RED ROCK CANYON, Nev. The vistas in this land of desert and rock feature deep canyons and striated rock formations. But the most impressive sight is yet to come.
Thanks to storms that swept the Southwest region including Nevada, Utah and California in January and February, at some point next month the gray floor of the desert will be set ablaze by carpets of wildflowers, in riotous shades of purple, yellow and red.
"I'm hoping it's going to be terrific," says Patrick Leary, a professor of plant biology at the College of Southern Nevada, who teaches a course in desert plants. "You suffer and wait and pray for a good year, and when that year comes, you have to be out there every available moment. And then it's gone."
The increase in Web sites devoted to desert wildflower viewing is making it easier to find remote spots like one in Utah on state Route 24, the road that approaches Capitol Reef National Park from the east. In 2005, the desert there was paved with yellow beeplant and purple scorpionweed.
Tom Clark, the chief of resource management at Capitol Reef, says heavy rain this year should produce an even better wildflower season than 2005. The prime area to see flowers like sego lilies and larkspur this year will shift from Route 24 to the park itself, in the Strike Valley, and the canyons of the Waterpocket Fold for paintbrush and daisies.
He predicts the peak viewing period will be early May and the bloom will stretch into June. (The nearest cluster of motels are in the town of Green River, about an hour's drive, and in Torrey, on the west side of Capitol Reef.)
David Senesac, an engineer who lives in Silicon Valley, has his own site displaying photos from his viewing trips. He put 8,000 miles on his car in just over two months to see the stellar California blooms of 2005.
This year, he's planning to witness the wildflowers in the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, about 70 miles northeast of Los Angeles. More than 9 inches of rain have fallen so far this season, more than the area usually gets in an entire year. "That large amount of rain is likely to repeat an event I last saw in 1991, which they called 'the Miracle March,"' he says. "It was one of the greatest blooms ever in Southern California."
Senesac calls the Mojave Desert, which extends from Southern California into Nevada, southwest Utah and northwest Arizona, one of the most impressive flower zones in the world, "where species from nearby areas like the Sierra Nevada mountains have somehow found a niche in the desert environment."
Carol Leigh, an Oregon writer who also conducts photography workshops, is another wildflower enthusiast who shares her interest by sponsoring a Web site, the California Wildflower Hotsheet.
While hotels in remote spots like Death Valley can book up quickly during the peak of the blooming season, in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area accommodations aren't a problem. The peacefulness of the area, which consists of 200,000 acres of the Mojave Desert, happens to be a half-hour's drive from the Las Vegas Strip.
A mid-February walk down the trail to Pine Creek Canyon, one of Red Rock's prime wildflower viewing areas, gave not a hint of what is to come. The grays and browns of the desert floor were punctuated only by the greens of cholla and prickly pear cactuses, blackbrush and some scattered clumps of grasses. Enthusiasts of desert wildflowers say that it's this contrast between the normal drabness of the desert floor and the vivid colors of the wildflowers when they bloom that provides one of their primary attractions.
Plant biologists say that desert wildflowers are uniquely adapted to the dry, hard soil. Death Valley, for instance, is one of the driest areas in the U.S. and one of the best for wildflowers. The desert floor gives the flowers all the space they need to thrive when the rains come.
The wildflowers spend almost all their life cycle as seeds, and these seeds nourish the desert wildlife. "If you look at the animals who live there, they are all seed eaters," says Stan Smith, associate vice president of research and a specialist in desert plants at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. "There is no vegetation to graze on that would get them through the fall." The birds, small mammals and other animals return the favor by spreading the wildflowers through their droppings.Then there are the pollinators the bees, flies, moths, beetles, butterflies and birds that allow the wildflowers to reproduce. That's the explanation for the dazzling colors of the wildflowers, which are designed to attract pollinators. "The pollinators have got to make their population grow, and there's a narrow window of time for these plants to flower," says Leary.
For more information on desert blooms, go to:
Users post their predictions about the best places to go in California and the peak of the season.
Jim Bremer's site covers wildflowers in five Western states.
Includes a link to the latest wildflower update on Death Valley National Park's home page.
David Senesac, a Silicon Valley engineer, photographs desert wildflowers and displays them on his Web site.