The ragtag group of travelers had crisscrossed desolate sand dunes and labyrinthine badlands. They’d baked under the relentless sun, their tongues thick with thirst and desert dust. They’d slaughtered their oxen and abandoned their wagons and cursed the “short cut” that had led them there. And still they walked, their footfalls the only sound in the lifeless landscape.
“Every step I expected to sink down and die,” a weary woman later wrote.
When the settlers finally scaled the impenetrable wall of the Panamint Range, one was said to have looked back toward the canyon and proclaimed, “Goodbye, Death Valley.”
Then they trudged on toward California gold country.
Survival is a rarity in that part of the desert. Death Valley is the lowest and driest spot in North America and the hottest in the world. The valley behaves like a gigantic convection oven. Superheated air wafts and whorls through the basin, scouring the landscape, daring life to defy it.
But life finds a way.
A rare and spectacular series of circumstances has transformed the barren basin into a chaos of white, yellow and purple flowers that have transformed the area into “a valley of life.”
It’s a once-in-a-decade flowering known as a “super bloom,” and it’s happening right now.
“It could be a once in a lifetime opportunity,” park ranger Alan Van Valkenburg said.
Flowers can be found at Death Valley pretty much every year, even when the conditions are far from ideal. But Death Valley hasn’t seen a bloom like this one since 2005, park rangers say. And though the valley isn’t quite as forbidding as its name would imply – more than 1,000 kinds of plants are found in the park; rare, silvery pup fish swim in the shallows of its Salt Creek; bighorn sheep wander in isolated bands across the rocky mountain slopes – it’s a testament to nature’s resilience and a fluke of good fortune that anything can turn this desert into a garden.
The flowers that appear during a superbloom are known as “desert ephemerals,” since they are so short-lived. Rather than battle the relentless heat year after year, the flowers’ seeds lie dormant underground, safe from the blistering heat that bakes the desert during the summer, when temperatures can easily reach 120 degrees during the day and a 90 degrees at night. Death Valley sees an average of just 2 inches of rain a year, and in 1929 it got no rain at all.
Drought conditions keep the seeds from rotting as they shelter beneath the soil, waiting for the right moment to sprout.
A winter like this one provides that moment.
An autumn storm brought 0.7 inches (a deluge by the desert’s standards) to the valley in October. The storm was devastating at the time, setting off flash floods and damaging one of the visitors’ centers. But it also prompted park rangers to begin speculating about a super bloom like they hadn’t seen in more than 10 years.
The rainstorm washed the protective coatings off of the dormant seeds, allowing them to sprout. Then, the El Niño climate cycle brought more water to the parched landscape. The continued watering kept the nascent plants alive as they waited for spring to come.
With the arrival of warmer weather, the plants finally began to flower.
“I’ve lived in Death Valley for 25 years,” Van Valkenburg said in his video about the super bloom, “and I’ve seen lots of blooms, lots of wildflower blooms in Death Valley, and I kept thinking I was seeing incredible blooms. I always was very excited. Until I saw one of these superblooms.
“And then I suddenly realized there are so many seeds out there just waiting to sprout, waiting to grow,” he said. “When you get the perfect conditions, the perfect storm so to speak, they can all sprout at once.”
The colorful plants now carpeting the desert won’t last long. Ephemerals’ survival strategy is to grow fast, reproduce quick and then die off as soon as the weather becomes unbearable again.
Soon, the valley will begin to heat up, and parching winds will come roaring back into the basin. The flowers will dry out, then disintegrate, leaving nothing but brown husks and scattered seeds behind them. The landscape will look like its name again: dusty and desolate, with signs of life few and far between.
But the seeds will still be there, sunk in the soil, waiting for the next rain.