desert wildflowers

Lee Poulsen
Mon, 14 Mar 2005 10:23:05 PST
On Mar 13, 2005, at 10:27 PM, Shirley Meneice wrote:
> I don't know about Arizona, but I would fly into San Diego (to drive  
> to Anzo-Borrego near Borrego Springs) or LA to try  visiting Death  
> Valley and environs.  Both are already spectacular.  Or check with the  
> Cal. Native Plant Society -- they will be able to give you the latest  
> scoop on wildflower bloom in this state.
> Shirley Meneice

 From yesterday's Los Angeles Times: 


Anza-Borrego, painted with wildflowers

A spectacular spring bloom is washing across the deserts, drawing  
crowds like bees.
  By Robin Rauzi
  Times Staff Writer

  March 13, 2005

  There was a hotel room available in Borrego Springs on Saturday night.  
But it cost $380 at the most luxe resort in town. At the cheaper  
motels, the waiting lists were 10 deep.

  "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, 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  

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  

  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.

Yellow forever

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  

  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."

Bloom hunting

  Expenses for two on this trip:


  One night, with tax, at

  the Palm Canyon Resort: $141

  Meals: $50

  Total: $191

  Distance from L.A. 150 miles


Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, 200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs;  
(760) 767-5311, . 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. See . Wildflower  
hotline: (760) 767-4684.

Joshua Tree National Park, north of Interstate 10, 140 miles east of  
Los Angeles, (760) 367-5500, . 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, . 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, . 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.

Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times

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