A rare ecological event: ‘super bloom’ in Death Valley

The arid park is covered in wildflowers for the first time in a decade.

  • The desert gold flower is the main flower carpeting Death Valley National Park in yellow during the super bloom.

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  • Photographers pull to the side of the road, en masse, to document the rare super bloom occurrence. Due to the super bloom high numbers of people visited Death Valley National Park this February and March.

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  • A hiker’s boots are covered with dense pollen dust shed from the flower-covered desert floor of Death Valley National Park.

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  • The desert five-spot, or Eremalche rotundifolia, is a rare find in Death Valley National Park, but it has been blooming among the more prevalent wildflower species during the super bloom.

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  • A desert gold wildflower, or Geraea canescens, grows from a dormant seed in the often dry soil of Death Valley National Park. In order to withstand the dry climate these flowers blossom only for a short time period, going to seed after just a few weeks.

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  • Golden evening primrose, or Camissonia brevipes, grows prolifically on the rocky mountainsides near the Badwater Basin. It is one of the more than 20 species of flowers blooming in Death Valley National Park during this year’s super bloom.

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  • The super bloom at its peak in the Badwater Basin in early March. Blooms will continue to move northward and upward to higher elevations throughout the spring.

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The hottest, driest floor in North America has been carpeted with a blossom of wildflowers in recent weeks. Over a decade has passed since Death Valley National Park has seen this many flowers, a phenomenon known as the “super bloom.” The average annual rainfall in the arid Southern California park is a mere 2 to 3 inches. But this year, El Niño weather patterns created more rainfall, and perfect conditions for over 20 species of wildflowers to grow in enormous numbers. The last time the valley saw so much color was in 2005.

Currently much of the bloom is located in Death Valley’s Badwater Basin, the lowest elevation on the continent, at 282 feet below sea level. When not in full bloom, this area is a dry salt flat that butts up against mountains. The flowers that heartily grow in such harsh environments hibernate for years at a time until the perfect conditions arise for them to blossom.

“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,” says National Park Service employee Alan Van Valkenburg. “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.”

Over the next few weeks in March, the blooms will continue to move north through the park. The Park Service estimates the wildflowers will remain in the lower, more accessible elevations through mid-March. Follow the movement of this year’s bloom at the NPS website.  

Desdemona Dallas is a freelance writer based in Paonia, Colorado.