Anza-Borrego, painted with wildflowers
A spectacular spring bloom is washing across the deserts, drawing crowds like bees.
"You know," one clerk said, "the flowers."
Let Japan flaunt its cherry blossoms and the Netherlands boast about its tulips. Here in California, we have a months-long flower festival that rolls slowly northward 400 miles through our deserts. As early as February, after record-setting rainfall, floraphiles were creating waiting lists for rooms near Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the southernmost park and first to bloom.
"Oh, my God, it's unbelievable," said Mike Gaffney, manager at the Hacienda del Sol motel and it was unclear for a moment whether he meant the flowers or the demand for rooms. It was the latter. Requests seem to have tripled. "My wife and I want to turn the phone off," he said. "You can get 14 calls in five minutes."
For the record, the flowers are also unbelievable.
Along Highway 78 the muddy flats around the Salton Sea crumbled into the rocky badlands of the park. Brittlebush squeezed up against the roadside, bouquets of yellow flowers shooting out on 10-inch stems from the silvery green shrub.
Farther down the road was evidence of more subtle flowers: Distant hikers were examining the earth as if someone had lost a contact lens.
It's hard to know what routes will be best day-to-day or year-to-year, said Jim Bremner, who runs DesertUSA.com, a site that posts wildflower reports, including digital photos, from parks around the Southwest. In mid-February, for instance, Joshua Tree hadn't blossomed. But just 25 miles south in Anza-Borrego, traffic was stopping all along Henderson Canyon Road, where a carpet of yellow dune sunflowers rolled out from the hills. "Henderson Canyon didn't really bloom well in the last few years, or even in 1998," the year of El Niño rains, Bremner said. "That display of sunflowers that hadn't happened in 15 years."
But the storms that hit Feb. 18 knocked the petals off much of that display.
Stepping into Eden
As I drove out Interstate 10 a week later with my consort, she was worried that February was too early for wildflowers. I was worried that we were too late.
Borrego Springs, a town of 2,800 that swells to 10,000 in the winter, is surrounded by the 600,000-acre state park. It is an easy day trip from Palm Springs or San Diego but 150 to 200 miles from central Los Angeles, depending on your route, so is best visited during an overnight stay.
With my Saturday night hotel options rivaling Ritz-Carlton expense, I shifted my weekend back a day, hoping the crowds would have thinned. I got a room, but on Sunday just before sunset, the visitor center at Anza-Borrego was still full of people buying field guides to desert flowers and checking which roads required four-wheel drive.
Anza-Borrego stretches from the San Bernardino County line to the Mexican border, and there are 500 miles of roads, paved and not, that will wind drivers past the oddly green desert hills spotted with color. But Mother Nature is an incomparable landscape architect, and to get a true sense of her work, you should lace on your hiking boots. Or at least some sturdy sneakers.
(If you want a flower-hunting shortcut, many of the plants are visible, and conveniently labeled, in the desert garden right around the visitor center. There's a quarter-mile trail through the garden or a sidewalk that stretches a half mile to one of the campgrounds. Both routes are wheelchair accessible.)
We chose our hike that night while staying at the $129 Palm Canyon Resort "resort" in this instance translated as "serviceable motel with swimming pool and 'Pumping Iron'-era gym equipment."
Our choice, Hellhole Canyon, was Eden-like. The first mile took us twice as long as it should have because we stopped every minute or so to unfold our wildflower pamphlet ($1 at the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Assn. office) and identify the chia, with its small spheres of purple-blue, or the fuzzy white popcorn flower. After a mile, the thing that stopped us was not the individual plants but the way they intertwined, growing into lavish polychrome arrangements.
The ocotillos were smoldering, the tips of their long, spiny tentacles about to burst into flaming red. The new growth on the teddy bear cholla seemed to glow. The other cactuses were still shy, the white nine-pointed stars just emerging in a ring around a small fishhook cactus.
We'd covered about 1 1/2 miles when we heard the first sounds of rushing water. Since last September, Borrego Springs has received nearly 13 inches of rain in a place that typically gets about 7 inches a year. That means a lot of flowers and new streams: We found one running from Pena Spring down through Maidenhair Falls into the canyon. The rest of the hike took us over the river and back, hopping across on river rocks and scrambling around granite boulders.
We hiked past two sets of falls, each of which created a shady oasis with palm trees. The ground was still muddy from the downpour the week before. Only the view out the canyon to the east, where the 15-foot ocotillos sprouted out against the flattening plain of Borrego Springs, indicated that this was still the Colorado Desert. We descended out of the canyon, and the rushing river went silent. When we stood still, it was replaced by another enveloping sound: the buzzing of millions of ecstatic bees.
Our route climbed only 900 feet, but even that small elevation gain brought noticeable changes in the greenery. Plants that were past their prime at the start of the hike were still blooming farther along. New varieties appeared, brilliant yellow poppies and coils of tiny fiddlenecks.
In Death Valley National Park, the shifts in plant life can be even more dramatic, said Terry Baldino, chief of interpretation.
For every 1,000 feet of elevation, the temperature drops about 5 degrees. In Death Valley, which is below sea level on the valley floor and above 11,000 feet at its peaks, that's a wide range. The soil is different too. Cactuses, for instance, won't tolerate the salty and alkaline valley floor. But they'll grow in the alluvial fan the soil created from the debris that's slowly eroded off the mountains.
In the roadside flats, desert gold currently dominates, blanketing acres in glowing yellow. People at the Death Valley visitor center often ask if there's anything blooming that isn't yellow. To which Baldino responds: "Did you get out of the car?"
"They think they can see these flowers going 30 miles an hour in a car. All they're going to see is desert gold," he said. "They need to park off to the side, take water and a camera, and walk. Tucked away among the desert gold are all these other flowers."
Hikers could be rewarded as late as July, if they climb a bit.
"Up by Telescope Peak, those flowers won't even come out of the snow until early summer," Baldino said. "And because of the snowpack, they're going to be great."
Expenses for two on this trip:
One night, with tax, at
the Palm Canyon Resort: $141
Distance from L.A. 150 miles
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, 200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs; (760) 767-5311, http://www.parks.ca.gov . The 600,000-acre park in the Colorado Desert has two developed campgrounds. Visitor center open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through May. Borrego Springs has several hotels, motels and resorts. Wildflower hotline: (760) 767-4684.
Joshua Tree National Park, north of Interstate 10, 140 miles east of Los Angeles, (760) 367-5500, http://www.nps.gov/jotr . Visitor centers open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Covers parts of the Colorado and Mojave deserts. Flowers at higher elevations will bloom into April and May. Eight campgrounds and lodging nearby in Twentynine Palms, Indio and other desert cities.
Mojave National Preserve, 170 miles northeast of Los Angeles, between interstates 15 and 40. Desert Information Center, 72157 Baker Blvd., Baker; (760) 733-4040, http://www.nps.gov/moja . Contains parts of the Mojave, Great Basin and Sonoran deserts. Three developed campgrounds. Lodging in Barstow, 65 miles west, or Las Vegas, 60 miles east. Desert Information Center open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Death Valley National Park, State Route 190 east of Interstate 395; (760) 786-3200, http://www.nps.gov/deva . Park of extremes 290 miles northeast of Los Angeles, where the valley is 11,000 feet below the peaks. Nine campsites open. Lodging in all of the towns west of the park along highways 395 and 178. Lodging also east of the park, but Highway 190 is closed east of Furnace Creek.