Death Valley Wildflower Update

Black Mountains Bloom

The Black Mountains seem to be a poorly named range, especially when their feet are covered in flowers!

Wildflower report from a flying visit to Death Valley yesterday:

One thing most people seem to neglect in reporting wildflowers is mention of places where they DIDN’T see anything. This is also useful information. We didn’t see any blooms of note crossing Panamint Valley. There was a little desert gold getting going as you head up the east side around 2k elevation, but not extensive yet – maybe in another week. We took a brief look half a mile down the road to Trona – nothing yet. Basically nothing in Darwin Canyon. Nothing much coming down into DV from Towne Pass either, except an isolated patch by Emigrant Campground.

Badwater area and south is still very much the place – starting around Natural Bridge turnoff, things get good. The desert gold photographed the best, but some of the fans around Badwater were covered in in primroses, with purple phacelia making a showing as well. We went as far as the Copper Canyon fan, which was awesome.

If one didn’t want to head down to Badwater for some reason, there’s also a lot of desert gold between Furnace Creek and Salt Creek, and along the Beatty cutoff.

I’d love to hear what people are seeing up the road to Ubehebe, towards Cottonwood Canyon, on the West Side Road, or in other parts of Panamint Valley! Even if the answer is “nothing,” it’s good to know.

Flowers, Playa, Skyline

Dead Owls

Barn Owl Face

In one of those odd coincidences that sometimes crop up in life, last weak brought me two dead owls on two consecutive days. If I were a pagan in antiquity, no doubt I’d find it all very portentious, but instead my reaction was fascination mixed with an appropriate amount of sadness.

Barn Owl Waves

The first victim was a barn owl someone found on the ranch. The more biologically minded folks in the community quickly gathered to take advantage of the opportunity to get a good look and feel at its feather structures and general anatomy. Soon enough, we noticed a deep splinter that had penetrated its ear region, and showed signs of infection, as well as some damaged feathers. Margins of survival are thin for a predator in winter.

Barn Owl Talon

Barn Owl Patterns

The next day’s owl was sadder, in that its death was entirely human caused and utterly unnecessary. Anyone who hikes around the hinterlands of Nevada and eastern California will find a ton of old mining claim markers. These usually take the form of upright, hollow PVC tubes. Unfortunately, they offer tempting rest or nest sites to birds, who then get stuck inside and die slowly. People have reported finding remains of ten, twenty, or even more individuals in a single tube.

Dead Screech Owl

Happily, in Nevada it’s now legal to knock these things down (the California BLM is a little vague on that point, though they do encourage the public to fill or cap tubes [seldom practical for the casual hiker], and in theory old markers are required to be removed). I noticed one standing upright and went to do my duty as a good citizen and knock it down. Sure enough, I found a mummified screech owl inside, with some bones from a previous victim tangled in its talons.

Dead Owl

If you come across upright white plastic tubes in the desert, please take a little time to do what you can. The silver lining is that you may get to take a look at some interesting animal remains.

Dead Owl

Moisture Pulse

Moisture Pulse

Following an afternoon of steady rain in Death Valley and a warm, convivial lunch with the estimable Sarah Marino and Ron Coscorrosa, Greg Russell and I were rather late in searching out a sunset spot. Clouds were playing among the summits of the Funeral Mountains, so we walked out onto the stony desert ridges above Furnace Creek hoping to see some drama. But when we arrived on a hilltop, our hopes for a colorful sunset vanished as we looked west to see a wall of cloud rapidly boiling up out of the valley and sweeping over Manly Beacon, the mountains and us. But we were treated to a couple of minutes of nice views while moisture rolled into the Twenty Mule Team badlands, until everything went gray as we were enveloped by mist in the fading daylight.

Fog in the Owens

Fog under Whites

There’s nothing like mountains reaching above the clouds, and when the clouds are low and the mountains high, then there’s a lot of mountain to reach up. Last Wednesday morning, I awoke inside a cloud here in Deep Springs Valley, drove above it over the White Mountains, and down into another cloud of fog in the Owens Valley. Sunrise above these conditions must have been spectacular, but even several hours later, I couldn’t resist driving uphill a bit to take some pictures of White Mountain Peak towering 9,000 feet out of a fog bank lingering on Bishop and the Owens Valley.

Owens Valley Fog

The high peaks of the Palisades above Big Pine were as impressive as ever:

Fog Under Palisades

Panoramic version – please enlarge!

Owens Fog Pano


Blooming in Storm

Looking to the Rain

The heavy rains this fall around the Death Valley region raised many hopes for a good wildflower season, and these hopes are now being fulfilled. Greg Russell and I took a trip to southern Death Valley last week, and found substantial amounts of desert gold already in flower. Sand verbena and brown-eyed primroses were also beginning to make an appearance. But even more promising were the millions of healthy green shoots springing from the endless gravel. They were particularly prolific on one of the large alluvial fans spilling from the Black Mountains, with sweeping views down the valley to the Owlshead Range.

Alluvial Flowers

It’s worth pointing out that it takes a pretty thick field of flowers to show up well in most pictures – the blooms shown here were even better in person!

Ashford Gold

I’ve never seen limestone such a brilliant orange as in this section of the Black Mountains.

Orange Limestone Desert Gold

The clouds were thick, but we did see a brief display of light as a sunset beam broke through the storm.

Ashford Peak Light

As we were leaving, light rain began falling. It continued throughout the day, and the clouds thickened towards evening as mist began to wrap the mountains and badlands. All those young plants received another timely dose of moisture, so I expect the wildflower show will get better and better.

Look to the Sun

2015 Favorites: Eli

And it’s another year of my favorite Eli shots. We’ll see how much longer this tradition lasts, as he’s becoming markedly less inclined to cooperate with the camera. But I still catch him sometimes when he’s not paying attention!

Favorites of 2015

Happy New Year! This last one was a little strange, a little surprising, and most of my favorite outings and images last year were not quite what I might have expected or planned. I particularly notice that living on the edge of the Great Basin and Mojave deserts has shifted my productive season, and last year I found winter and spring to be more inspirational and motivating than summer or fall. I generally stayed local in eastern California and southwestern Nevada, though I did take an excellent trip with Greg Russell into the remote heart of Nevada and had a remarkably fiery trip to Idaho. I have numberless ideas for projects in 2016, though doubtless my best work will likely again take a form I do not now expect.

Without further ado, here are some my personal favorites from the year past.

January: Twilight in the Pinto Valley Wilderness, Clark County Nevada.

Pinto Valley Twilight

February: Badlands under the White Mountains, Esmeralda County, Nevada.

Badlands in Shadow

February: Snow squall over Westgard Pass, Deep Springs Valley, California.

Westgard Squall

March: Salt Creek pupfish (Cyprinodon salinus), the biological wonder of Death Valley.

Pupfish Ripples

April: Colorful badlands, Esmeralda County, Nevada.

Emigrant Palette

April: Elizabeth Stewart of Lone Pine, California roping a calf at our annual branding at Deep Springs.

May: Sunrise light shines up the South Twin River canyon, Arc Dome Wilderness, Toiyabe Range, Nevada.

South Twin Spotlight

May: Polished granite canyon, Toiyabe Range, Nevada.

McCloud Creek Cleft

May: Maze of granite, Toiyabe Range, Nevada.

Wild Granite Morning

June: Unexpected late rains in May and June brought us an amazing desert wildflower bloom in Deep Springs Valley. I have a ton of satisfactory flower shots to choose from, but I especially like this juxtaposition of globe mallow and indigo bush.

Indigo and Mallow

July: Memory of Rain – dried raindrops in alluvial sand, Mono County, California.

Memory of Rain

August: Granite stripes looking towards Deep Springs Lake, California.

Granite Stripes

August: Pacific yew, near the Salmon River, Idaho.

Yew Detail

August: Tepee Springs Fire at night above the Salmon River, Idaho.

Fire and Water

October: Lingering autumn leaves, Big Pine Creek, Sierra Nevada, California.

Dendritic Autumn

December: Tucki Mountain reflected in Salt Creek, Death Valley, California.

Tucki Reflection

Here’s to a happy and prosperous 2016 for all! Thank you to all my readers and well-wishers (not to mention clients! Big thanks to you folks!). It means a lot to me that people enjoy and appreciate my work, and I hope I offer a unique perspective on some of the more seldom-seen country of the American West.

Ice Playa

Icy Moonset

Several days ago, motivated by a spell of very low temperatures, I ventured down to Deep Springs Lake for sunrise. The Lake is usually a bit of an inconvenient place to explore, since the numerous healthy springs nearby create lots of bogs, swamps and mudpits, some of which are almost invisible beneath mats of grass until you find yourself sunk to your calves, or sometimes deeper. My best excursion to the Lake previously was helped by the presence of ice, and I hoped that a really hard freeze would open up some unusual options in a beautiful and strange landscape.

Ice Playa Sunrise

Cold was certainly abundant. My car thermometer hit zero on the drive down, and I was glad to find that the nearest spring formed a path of solid ice. I was able to walk two or three hundred yards out onto the lake playa on ice smooth enough to skate on. Further out, the surface began to grow crunchy as I got further from the freshwater sources and deeper into the chemical lakebed, whose waters are so salty that their freezing point must be very low indeed. I didn’t push my luck any further: the prospect of finding myself sunk knee-deep in half-frozen chemical mud, alone on a single-digit morning, miles from another human, was not appealing.

The cold made working with photo gear pretty challenging and framing solid compositions was not easy, but it was a glorious dawn surrounded by a sheets of blue ice laced with salt formations in a ring of high desert mountains.

Desert Ice Morning


Yew Detail

Due to the color scheme, I had actually intended this for a Christmas post, but it slipped my mind in the holiday excitement. This is Pacific yew foliage on bark. Though yews are common enough in the Pacific northwest, the grove where this was taken is hanging on in a moist, shady pocket, deep in a canyon near the Salmon River in central Idaho. Yews grow very slowly, and the tall trees of this grove are undoubtedly very old. Fires have encroached on the surrounding ponderosas and Douglas firs, and sun-baked grassy slopes rear above them, but the grove endures beside its little creek, a living memory of a colder age.

Salt Creek

Creek and Badlands

One of the greatest wonders of Death Valley, to me at least, is Salt Creek, where the valley’s geology pushes to the surface a small ribbon of reliable, if salty water.

Salt Creek Desert Dawn

Flanked by a little border of grass and pickleweed, its valley dusted white chemical white with evaporative depsits, Salt Creek runs between hills of utterly bare gravel and stone, flowing below sea level from source to its end in the Cottonball Basin playa.

Tucki and Salt Creek

Tucki Mountain’s canyon-ridden flanks soar almost seven thousand feet above.

Salt Creek Morning

Though they weren’t active on this winter visit, in spring Salt Creek teems with one of the world’s unlikeliest creatures, Cyprinodon salinus, the Salt Creek pupfish.

Salt Creek Light

Cut off from the greater world of water by the drying of the Pleistocene lakes and rivers, the pupfish survive in their refuge, if refuge is the appropriate term for a few miles of creek whose water approaches 100 degrees in summer and is saltier than the ocean, a scrawl of life through one of the harshest deserts on earth.

Tucki Reflection


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