Wildflower blooms, wildlife and scenery in the California desert!

Wildflowers bloom in perfusion in February in northeastern part of Death Valley.

Death Valley, Joshua Tree National Parks offer wildflower blooms, wildlife and other-worldly scenery

Tired of chilly mornings and frosty windshields? Use the late winter/spring to take a road trip to the California desert for wildflower blooms, exotic wildlife and stunning scenery. Our destination includes two stunning national parks, Death Valley and Joshua Tree, and several national monuments and state parks.

More color accentuating Death Valley!

We’re headed to Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks. Take the scenic route over the Sierra via California Hwy. 88 where you’ll see snow above 6000 feet and descend the Eastern Sierra, past Mono Lake and it’s other—worldly tufa columns and Manzanar, the Japanese forced resettlement camp during World War II. Further south is Death Valley, just 425 miles and seven hours from Stockton.

Death Valley was named during the 1849 California gold rush. A member of an immigrant wagon train from the Midwest died, attempting to cut across the arid valley; looking back one said “goodbye, Death Valley”; the name stuck.

In the valley, watch for desert tortoise, roadrunners, hummingbirds and bighorn sheep. A year ago, we found the greatest panorama of wildflowers about 15 miles north of Badwater Basin.

If you are tracking desert wildflower blooms, a variety of factors is at play, including rainfall, temperature, topography and elevation.  A good website that offers updates on desert blooms is desertusa.com. It suggests that, through mid-April at lower elevations (valley floor and alluvial fans), the best areas are Jubilee Pass, Highway 190 near the Furnace Creek Inn, base of Daylight Pass, where you will often find desert star, blazing star, desert gold, mimulus, encelia, poppies, verbena, evening primrose, phacelia, and various species of cacti (usually well above the valley floor).

Water tanker and borax wagons at Harmony Borax Works in the park.

Death Valley also offers considerable history, both of native peoples who settled nearby thousands of years ago, and more recent exploration. Silver was discovered in the park in 1873 and Panamint City would swell to more than 5000 residents. While the silver played out about four years later, “white gold” was discovered, borax. A stop at the Harmony Borax Works reveals the refinery huge 20 mule team wagons and more which operating from 1883–88. These huge wagons would haul 36 tons of refined borax over 160 miles to the nearest railhead – the operation lasted only five years due to competition outside the desert area. The Keane Wonder Mine has been reopened after safety modifications, a gold mine that boomed from 1907 to 1912, producing over $1 million in gold inside the park.

In 1904, gold was discovered just east of the park, leading to the last real American gold rush. While the gold saw thousands of miners, several roads and a railroad built into the Rhyolite district; a financial failure led to the end of the era by 1912. Rhyolite is one of the more interesting ghost towns in the west, located on the eastern edge of Death Valley.

Abandoned railroad station in the ghost town of Rhyolite, eastern side of Death Valley.

The park offers many other points of interest including Golden Canyon – just a short hike off Highway 190 takes you to this truly golden canyon – a hike is best taken in late afternoon when the setting sun offers spectacular colors. A few miles south is Natural Bridge, a short drive off the main road and another short hike takes you to this natural wonder. Don’t miss Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, a vast sandy desert expanse, wonderful for photo taking.

A 30 foot-tall Joshua Tree stands in the northern section of its namesake park.

After admiring the wildflowers and scenic splendors of Death Valley National Park, head south to Joshua Tree National Park (it’s another 280 miles and 4.5 hours). We entered the park from the north side, adjacent to Twentynine Palms, featuring a number of motels and restaurants. The park offers a number of scenic campsites; our favorite is Jumbo Rocks, featuring Friday and Saturday Ranger talks in a large amphitheater.

The park’s nearly 800,000 acres are at the confluence of several ecosystems. With more rainfall on the higher, northern part of the park, the Mojave Desert prevails – the habitat of the park’s namesake Joshua Trees. As one moves south through the park, steadily dropping in elevation, the Colorado desert prevails, sprinkled with wildflowers depending upon rain and temperature, and 18’ tall, spindly Ocotillo plants with slender red flowers, Brittlebush, Smoketree, Mojave yucca and the strange Cholla cactus – we never imagined such creations. In the park’s westernmost section, above 4000 feet, the Little San Bernardino Mountains offer habitat for Pinyan Pine and Juniper.

Other destinations in California that offer wildflower blooms and evocative desert finery include the huge Anza Borrego Desert State Park, south of Palm Springs, the Carrizo Plain National Monument, take the I-5 exit at Buttonwillow and go west on Hwy. 58, and Pinnacles National Park, 30 miles south of Hollister, CA (more on those parks in future). Be sure to take camera and binoculars and sunscreen, hat, plenty of water and snacks for hiking.

Chollo Cactus Garden stands in Joshua Tree's lower elevations, at home in the Colorado desert within the park.

Where to stay: In Death Valley, for lodging inside the park, Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek offer both lodging and camping. Additional smaller campgrounds dot the park; most are first come, first served. For Joshua Tree, motels are found in Twentynine Palms, and lovely campgrounds are situated at impressive locations inside the park.

For more information: Carrizo Plain National Monument, blm.gov/nlcs_web/sites/ca/st/en/prog/nlcs/Carrizo_Plain_NM.html, (805) 475-2131; Death Valley National Park , nps.gov/deva, (760) 786–3200; Joshua Tree National Park, nps.gov/jotr; or phone 760.367.5500; Pinnacles National Park, nps.gov/pinn; (831) 389-4486.  Camping at federal campgrounds can be booked through recreation.gov, (877) 444-6777.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com or follow at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in your world!

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    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in late 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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