not realize this until I'd left Death Valley. I guess I learned a lesson. But if you look at my photos and think "Those are overexposed!"... you're right. Looking at the pics now, I think I should have used a wider aperture on many of them. Live and learn. I'll go back for the next superbloom and try again.

In the lower elevations, these were the two most common blooms:

Desert Gold
Desert Gold

Desert Gold
Desert Gold

Gravel Ghost
Gravel Ghost

Gravel Ghost
Gravel Ghost

Also common were these guys:

Caterpillar

Caterpillar

Two species of phacelia were also pretty common. One is called caltha-leafed and the other is notch-leafed. I can't tell which one is in the photos below. Both supposedly itch so you aren't supposed to touch them.

Phacelia
Phacelia

Phacelia
Phacelia

As I went up in altitude a bit, I saw a Desert Five-spot that had not yet opened:

Desert Five-Spot
Desert Five-Spot, Eremalche rotundifolia

Rock Daisy
Rock Daisies

At my next stop, I found this flower:

Lesser Mohavea
Mohavea brevifolia

Lesser Mojavea
Mohavea brevifolia

I had previously run into a couple who lives nearby and knows their flowers fairly well. I saw them stopped again, so I stopped too. They showed me an open Desert Five-Spot and helped me identify the Mohavea brevifolia I had just seen.

Desert Five-Spot
Desert Five-Spot, Eremalche rotundifolia

Gravel Ghost
Gravel Ghost

Gravel Ghost
Gravel Ghost

On my next stop, I found the Golden Evening Primrose. It's a very common flower in Death Valley's low elevations.

Golden Evening Primrose
Golden Evening Primrose

My next stop was probably my longest. There I found some new ones - Desert Chicory, the Brown-eyed evening primrose, Chia, Fremont Phacelia, and one single lupine that was still blooming.

Desert Chicory
Desert Chicory

Evening Primrose
Brown-Eyed Evening Primrose

DSC_5113

Golden Evening Primrose
Golden Evening Primrose

Golden Evening Primroses

DSC_5152

Chia
Chia, Salvia columbariae

Chia
Chia

Lupine
Lupine

Lupine
The same lupine

Fremont Phacelia
Fremont Phacelia

Fremont Phacelia
Fremont Phacelia

I made only a few last stops. Someone told me that I'd see paintbrushes if I continued up the road. At this point, it was hot and I was hungry. I decided to keep going until I saw paintbrushes and then stop. Before long, I saw a flash of red and I pulled over. But it was not a paintbrush.

DSC_5282

DSC_5332

DSC_5370

Poppy
Desert Gold Poppy, Eschscholzia glyptosperma

View from Daylight Pass Road with Telescope Peak in the Background
A view of the desert with Telescope Peak barely visible in the background (but clearly visible in real life... this is where my mistake with the camera screwed me up pretty badly).

... and my red flower:

Mallow
Mallow

Back in the car, I made one last push to find those paintbrushes. And I found them! However, my photos show some evidence that hunger is bad for your brain. I set my camera on f/10 when I took the photo of the white aster family flower before the desert gold poppy, and then left it on f/10 until the end. Oops.

Paintbrush

Paintbrush

Plus a few Aster family flowers as well:

DSC_5434

DSC_5450

DSC_5456

Sunburnt and hungry, I headed back to the Furnace Creek Ranch. The restaurant was mobbed with tourists, so I sat outside and cooked some backpacking food while chatting with a geology student there on a school trip. I told myself I'd spend the afternoon at Dante's View and then I'd hit Golden Canyon the next day before leaving to go back to San Diego. Maybe I'd drive home through Lone Pine. Maybe I'd go the way I came and stop off at the hot springs I passed.

As I thought about it, however, I realized that I did not want to be in Death Valley anymore. Sure, I could stay. I could go do the hikes, and whatnot. But the cranky ranger said that there were no flowers other than what I'd just seen, and I would much prefer hiking locally in San Diego, where it's cooler, and where flowers are bursting out all over. And if I went home a day early, I'd have a day to poke around Mission Trails before my other two planned hikes, each in places where I'd find different flowers. So... I left.

Since then, I've received the following Death Valley recommendations for hikes, all of which I heard before I went:
  • Mosaic Canyon
  • Corkscrew Peak
  • Any side canyon (Redwall is nice)
  • Thimble Peak if you have a vehicle that can handle Titus Canyon
  • Darwin Falls
  • Telescope Peak
  • Take the back road out via Crankshaft Junction to Big Pine. Then take Saline Valley Road.
  • Titus Canyon and Echo Canyon
  • Ask a backcountry ranger instead of a frontcountry ranger

Addendum: I checked the Death Valley website and saw a huge update listing a number of places with flowers, including a beautiful photo of a field of Desert Gold on Badwater Road from when I was in the park. In other words, the ranger I spoke to really misled me. There were flowers in several low and mid-elevation locations, not just the one I saw. Even the gorgeous fields of flowers I'd hoped to see. I wrote the park an upset email complaining about the ranger in what was hopefully a polite way. I got a prompt email back with a number of PDFs for hikes that look wonderful.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the trip report. I'm heading to DV in another week, and I'm not going to stress too much on whether or not I'll see the famed "superbloom." The desert in spring is beautiful, in general. I am eager to see the PDFs for hiking options, when you post them. And sorry to hear about the cranky ranger. 99% of the time I have had only good encounters with NPS and USFS rangers, but occasionally you just run into an unhelpful one whose people skills are insufficient (I encountered one at Pt. Reyes in February), or perhaps they're just burnt out from dealing with too many ill-informed and demanding tourists and their frustration spills over on to seasoned campers/hikers who are looking for specific info.

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