Death Valley, California and Rhyolite, Nevada
A Wildflower "Bloom of the Century"
3-5 April 2005
On 4 March 2005, as I was thumbing through the pages of The New York Times, I came upon an interesting article written by Finn-Olaf Jones. Mr. Jones wrote about the profusion of wildflowers blossoming in Death Valley, California. The focus of the story was how unusual and rare it is to see wildflowers in such abundance in Death Valley.
Death Valley is bordered on the west by the Panamint Mountain Range, the highest point of which is 11,049 feet. On the east, Death Valley is bordered by the Amargosa Mountain Range; its high point is 8,738 feet. Under normal weather conditions, these mountain ranges force most of the moisture out of clouds before they reach Death Valley. The winter storms of 2004-2005 were of such strength and ferocity, that despite the Panamint and Amargosa Mountain Ranges, the winter 2004-2005 rainfall in Death Valley was 291% greater than the average annual rainfall.
The winter of 2004-2005 brought an unusually large amount of rain to the southern part of California. In the populated areas of southern California the rain caused human hardship, destruction of man-made property and even death. Antithetically, in the desert areas of the state the rain caused long dormant seeds to wake up and sprout to life. A record winter rainfall of about 6.5 inches in Death Valley, made the 2005 wildflower display quite impressive. As a comparsion, for the previous 50 years, the average annual rainfall at Furnace Creek, which is located on the floor of Death Valley, is 1.66 inches.
More than 1,000 native plant species grow within the rugged terrain of the 3.4 million acre Death Valley National Park, which was proclaimed a national monument in 1933 and gained national park status in 1994. Some knowledgeable people have said that the great number of flowers that blossomed in the southern California desert during the spring of 2005, was an occurrence that happens once every 100 years; it has been called "the bloom of the century."
I decided that since I would most likely not be around for the next iteration of a Death Valley wildflower extravaganza, I should check out Death Valley flower's now. Moreover, the last time I was in Death Valley was about 20 years ago; I was overdue for another visit.
I contacted Jerry Kotler, who graduated from high school with me, and asked him if he wanted to meet me in Death Valley. Jerry was delighted with the opportunity to visit Death Valley, and so we agreed to meet in Death Valley and camp at the Furnace Creek camp grounds.
I drove to Death Valley on Saturday, 2 April, from Berkeley, California, camping overnight at Lake Isabella, and arriving in the Death Valley area on Sunday morning. Jerry drove to Death Valley from Rancho Palos Verdes, near Los Angeles, on Sunday. We rendezvoused at the Death Valley Furnace Creek campground on Sunday afternoon, 3 April. We spent Monday and Tuesday exploring and photographing a portion Death Valley National Park and the ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada.
1960 Levittown Memorial High School Yearbook Photographs
Neil Mishalov is on the left and Jerry Kotler is on the right. We were both 17 years old
Rhyolite, Nevada, is approximately 30 miles east of Death Valley. We wanted to view the remains of that once vibrant gold mining town that abruptly started in late 1904, with the discovery of gold in the Bullfrog Mountains. By March 1905, Rhyolite had a population of 500 people. The town's population swelled to 3,500 by January, 1907; and the population peaked in early 1908, at approximately 4,200 people. The bust of Rhyolite was just as dramatic as the beginning of the town, if not more so. By 1910, the majority of people in Rhyolite had packed up their belongings and left town. So, by 1910 the town was, figuratively, a ghost town, with a U.S. Census Bureau population report of 675 people. The Post Office ceased operation in 1919, and the U.S. Census Bureau population report for 1920 was 14 people. The cause for the rapid bust of Rhyolite is complex, and I will add my knowledge of Rhyolite's bust to this page in the near future.
What makes Rhyolite unique from the many other ghost towns that silently occupy the vast Nevada desert, is that Rhyolite had a few buildings constructed of concrete. Some of the concrete was reinforced with steel rods (rebar) to increase the structural strength of the concrete. Thus, rather than just finding a few pieces of wood, or broken glass, on the desert floor where a town use to stand, Rhyolite has some concrete structures standing to represent the town's location. There are also remnants of stone buildings still standing. All of the wooden buildings and cloth tents, the majority of the town's structures, are long since gone.
And then there is the Bottle House. The bottle house was constructed from more than 30,000 beer and liquor bottles, and cement in 1905. Wood was a scarce construction item at that time and place, but empty beer and liquor bottles were readily available, and free for the taking! An enterprising man constructed his home from the beer and liquor bottles; it is still standing.
In Death Valley, everywhere we looked, gently waving stands of desert gold (Geraea canescens) blossoms danced in the wind, their daisy-like faces punctuated with vibrant orange centers. Mats of lilac-pink purplemat (Nama demissum) spread across the gritty soil surface, their trumpet-shaped blossoms tipped face-up on short stalks. Tufts of lilac sunbonnet (Langloisia setosissima), another low-grower with white, star-shaped blooms dotted with purple around the border of each petal, nestled between larger rocks.
It was a wonderful adventure, and it was good to see Jerry Kotler, my high school classmate from many years ago. ....
Before you view the photographs, maps and panoramas that are contained on this web page, you may want to read the following articles about the "Bloom of the Century" from both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times
March 4 2005
In Death Valley, A Technicolor Season
By Finn-Olaf Jones
Death Valley, California
CROSSING over the Jubilee Pass on Route 178, drivers expect to encounter the monochromatic wasteland of Death Valley National Park unfurling before them. But these days they see something very different: Technicolor plains of primroses, larkspurs, poppies, verbenas, lilacs, orchids, phacelias and other wildflowers. It raises the question of whether Death Valley even deserves its name.
The same rains that have brought mudslides and destruction in one of California's wettest seasons on record have also brought an early and spectacularly kaleidoscopic spring to Death Valley.
"We were shocked when we saw this," said Lew Friedman, a visitor from Old Chatham, N.Y., as he stood before a fragrant carpet of gold sunflowers that curved over the desert floor toward the Black Mountains. "It certainly doesn't seem like Death Valley," his wife, Jackie, said. "It smells like a floral shop."
The coyotes and the tiny kit foxes that have the run of the valley during the summer months, when 120-degree weather deters human visitors, are now out of sight. Instead, on a recent day when temperatures in the 60's prompted the wearing of a jacket, the usual silence of the valley was broken by a constant hum that at first seemed impossible: the sound of bees pollinating flowers that had sprung from the basalt.
"This could well be the bloom of the century," said Tim Croissant, a National Park Service botanist. "We have many years where we don't see any blooms at all, which makes this all the more extraordinary."
The wildflower bloom this year began in early February, as much as two months sooner than in normal years. As the early spring moves into the national park, the southern part of Death Valley, much of which is below sea level, is awash in a sea of flowers. The upper valley is a pointillist landscape of opening buds. And as the season progresses, the plants farther up the surrounding mountains will also start blossoming, extending the wildflower season into May or even June.
Death Valley averages less than two inches of rain a year, but in the past seven months it has received more than six inches, on pace for a high since record-keeping began well over a century ago. The rains were so extreme that last August, flash-flooding washed away part of Highway 190, one of the main roads into the valley, killing two people and closing the park for 10 days. The highway is not scheduled to reopen until late April.
Death Valley's narrow roadways are heavily bordered by thick paths of flowers, as if each roadside mile had been highlighted with a full set of crayons. "When the Park Service grades the roads, they're inadvertently spreading plants," Mr. Croissant explained. "These disturbance areas become prime areas for growth."
The valley was given its name by a party of forty-niners who stumbled into it while seeking a shortcut to the California gold fields in the winter of 1849. They found a spring they called Furnace Creek, whose warm waters sustained them while they looked for a way through the mountains that hemmed in the valley. Bogged down by bad terrain and hunger, it took them more than a month of deprivation before they were able to escape the valley. Ascending from the vast, barren moonscape, one of them reportedly turned around and said, "Goodbye, death valley."
The name stuck.
VISITING Death Valley as it bursts forth in full botanic glory, one can't help wondering what the forty-niners would have named the place had they arrived in springtime rather than in winter. This sort of speculation comes easier while floating in the spring-fed pool of the Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort, built on the spot believed to have sustained the forty-niners. The spring - its waters are a constant 83 degrees on the valley floor - also sustains an adjoining 18-hole golf course, at 214 feet below sea level the lowest in the world.
Not far from the golf course live the descendants of the people who made their homes in the area more than a millennium before the forty-niners arrived. Some four dozen members of the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe now live in trailers and adobe houses in a 314-acre swath of desert that is part of their reservation.
"There were many uses for these plants," said Mike Shoshone, who grew up in the valley and now works in road construction for the park service. "You wouldn't know if you didn't know what to look for, but there's lots of food here."
Chia and mesquite seeds and cottontail roots were once vital food staples for the Shoshone. They wove distinctive baskets from willow and sumac shoots and decorated them with the horned-shaped pods of the unicorn plant. When it became hot in the summer, the Shoshone would move to the mountains and live off nuts gathered from pinyon trees.
The Shoshone had some 1,200 species of plants to choose from in the area, 23 of which exist only in Death Valley. Some of these endemic plants are so rare that they are found only in an isolated patch of desert, like the stunning Eureka Dunes evening primrose, whose drooping white and pink petals flower across the giant sand dunes in the northern end of the park.
The sheer surrealism of Death Valley's current appearance is overwhelming. The normally black walls and terraces of the basalt hills in the valley are now etched in yellow and white flowers, giving the terrain the appearance of a photo negative. Clusters of chias with their strangely shaped purple flower float above the desert floor like a vision from Dr. Seuss. Drab-colored shrubs are entwined in what appears to be screaming-orange-colored silly string: dodder vines hitching free rides for the nutrients of their captive hosts.
And then there's the enormous lake that suddenly appeared. "This is the first time I've ever seen Lake Manly," said Alex Cabana, who works in the park, referring to the 90-mile-long lake that covered Death Valley 10,000 years ago but that today is normally dry desert flats. "Legend has it, it only shows up every hundred years." The winter water run-off has collected in Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level and the lowest place in the Western Hemisphere, creating a vast reflecting pool extending more than 100 square miles from the eastern roadbed to the base of the Panamint Range on the western side of the valley. Although the temporary lake is only a few inches deep (two and a half feet at its deepest point), a group of park rangers recently took the rarest of trips: a canoe excursion across Death Valley.
Adding to the surrealistic atmosphere are the frequent appearances of fighter jets from the nearby training bases making low-altitude maneuvers at supersonic speeds. The recent spectacle of two gray F-16's engaged in ear-splitting mock combat over the desert floor was a vivid reminder that much of the original "Star Wars" was filmed here.
UNLIKE New Englanders and Midwesterners, in whose regions fall foliage is a big part of the tourist industry, Californians do very little to promote an interest in desert blooms. After all, this is a state whose most evocative plant, the palm tree, was imported. Moreover, the uncertainty over whether any desert blooms will occur is enough to discourage tour operators from planning events around wildflower viewing.
"We never know until December what's going to happen," said Toni Jepson, manager of the Furnace Creek Inn. "And even then we can't be sure. The desert is a fickle place."
As a result, Death Valley doesn't see the glut of tour groups and buses that clog Vermont and New Hampshire country lanes during foliage season. Instead, most visitors to Death Valley come at their own speed, and they can enjoy the vast flowered plains without worrying too much about other tourists appearing in their viewfinders. It's still one of the most desolate places on Earth, and the vast isolation is its prime attraction.
For the time being, that isolation comes in many vibrant hues.
March 8, 2005
Desert is Teaming with Wildflowers After Record Rainfall
Brief, Beautiful Rebirth
By Louis Sahagun
DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK The wettest year on record here has transformed this forbidding wilderness of scruffy mountains and buckled earth into a vividly unfamiliar world of wildflowers and reflecting pools, triggering ecological cycles not seen before on so large a scale.
Against a background of snowcapped peaks, the region's contoured badlands and splintery rock towers are festooned with bright yellow, pink, white and deep purple blossoms spreading out in all directions. With the wildflowers have come pollinators, including sphinx moths as big as hummingbirds.
Another surprise: Badwater, usually the site of a salty pond nearly encircled by massive gray cliffs, features a lake five miles wide and kayakers and wind surfers gliding over its whitecaps.
"It's not Death Valley at all," visitor Wendy Cutler said. "I'm calling it Full of Life Valley."
In some places, even the rocks are blooming. Water is forcing mineral salts to the surface, where they erupt in snow-white splotches on sulfur yellow hills.
The dazzling panoramas are drawing huge crowds of tourists, and some scientists, eager to take in the scenery before the millions of desert flowers die in the harsh summer sun. Among the visitors was First Lady Laura Bush, who vacationed here late last week and hiked more than 10 miles with an entourage of friends and Secret Service agents, park authorities said.
"It's our best bloom in history, and the flowers are getting better by the day," said park naturalist Charlie Callagan, who accompanied Bush on several hikes. "I'm telling folks, 'Hey, you may not see it this good again in your lifetime.' "
Rainfall in this 3.3 million-acre expanse averages less than 2 inches a year. In some years, there is no rain at all.
But this rain year, which is measured from July to June, "we've already had 6.19 inches of rain a record and we're only eight months into the season," Callagan said.
A destructive storm in August killed two people and washed out some park roads. That was followed by the wettest period since recordkeeping began in 1911. But for the most part, "we've had the good kind of rain, the kind that is gentle and tends to soak into the soil," said park ranger Alan Van Valkenburg.
All the rain has dissolved protective waxy coatings off millions of seeds that had lain dormant for years in terrain where ground-level temperatures can soar as high as 200 degrees.
Now, more than 50 varieties of wildflowers including desert gold, notch-leaf phacelia, gravel ghost, desert star and desert five-spot are grabbing footholds in this unforgiving desert to sprout and shine wherever water collects: alluvial fans, ravines and alongside park roads.
No one can say with certainty how great the unprecedented rainfall's ultimate impact will be on Death Valley the hottest, driest and lowest place in the United States. Long-term ecological shifts are unlikely, given that summer temperatures climb to 130 degrees in the shade. But short-term changes are underway. Though no new species have been spotted so far, the rains are likely to trigger population blips among a variety of species.
Vegetarians of all kinds stately bighorn sheep, tiny desert shrews and bulky chuckwalla lizards are eating more fresh greenery than they ever had in their lives. Sphinx moth caterpillars, imposing horned creatures the size of an index finger, are browsing on brown-eyed evening primrose flowers.
Birds such as the Say's Phoebe, distinguished by its gray throat and cinnamon belly, have been feasting on insects attracted to the flowers. More seeds mean more rodents and the birds of prey, snakes, coyotes and foxes that pursue them.
The bloom is expected to peak within the next week or so, when temperatures are to hit the mid-90s. Naturalists are predicting that swarms of caterpillars and grasshoppers will follow.
"But it is important to remember," Van Valkenburg said, "the plants will disappear once our normal patterns of heat and dryness kick in."
Nonetheless, botanists are flocking to Death Valley and desert regions across the arid Southwest in hopes of finding plants that have taken advantage of the unusually wet weather to extend their ranges.
"It's an opportunity of a lifetime to fill in distribution gaps and, perhaps, discover new species in locations that had been regarded as botanical black holes," said Ilene Anderson, a botanist with the California Native Plant Society. "Seeds go into hibernation in dry times. But for many species, we don't know how long that cycle lasts."
In the meantime, Terry Baldino, the park's assistant chief of interpretation, has hired more employees on an emergency basis to keep up with the thousands of visitors arriving each day with the urgent question: "Where is the best place to see wildflowers?"
Lately, he's been directing them to a 40-mile stretch of road at the southern end of the national park between Salsberry Pass and Badwater.
A favorite pullout in that area is Ashford Mill, where grass and wildflowers have given a green and yellow tinge to usually barren landscapes. On Sunday, a stream of tourists wandered over the terrain, planting tripods on sandy slopes to photograph the historic bloom.
Steve McKinney knew something special was happening in front of the lens of his vintage cherrywood 4-by-5 camera. But he faced a nagging problem: the delicate device kept wobbling in gusts of up to 20 mph.
"Regardless, I'm going to keep shooting," he said with a laugh. " 'Cause you never know. One picture might turn out."
Other visitors included Vernon Crawford, 67, of Bakersfield, who could not help but ponder the novelty of an abundance of flowers in a place he always regarded as "nothing but death and desolation."
"Now, it's a Garden of Eden," Crawford said. "The thing I marvel at is how long these seeds had to wait for a perfect rain so that they could burst into all these flaming colors."
A few yards away, Anish Desai, 30, and his wife, Kinjal, 27, stood with their arms around each other and tears in their eyes, awestruck by the vista unfolding before them. "This is pure beauty," Kinjal said. "It's an experience that can never be repeated."
Los Angeles attorney Marnie Lassen, 31, put it another way: "It's hard not to think of these flowers as so many millions of bright yellow faces smiling back at us."
About 40 miles to the north at Badwater, not far from places with names like Coffin Canyon and Funeral Mountains, adventurous souls enjoyed the enormous shallow lake covering the lowest point in North America.
Nothing lives in this lake. Most kayakers returned to shore encrusted with white salt.
Standing knee-deep in the brackish water, Keri French, 49, shook her head in amazement over "the sound of waves in a miniature ocean in the heart of Death Valley."
Not far away, Dan Morache, 33, attracted attention by kite-boarding over the surface of the lake that seemed to change by the hour from calm and mirror-like to rough and murky.
"I wanted to be the first person to kite-board Death Valley," Morache said, packing up his gear. "It feels pretty good, too. This may not happen again for another 100 years."
Then there was Death Valley business manager Dave Rhinehart, who has found an improbable new use for his river kayaks, 282 feet below sea level.
"Once you get a quarter of a mile from shore, it starts to feel like you're out on Lake Superior," he said. "Then you stick a paddle in the water and discover it's only 2 feet deep."
"Tip over? No problem," he said. "You simply walk home."