Death Valley might be the last place you’d expect to find a brilliant display of springtime wildflowers, but it’s possible. Every year (while it’s still wintertime in the rest of the country) some flowers bloom, but once a decade the park experiences a superbloom — when unusually wet weather awakens seeds that have laid dormant for years. Such a bloom happened in 2016, and I was fortunate enough to spend several days in Death Valley, photographing it.
Bloom locations will vary from year to year, and from Superbloom to Superbloom. They will also vary from week to week, as temperatures rise and the bloom moves to higher elevations. If you’re visiting during a good bloom year, at the end of February, you should expect to find a nice carpet of wildflowers along the south end of Scotty’s Castle Road, as well as several locations along Highway 190 and Badwater Road (mile marker 27 seemed to be particularly good in 2016). Beatty Cutoff Road and Daylight Pass Road can also be good when the bloom starts moving up. Warm Springs Road, off of West Side Road, and the area near the Ashford Mills Ruins also had a good bloom in 2016. Of course, you should check with the NPS for current conditions for the latest info.
I arrived in Death Valley during the very end of February, and stayed through the first few days of March. I had originally planned to spend just two nights in Beatty, Nevada, but I soon realized that wasn’t enough. So, I kept adding nights at my motel, one at a time, as I planned out the next day’s route. In all, it took six days in Death Valley (five nights in Beatty) to see almost everything that I wanted to see in Death Valley. And the wildflowers only made everything better.
I ended up taking thousands of pictures of wildflowers. A couple hundred of them turned out pretty nice.
So what exactly should you expect during a superbloom? I heard some people complaining that the wildflowers weren’t exactly what they imagined. If you’re picturing a field of Kansas sunflowers — only in the desert — you will be disappointed. These wildflowers don’t “carpet” the entire valley, or entire mountainsides. This is still a very dry, very harsh place. Flowers will appear in patches, and you may need to drive several miles to find a good spot.
Here are a few tips. If you take pictures looking straight down on the wildflowers, you’ll see mostly dirt. The bloom will look sparse. Instead, get down on your knees, or even lay down on the ground, and shoot horizontally through the flowers. Zooming in on one bloom, while positioning others in the background, helps fill the frame and makes the landscape look more carpeted. Practice your macro shots before you go. Focus on the pistil and stamen (the middle of the flower, where the pollen is), while letting the petals fall out of focus. A tripod isn’t a bad idea, but desert winds will make it tough to get the perfect shot.
Before you go, check with the National Park Service for bloom locations (they will generally provide some broad areas that you should target). Also, do an Instagram search for #superbloom to see photos being posted in real time. Some will provide clues of their exact location.
But most of all, don’t overthink it. Just head out into the desert and enjoy the flowers!
If you happen to hear rumors that a superbloom may be on the way, start making your plans for a Death Valley trip. Even if the bloom isn’t as intense as the 2016 display, you’ll still have a great time exploring Death Valley while the rest of the country is buried in snow. And no matter what year you visit, you’ll probably see some wildflowers in limited areas during February, March, and April. It’s definitely worth the effort, and a roll of the dice, to witness a superbloom.
Here’s a look at the time-lapse video of the drive along Scotty’s Castle Road, an excellent place to spot wildflowers during the Superbloom: