The American Southwest has its share of hardy plants that evolved to survive punishingly dry and hot conditions. The ocotillo is as spiny as any cactus, although it isn’t one itself. They sort of look like tall dead sticks splaying out from the ground, but they produce beautiful red blossoms after a rain. Look closely at the base and you’ll see a tangle of spiky stems that dare you to stick your hand inside. The photo above was taken at Joshua Tree National Park.
I kept my eyes open throughout Death Valley for signs of wildflowers. It was one reason why we wanted to visit. Last year, the national park experienced a superbloom that happens once in a blue moon because of specific environmental conditions. It’s not enough that California got literally drenched this January and February, a record downpour that broke a years-long drought, certainly grounds for optimism. A park ranger told me that a good rain in October is a prerequisite for a great flower display. One that happened in October 2015 led to the superbloom of 2016, only rivaled before then in 2005. It didn’t happen this year. Flowers were barely to be seen anywhere. Big disappointment, to say the least, but of course Death Valley has much more to offer than flowers.
Meanwhile, the internet was abuzz with reports that Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, located northeast of San Diego near the Mexican border, was in fact experiencing a superbloom unrivalled in years. DesertUSA, which reports on Southwest wildflower displays, gave Anza-Borrego an almost perfect ’10’ rating, while Death Valley managed only a ‘4’ during the same time. That pretty much settled it. I saw this as an opportunity not to be passed up. My wife and I decided to make an unplanned visit, with an overnight stay in Borrego Springs (which I was very lucky to get as there were no other vacancies anywhere).
We weren’t let down this time. The timing couldn’t have been better; the flowers were barely beginning to fade.
We entered the park through Montezuma Valley Road (S22) on the west side. Intending to go to the visitor center, I made a wrong turn onto Hwy 78 toward Tamarisk Grove Campground when we came across hillsides covered in brilliant yellow brittlebush, hummingbird bush, ocotillo and a few less conspicuous. The moment was breathtaking, as it was for other passersby who likewise gawked.
A fellow visitor informed us that a herd of bighorn sheep was seen at the ranger station down the road. It was pointless to jump in the car; the animals would have long been gone by the time we got there.
We continued on Hwy 78. Across from the campground, we spotted some flowering cacti, parked the car and hiked the mile-long cactus loop trail. While the peak flowering month for the spiny plants is April, there was already plenty to see then (March 23).
A crowd was already overwhelming the visitor center, even on a weekday. I read that the past weekend was much worse with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Word got out that Anza-Borrego was exploding with flowers. A volunteer was handing out a map that identified the best spots for wildflower-viewing. At the rear of the building, a garden with walking paths had many specimens. I wish I’d spent more time there.
In the valley surrounding Borrego Springs, different flowers were popping up along the roadsides. In normal years, these would be easy to overlook but this year their abundance was hard to ignore: evening primroses, sand verbenas, lupines and desert sunflowers.
The field of desert sunflowers along Henderson Canyon Road, in particular, was unusual in another respect: they were crawling with sphinx moth caterpillars in such numbers that I had to be careful where I stepped. These weren’t little critters either, but big, fat ones, easily 3-4″ long.
Our final outing was a hike up into the hills of Palm Canyon where the concentration of brittlebush was as plentiful as the first encounter along Hwy 78. The hills were awash in yellow, with excellent specimens of ocotillo, agave and cacti for variety. The ocotillo here were more richly tipped with their red flowers than elsewhere in the park.
As harsh as the Mojave Desert can be, there is a rich life of plants and animals. It takes the right conditions to see them. Once in a long while, I get lucky and catch a rare glimpse of something special like a wildflower superbloom that I may never experience again.
Our final night of camping on this road trip was spent at City of Rocks State Park, north of Deming in the middle of the Chihuahuan desert, a unique, surreally beautiful area where every campsite is nestled among huge boulders.
City of Rocks features a wide field of boulders created 35 million years ago when a volcanic eruption from the Emory Caldera rained down tuff that hardened and was eroded by wind and water over millions of years. Some of these rocks are 40 feet high and are quite beautiful, ignimbrites of pinks, blue-grays, and browns, and strewn over 1,200 acres in the middle of the Mimbres valley, an odd sight in an otherwise flat and featureless terrain. Some of these upright megaliths reminded me of Stonehenge, but mostly they are randomly scattered, sometimes forming lanes between them that suggest urban pathways. The park also includes an astronomical observatory (one of two in the New Mexico state park system) that has a 14″ telescope. Keeping with the astronomical theme, the various sections of the park, arranged in loops, are named after constellations.
At night, without light pollution, dark-night-sky viewing is possible. On the night of our stay, the skies were clear; we might’ve seen the Milky Way as we did at Chaco Canyon if it weren’t for a bright full moon. We heard coyotes howling overnight and in the early morning.
Among the many desert plants here, the ocotillo stood out as the most unusual, tall and cactus-like with near vertical stems branching at ground-level and spiny appendages all along them. For most of the year, they can appear to be dead, but we were fortunate to have seen them fully leafed out and topped with crimson flowers, a direct result of prior rains.
Too bad we were in a rush to get to the Grand Canyon. This is a campground worthy of a longer stay.
|City of Rocks State Park