Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Lowest Place in America: Badwater at Death Valley National Park

Badwater Basin
Dates: January 13 and February 14, 2016 (Included are photos also from my October, 2011 visit there.)
Place: Badwater, Death Valley National Park, California
Coordinates: 36.230011, -116.767520
Length: as much as you like
Level: 279 ft below sea :-)

Death Valley is on the edge of the Great Basin Desert. It isn't a valley carved by a river but a graben - a depression caused by tectonic forces. Badwater Basin is located in the south region of Death Valley. At 279 ft below sea level, it is the lowest place on land in the western hemisphere. Being a basin, it has no outlet - all the runoff water collected into it evaporate eventually, leaving salt deposits behind.
There's water there: spring water. This water is alkali, not fitting to drink, hence the name Badwater. There are organisms whole in this water, however. The endangered pupfish is one of them.
Reflection on Badwater.
Badwater is one of the must see places in Death Valley National Park. Not only because it is the lowest place in America, but also because of its outlandish beauty and fascinating natural history. It is also easily accessible to anyone.
Naturally, almost every time I visit Death Valley I also stop at Badwater. Like a chameleon, this place keeps changing its appearance. The water level and the salt formations change with the amount of precipitation and other environmental influences. And yet - it appears eternal. 

People roaming on Badwater Basin's salt flat
Badwater, like many other places in Death Valley, doesn't have a hiking trail. One can simply take off in pretty much any desired direction, and walk for as far as the eye can see. (And if that's what you do, make sure to check the weather and take along plenty of water and sun protection!). People heading out onto the salt flat have trampled a wide trail that extends out from the parking lot into the salt flat, and most visitors go only as far as that beaten track goes. Being a bit short of time on the last couple of visits, we did the same.
Winter is when temperatures are comfortable enough to visit Death Valley. But even the hottest place in America can get very cold at time, as it was when I visited there with my friend last January.
The Very Definition of Vast
A big advantage of visiting Death Valley right after the rains was that there was no haze. The air was crystal clear and the colors more intense.
The Amaragosa Range
After going far enough out on the Badwater Basin salt flat it is worth to turn around and look back at the mountains. Way up there, about a third way down from the top, there is a white sign. It looks very small from that distance. 
That sign says, "Sea Level". 
Below Sea Level
There are no flowers blooming on the salt flat, but the salt formations are as delicate and pretty. The evaporation process and the mix of minerals can result in some marvelous structures.
Halite Crystals
These structures are tiny. Kneeling down is a must to closely appreciate their beauty. 
Each visit I see different formations. The interesting one below I saw in 2011 and not on later visits.
And in case I forgot what mineral is deposited there - it looks just like table salt. I admit I haven't tasted it, though.
The evaporation leaves behind not just the pure mineral structure but also these polygons of salt-mud.

Every time rainstorms flood Badwater Basin a temporary lake forms, erases these formations and the salt dissolves. Then the water evaporates and the salt deposits once again. This cycle has been going on for thousands of years, since the last Ice Age.

January 13 was a beautiful day in Death Valley, and we could have wandered in Badwater Basin all day long with no oppressive heat to chase us back to the air-conditioned vehicle.

But the most important reason for visiting Death Valley at that time was still unchecked on my agenda: we were to go after the wildflowers. The photo below, taken on February 14 a bit south of the Badwater parking lot, shows the yellow field of desert sunflowers beyond the salt flat. That would be our next stop.

On our way back I stopped the car a bit north of Badwater to check closely a spot of greenery that looked promising. Above the vegetation, the rocks displayed some very pretty colors too.

The patch of greenery delivered on its promise: a few lush daisy shrubs were showing color.
Emory's Rock Daisy (Perityle emoryi)
Hidden between the daisies were tiny cryptantha flowers. They were numerous, but I almost missed them. Has I not stopped for the daisies I would probably have missed them altogether.
Cryptantha sp.
After checking out Badwater and checking off the beginning of the superbloom year my friend and I continued north to Ubehebe Crater, which would be our final destination for that day. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

A Super Bloom of a Super Desert: Death Valley Wildflowers


Dates: January 13 and February 14, 2016
Place: Furnace Creek, Badwater, and further south along Hwy 190, Death Valley National Park, California

As I was planning my January 2016 California trip with my visiting friend I debated whether I should add Death Valley National Park to our list of destinations, the driving distance is always intimidating. But Death Valley had a great October precipitation and while I was planning the trip photos started popping up on the California Native Plants Association page - beautiful, enticing, alluring photos of
ephemeral desert wildflowers. That was all the push I needed, and Death Valley was cemented into our itinerary.
And so, after our wonderful hike at Surprise Canyon, we were Death Valley-bound.
It was already dark when we entered the park. We drove right away to Texas Springs campground and pitched our tent.

We woke up to a cool morning, steeped our tea, then walked up the hill to watch the sunrise.
Standing deep between two high mountain ranges, we saw the sunlight touching first the peaks of the Panamint Range, slowly making its way down the steep slopes towards Furnace Creek.

Panamint Range
We stood there, watching the sheet of light approaching us, and at the right moment we turned eastward to catch the first sun rays peeking over the Amaragosa Mountain Range.

The hill we were standing on appeared barren when we climbed it, but at a closer look I saw little plants in the gravel. They too appeared to enjoy the sunrise.

Caltha-leaved Phacelia (Phacelia calthifolia)
We waited there until the sun cleared the horizon and walked down to make breakfast.
Our campsite was still in the shade. A sole raven waited for us there, looking hopefully as we pulled our supplies from the car. Desiring to enjoy the sunlight, we moved to the campsite across the road, and the raven flew away, disappointed.

It was now time to go and explore.
My agenda was very specific - I wanted to see the wildflowers! My friend, however, was visiting Death Valley for the first time, and so I was obligated to also take her to the park's 'must see' places. That day we went to explore Badwater, the Artist Drive, and Ubehebe Crater. All of these places I will post separately of.
And we'd also seen wildflowers, and that's what this post is focused on. There is no specific trail described here, but lots of photos taken while wantonly wandering on alluvial fans off the park roads, mainly Badwater Road south of Furnace Creek.

Alluvial fans are those sloped fields of soil and gravel eroded from the mountains and deposited at the canyons' openings. All the alluvial fans showed marks or the recent flash floods, but most were not overturned much to damage the bloom.

My friend and I were there in mid-January, and in the Badwater area the ephemerals were all blooming already.
The most prominent of all - the Desert Sunflower. Yellow fields everywhere, stretching from salt flat to mountains.

Ephemerals are those early bloomers, the first ones out - making it quickly before the scene dries out once more. The desert sunflower was blooming nicely even on that poor March three years ago, when I visited there with my botanist friend.
Desert Sunflower (Garaea canescens) 
A little less conspicuous, but pretty impressive still, were the fields of the Clavate-fruited Primrose. There were many of them between the sunflowers, but also fields where this flower was the dominant species.
Clavate-fruited Primrose (Chylismia claviformis)

Then my friend said, "look here," and I bent over and saw this tiny pink-flowering plant - a Purplemat. Perhaps somewhere they do form mats, but where I saw them they were overshadowed by the sunflowers and primroses. 

Purplemat (Nama demissa)
We saw other flowers on our trip, but those I will post later on subsequent blog posts. My friend and I saw a striking mid-January beginning of spring, and it was clear that there's going to be more, much more to come. And as we were leaving the park I was already planning my February comeback trip. 

As I returned home from my January road trip with may friend I announced to Papa Quail that we will be spending President's Day weekend in Death Valley. Neither of us was thrilled about the long drive with the chikas in the back at the height of their bickering phase, but I got a tip from another friend to take audio books in the car and it proved a wonderful solution. 
Unlike some other school districts, ours gets only President's Day off, so we didn't have much time. We left home on Friday evening and made it to Panamint Springs where I had reserved a campsite by Saturday afternoon. In Panamint Springs we met with our friends who came over from San Juan Capistrano, and together we went to enjoy the last daylight hour at Mesquite Dunes.

On Sunday morning we all went looking for the super bloom. Furnace Creek is on the way so we stopped at the park's visitor center to exchange our 4th grader for a National Park's pass. As it turned out, we got to keep both our 4th grader and the pass: a win-win situation :-) 
Meanwhile, Papa Quail and the elder chika were outside the visitor center, watching a verdin on a jumping cholla cactus.
Verdin on a Jumping Cholla
Our next stop was Badwater. Having been there only one month before, I sent everyone else off to explore while I stayed at the tailgate and fixed an early lunch. It was only after everyone returned from the salt flat and ate that we started exploring in earnest.

The bright yellow, desert sunflower-covered alluvial fans were even more spectacular than in January. The fields of yellow were so intense! We drove south a bit further than I did with my friend on my January trip. Then we selected a nice, yellow-covered sunflower field and went out to explore on foot.

One thing that was new was the intense bloom fragrance. Sweet, honey-like smell that hung in the air and permeated our nostrils. Within few minutes our shoes and pants-bottoms were yellow with pollen. It was an intense experience.
Some of the flowers were the same as I've seen in January. But there was a lot of new bloom.
Desert Chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana), and desert Sunflower.
The chikas were really excited about the desert fivespot, and with a good reason - it is such a pretty flower!
Desert Five-spot (Eremalche rotundifolia)

The aster family was the most dominant around. Besides its most prominent representative, the desert sunflower, there were others,like the more delicate and less conspicuous desert pincushion.
Desert Pincushion (Chaenactis fremontii)
On March 2005 it was on the news that Death Valley was sporting a wildflower bloom spectacle of once in a hundred years. Without hesitation we packed our car with camping equipment and 15 months old elder (then only) chika and took to the long road southeast. We crammed into the Sunset campground overflow area with a gazillion other visitors who came for the same purpose. Somewhere in my virtual dust there is a photo of my baby chika in a cute red dress wandering happily in a yellow field of desert sunflowers. Below is that same girl, 11 years after, towering a little taller over the flowers :-)
Desert Sunflower, Cleaved-fruited Primrose, and others.
They has very good eyes, my chikas. They were finding even the tiniest of flowers for me to see.
Broad-leaf Gilia (Aliciella latifolia)
Since no alluvial fan is like another, we packed ourselves and moved on to explore a different one. At our next stop the road runoff from the last rains hasn't dried completely yet. The drying crust cracked in beautiful patterns. the children were fascinated by that and the mud kept them busy for some time.

I made good use of that time. I found more flowers to see, including the already familiar cleaved-fruited primrose and its yellow subspecies funerea.
Clavate-fruited Primrose (Chylismia claviformis), with ssp. funerea
Another familiar sight - but from Ubehebe Crater, about 5 years ago: the velvet turtleback.
Velvet Turtleback (Psathyrotes ramosissima)
At some point the children were done with the mud and started complaining they were bored (how come? I can't fathom this.) Our friends from SJC also wanted to move on, so we started friving again, this time with a specific destination in mind: the Artist Drive.
After a few minutes of driving I derailed our two-car convoy because the roadside was painted deep purple. 
Gotta get a closer look at that purple wonder, right? The adults obeyed grudgingly. The children rebeled, and some of them stayed in the car. Still, it was a very rewarding stop. 
Heliotrope Phacelia (Phacelia crenulata)
 Well hidden within the purple cover were tiny yellow snapdragons. They were just starting their bloom.I had to get down on my knees to obtain the image.
Golden Desert Snapdragon (Mohavea breviflora)
When it was time to continue moving I sent a longing look behind me. Goodness knows when it would be that I see those blooming fields again. (Spoiler: much sooner than I expected.)

After we drove through the Artist Palette we went back to the visitor center. Each of us had her/his own reasons to stop there. Mine was to find out where exactly was the sand verbena blooming. You see, after I returned from my January trip to death Valley I saw photos of this magnificent flower posted online and I kicked myself for skipping the Mesquite Dunes on that journey. Finding that verbena was one of my objectives of going to Death Valley again in February, and this time going to the dunes.
As I found out on the day before, the sand verbena was nowhere in Mesquite Dunes. The ranger at the visitor center told me these flowers were found about 20 miles south of Badwater, and I kicked myself once more: we had turned back north just shy of that place. Immediately I started planning how we would go back there first thing on Monday morning, when Papa quail came with a better idea: to send our friends back to the campground while we would make a run for it and try and get there before sunset. Everyone agreed to the plan (even the chikas: they were already deep into the audio book we were listening to in the car).
And so we drove south again, this time just us Quails.
I was at the wheel and I tried to go as fast as I could without running over any of the roadside botanists that filled the park on that weekend. Death Valley NP is vast. Even with no obstructions it takes a while to get in the from one place in the park to another. I kept scanning the roadside, wondering if I'd see the flowers. Papa Quail used the more trustworthy method of counting miles on the odometer.
"We should be there soon," he told me.
I pulled over to the side.
"why are you stopping here?" he called after me as I was exiting the car.
"They're here," I said, and without any discussion I grabbed the camera and was off to the field.
They were there, alright. Beautiful, delicate flowers, inflorescence colors ranging from intense pink to creamy off-white. Tiny two-headed plants to large, outstretching crawler shrubs. I was happy.  
Desert Sand Verbena (Abronia villosa)
The rest of the family got out of the car and joined me in appreciation of the Desert Sand Verbena. They were happy to find me more and more specimen, each more beautiful than the next.
Desert Sand Verbena (Abronia villosa)
Verbena wasn't the only blooming plant there. Before long I was expanding my attention to the other plants around.
Mojave Desertstar (Monoptilon bellioides)
Daylight was already fading. The chikas went back to the car and Papa Quail said it was time to go. It was hard, very hard to leave the place. There was so much to see still, so many little beauties to discover. so much desert to experience.
Frostmat (Achyronychia cooperi)
Eventually I had to go back to the car. The setting sun was moving between the peaks and saddles of Panamint Range on the west and I hopped from shady to sunny spots, experiencing sunset again and again in that same afternoon. Our car was parked in a sunny spot and on the other side of the road I noticed a lupine - the first I'd seen on that trip. 
Arizona Lupine (Lupinus arizonicus)
But the didn't stand still, not even for the lupine, and soon the sun dipped behind the horizon.
A final look, a final photo, and we were on our way back north.
Group Photo (L to R): Clavate-fruited Primrose, Desert Sand Verbena, Desert Sunflower.
Soon the line of sunlight was rising on the Amaragosa Range on the east, and the mat of desert sunflowers was the brightest thing below.
Desert Sunflowers at Sunset
In the dim light, on the background of the reddish soil, the white primrose mat stood out more clearly than earlier, in broad daylight.
There were as many of them as the sunflowers, an now they were taking the lead, for the brief dusky time.
Dusk in Death Valley
A fresh water spring south of Badwater feeds a small pond. the water there is alkali, also 'bad water', and I saw no animals in it (nothing big, anyway. Perhaps there are pupfish there). I was a nice mirror to the last rays of sunlight diffracting over the mountains.

Death Valley National Park is a full day's drive from my home. Every time we go there, it is either part of a larger road trip or a short, flash visit. Every time when I leave that park I feel unfulfilled. There is so much to see there. So much beauty to explore. So much vastness to get lost in. And never enough time for more than a sample taste. Every time I go there I feast, but never get sated. 
Such was the case on both my trips there this winter. Such will be the case if I make it there again this spring (still under consideration). I ope to be able to dedicate a full vacation week to this desert in the near future, and I'm pretty sure that won't be enough either. Not until the chikas grow up.  

We left Death Valley first thing in the morning on President's Day, facing a full day's drive back home. As we were going west on 190 Mt. Whitney popped into view. I stopped by the roadside to take a photo. There was a spot of yellow below my feet and it got as much of my attention as the mountains. A sweet goodbye gift from by beloved desert.
Yellow Pepperweed (Lepidium flavum)

Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants Society for their help in identifying plants!