Super Bloom at Death Valley National Park

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Due to an abnormally rainy fall, Death Valley National Park is in the midst of a rare Super Bloom with millions of wildflowers coloring miles of the park that are otherwise barren. This is due to a confluence of events: an El Niño-fueled October brought more rain to the park than it sees in an entire year, followed by solar warmth, and reduced winds, all of which played a part in delivering a spectacular bloom.

The area where the 2016 Super Bloom is currently peaking is near Badwater Basin, which is the lowest point in North America. It’s normally beautiful and fascinating, but not because it’s teeming with vibrant life. To the contrary, this desert region–which can reach 120-degree plus highs in the summer–is stunning for its salt flats and unique, bleak appearance. During the Super Bloom, life permeates the aptly named valley of death in a striking juxtaposition.

I’ve already belabored the point that DVNP is criminally underrated in my Why You Should Visit Death Valley National Park post. If that didn’t convince you to visit this national treasure, never forget Dr. Ian Malcolm’s eloquent words of sage wisdom: “life, uh…finds a way.” That’s right: Death Valley National Park is like a velociraptor.

Much like with the dinosaurs, life finds a way in Badwater. Animal and plant life exist among the salt flats in contrast to their environment. Life is just not normally “finding a way” to this extreme. While there is normally a spring wildflower bloom at Death Valley National Park, it’s not normally quite like this.

Last year, I visited in February and March several times, and at most I saw a few patches of flowers alongside the road. This year, Badwater Road is blanketed in miles and miles of wildflowers. It looks like a scene out of The Sound of Music, except with a devilish locale (which is fitting, since that film is clearly the work of Satan 😉 ).

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Death Valley is one of my favorite National Parks, so any excuse to go there will do for me. After seeing a few news articles about the spectacular 2016 Super Bloom, and how it even exceeded the last Super Bloom of 2005, Sarah and I decided to make the 5-hour drive to Death Valley National Park yesterday. Ten hours in the car is a long time for a day-trip, but we wanted to see the wildflowers before they bolted.

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Initially, I had some trepidation, as that’s a long time in the car, and the latest National Park Service Wildflower Report suggested Badwater Road was past-peak for many flowers. Regardless, conditions were right for a spectacular sunset, so at least (hopefully) we’d have that.

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As soon as we got to the area around Devil’s Golf Course and Natural Bridge Road, worries about missing the bloom were erased. There had been some wildflower patches prior to this, but this was the first area (coming from Furnace Creek) where there were actually fields of wildflowers. We immediately pulled over, as did almost every other car heading down the road.

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From there, we continued on, past Badwater Basin, to see what the wildflowers were like farther down Badwater Road. At around Mile 23, the wildflowers started getting heavy again. This continued through Mile 28, peaking right around the marker for Mile 27.

This is where we spent the majority of our time, and there were numerous washes making for an easy hike into the heavy fields of wildflowers. The beauty of what we saw made me wonder whether it was actually past-peak…

 

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In the National Parks, you see an inordinate number of Volkswagen Buses that looked like they rolled straight off a tour with the Merry Pranksters. When you find such a vehicle you should always seek out its owners, and strike up conversation. You never know what you’ll get, but without fail, its owners will regale you with colorful anecdotes about…something or another.

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So naturally, I found the owner of this vehicle out in the fields of gold, and struck up conversation. It turns out he had been coming to Death Valley National Park for the last 30-plus spring blooms–a DVNP flower child, I guess you could say.

“Better than the 1998 bloom!” he excitedly told me when I asked what he thought of the 2016 Super Bloom. Specific reference to a bloom nearly two-decades ago gave some credence to what he was saying, for me at least.

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When I asked if he thought it was past peak, as indicated by the NPS Wildflower Report, he ahem used rich language to dismiss that notion, suggesting they just make things up as they go for the reports to sound like they know what they’re talking about.

He indicated that he had been camping in Death Valley for the last week, and the bloom had gotten progressively better each day of their visit. I mention this little anecdote in case you’re debating a visit in the next week or so and are worried about being too late. I’d consider this dude a reasonably reliable source, and he thinks it still hasn’t peaked. So there you have it.

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If you’re planning a visit in the near future, I’d definitely recommend focusing on this stretch. The expanses of wildflowers stretch for miles, with some 20 different species reported to be among what’s presently in bloom at Death Valley National Park, but the wildflowers are thickest right at Mile 27.

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If you plan to take photos, note that it can be a bit tricky–and deceiving. While some areas of wildflowers in the Super Bloom certainly are denser than others, it always appears that the wildflowers in the distance are denser than those right in front of you. This is an optical illusion–a desert mirage, of sorts. Rather than making a never-ending trek towards those denser flowers that are in the distance, compress scenes with a longer lens.

Even for my landscape shots, most of the time, I was using focal lengths above 50mm. Even then, capturing what I saw in person was incredibly difficult. Your eyes see the beauty of the sea of yellow wildflowers, where the camera seems to pick up more dirt and desert plains than I was seeing in person. This was frustrating, and made photography much more of a challenge than it should’ve been.

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With the sunset approaching, I noticed that the clouds were starting to look really good. Unless it all fell apart at the last minute, the sunset should be really good. With about 15 minutes until actual sunset, the sun dipped below the mountains, at which time I started scouting for a sunset spot. For my ideal spot, I wanted to shoot ultra-wide, getting a couple of flowers really close to my lens in the foreground, with a nice middle ground, and mountains with sunset clouds above in the background.

I found myself running all over the place, and as I raced against the clock, the color was getting better and better, and I still hadn’t settled on a spot. Nowhere was perfect. The biggest difficulty was that most of the flowers were pointed in the wrong direction, and the few scenes that did have flowers pointing towards me had weak mid-grounds or had dead flowers in the frame. Realizing that the light was peaking, I finally settled on a spot, quickly set up, and grabbed this:

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I think it’s a good shot, and perhaps I’m my harshest critic, but it’s not as good as it could have been. Since the flowers were inches from my ultra-wide angle Rokinon 14mm lens, I set up my tripod and Sony a7R II only a few inches from them. This meant that I needed to focus stack to have a tack-sharp image front to back. Unfortunately, I did a poor job framing the shot and focus stacking, which led to challenges in post processing. I still like the composition and find it interesting (even with a bit of dead space), but I know what could have been.

Another lesson learned here was the downside of having one foot in the Sony mirrorless world and one foot in the Nikon DSLR world. Since I didn’t want to carry both, I only brought my Sony a7R II and its lenses. Normally, in a situation like this, I would’ve had two camera bodies, and would’ve scouted my eventual sunset spot, set it up with precision on a tripod, and shot the late afternoon light handheld.

Since I only had one body with me, I shot the afternoon light, and then tried to find a spot on the fly for sunset, which proved more challenging than anticipated, and caused me to be sloppy in my execution on the finished shot. This is why I’m calling post “Part 1.” I definitely want a mulligan on shooting a sunset like this and plan to post the results after we head back to Death Valley (hopefully) next week.

If you’re planning a California road trip or vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do. To get some more Death National Park photo ideas, check out my Death Valley National Park Photo Gallery, which includes additional shots I have taken on my visits there. For photo licensing inquires, please contact me.

If you enjoyed this post, please use the sharing buttons above to help spread the word via social media. I greatly appreciate it! 

Your Thoughts…

Have you seen the Super Bloom at Death Valley National Park? Is it something you are planning or seeing? Does this make you want to go? Share your thoughts on this or anything else, or questions you have in the comments!

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16 replies
  1. Serena
    Serena says:

    I was just in Death Valley on March 5 & 6 and the blooms had definitely moved north. We saw the prettiest blooms on 190 between Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. Both had expansive fields of Desert Gold blooms. The flowers near Badwater Basin were still nice, but not nearly as spectacular as this stretch further north. We didn’t make it further north on the 190 than the turn for Stovepipe Wells, but we did take the 374 through Mud Canyon, turning east off the 190 at the same place you turn west to go to Stovepipe Wells. The flowers along both sides of the road were stunning – yellow, purple and white blooms. This area isn’t as barren as the other parts of DVNP, so perhaps it’s less impressive, but it was still a really beautiful drive.

    Tom, thanks for the beautiful photos and sharing your tips. Your advice was really helpful for our trip to see the Super Bloom!

    Reply
  2. jjinla
    jjinla says:

    thx for the report! i am going this wkend from LA. how fast did the sun go down? wind was not an issue photographing the flowers? we may have to drive all the way back to our hotel in Lone Pine Fri & Sat nights. unless we camp at Stovepipe Wells. Dark, deserted desert roads ? do you know where or when we could get sunrise shots?

    Reply
    • Devon
      Devon says:

      Thanks for the helpful article, Tom! I heard 190 is also looking good and I do wonder about the northern section of the park as well.

      I’m heading there bright and early tomorrow, so hopefully I’ll be able to scout during the day for sunset and then the following sunrise.

      Reply
  3. KCmike
    KCmike says:

    A killer catch of natural beauty. The photography bug has hit me hard lately and my wife knows it. I spend hours each weekend researching new places and places I want to drive. 5 hours seems reasonable to me for this brilliant specimen you found. Spring break is coming up and I want so badly to take a road trip. While I’m not in SoCal, I have dreams of traveling to a Florida beach minus the spring breakers or heading west to the Grand Canyon. I will have to keep it on the cheap side and find something within a day drive. I’m ready for sun and need to head south.

    Reply
  4. Joanie E-K
    Joanie E-K says:

    For your first time there you did an amazing job. Part of the execution of photography is knowing where you are and what to expect. No one has a complete sense of these things the first time they go somewhere. You experienced this event and now you are developing a plan. Being in midstream on a system change didn’t help either.

    Thanks so much for providing your unique perspective on trying to capture this event with a camera. The “shots” may not have turned out like you had planned in your head but that is something that happens any time, any where with any subject. Just keep shooting and you will get there! : )

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Yep. That’s part of this neverending quest that is photography. If it all came easily and without some (a lot of) duds, where would the fun be in that? A big part of this–for me at least–is the thrill of the chance, and that “perfect shot” always being just a bit out of reach.

      I don’t think I will ever “get there” and that’s fine by me!

      Reply
  5. wwcpd
    wwcpd says:

    Thank you again, Tom! As I have mentioned to you in other places, DV is my absolute fave Nat’l Park, and I am crying that I can’t be there this spring. We just live too far away. 🙁 But living vicariously through you and your beautiful photos does help.

    And you’re right about those VW vans. My college anthropology professor had one just like the one in your photo, and I got to go on several fieldtrips with him to the southwest. He absolutely could have regaled you with unending fascinating stories.

    Reply
  6. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    Ah, the trials of having only one full-frame-sensor camera with you at a time! 🙂

    Thanks for the photos. My favorite is actually the one above the sunset shot – I like seeing some detail in the mountains.

    Do these not link to smugmug any more? I’d love to see EXIF info, and my plugin only is showing camera type and exposure length.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Yes, as they say on the internet, “the struggle is real.” That, or I want to give myself an excuse for not doing as well as I’d like. Why hold myself accountable?! 😉

      I’m not hosting them on Smugmug right now because I’m debating leaving Smugmug in the near future, and I don’t want to potentially redo even more posts if that happens. The reason you’re not seeing full EXIF for some shots is because the Rokinon 14mm is a manual lens, and its aperture doesn’t register with the camera.

      I did upload a couple of the shots to Smugmug: https://tombricker.smugmug.com/Travel/Death-Valley-National-Park/i-LNfTsF9

      Reply
  7. Kayla
    Kayla says:

    Love these photos of life in the desert. I’m a sucker for glamour shots of two lane paved roads, so I love that shot leading into the mountain.

    Reply
  8. Matt
    Matt says:

    Nice Shots Tom. Another place you may look into checking out is the Carrizo Plain. It’s west of Bakersfield and a real hidden gem. I don’t know what the expectations are this year, but during the last el nino the place was absolutely amazing. The best time to see the wildflowers is usually March or April.

    Reply

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