For many years I have heard of a miracle in the desert, Darwin Falls, a spring-fed waterfall flows year-round in a narrow gorge in the driest place on earth, Death Valley. This year I decided to visit. Its lush streamside thickets of willows ring with the song of migrating birds in springtime. The falls are located just west of Panamint Springs via a 2.5 mile unpaved road. Although there is no formal trail, the mostly level, two mile walk to the falls involves rock scrambling and several stream crossings. Darwin Creek is one of the four perennial streams in three million-acre (12,000 km²) Death Valley National Park. Darwin Falls and Creek are fed by the Darwin Wash, which is in turn fed by the volcanic tableland of the Darwin Bench between the Inyo Mountains and the Argus Range. The small, narrow valley where the creek and falls are located features a rare collection of greenery in the vast desert and is home to indigenous fauna such as quail. Darwin Falls, the Darwin Falls Wilderness, the nearby town of Darwin, California, and all other areas named “Darwin” in the vicinity are named after Dr. Darwin French (1822–1902), a local rancher, miner, and explorer.
I decided to take another trip to Death Valley to document the smaller flowers of the super bloom. The bloom changes over time, different species claim their place in the hierarchy. Although the photographs show many of the same plants at the same size, some are quite small. This year (2016) is an amazing year for Death Valley flowers since a super bloom is in progress. As a result, I am planning multiple visits to Death Valley to photograph the bloom in progress. The bloom is definitely moving north and higher in altitude. Although there are still expansive fields of Desert Gold (Geraea canescens) along the Badwater Road, as well as carpets of Sand Verbena (Abronia villosa) from Mile Marker 42 to the end of the road, many of the other flowers in this area are past their peak. Blooms will migrate up canyons and climb mountains as the air rapidly warms through spring. “When I first came to work here in the early 1990s, I kept hearing the old timers talk about super blooms as a near mythical thing,” says National Park Service employee Alan Van Valkenburg. “I saw several impressive displays of wildflowers over the years and always wondered how anything could beat them, until I saw my first super bloom in 1998. Then I understood.”
Death Valley is famous for its spectacular, spring wildflower displays, but those are the exception, not the rule. Only under perfect conditions does the desert fill with a sea of gold, purple, pink or white flowers. Although there are years where blossoms are few, they are never totally absent. Most of the showy desert wildflowers are annuals, also referred to as ephemerals because they are short-lived. Oddly enough, this limited lifespan ensures survival here. Rather than struggle to stay alive during the desert’s most extreme conditions, annual wildflowers lie dormant as seeds. When enough rain finally does fall, the seeds quickly sprout, grow, bloom and go back to seed again before the dryness and heat returns. The majority of these blooms are produced by Desert Gold (Geraea canescens). The Badwater Road along the side of Death Valley is still the go-to destination for those huge expanses of endless flowers. Fortunately for me, Death Valley is only about two hours from Las Vegas.