Blooms & Dunes

Springtime in Death Valley
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I don't know the real story of how Death Valley got its name, but I'd be willing to bet it happened around the time when gold prospectors started digging up sparkling chunks in the desert and wanted to set other treasure-seekers off the trail. Like Iceland—which was intentionally misnamed to keep potential invaders from coveting its lush, fertile land—the name Death Valley doesn't exactly maximize the spot's appeal.

Which isn't to say it's entirely misleading. Take a walk through this desert on a searing summer day and you'll have no doubt that some of its early visitors met a hot, untimely end. Death, however, is not the valley's dominant feature, especially during the spring season when cool rain falls, temperatures drop to a tolerable level, and all the desert's living things start to surface.

On my first visit to Death Valley National Park, I came in search of wildflowers. I'd heard about the brilliant spring bloom that had in previous years carpeted the entire desert with red and gold and purple buds, and convinced a travel editor to let me write about it. What I found when I got there were a few pathetic, scattered bursts (it wasn't a great year for wildflowers, and I was there too early in the season). But the trip was not a disaster. After a day spent wandering in the sand, looking for flowers I'd never find, I sat down between two big dunes and listened to the wind rattle in the brush. My footprints blew away as fast as I had made them, and I felt completely isolated from the rest of the world. Total solitude is an odd experience for a city dweller, one that's a whole lot harder to come by than a clump of desert lupine.

Since that first trip, I've learned the whens/wheres/hows of Death Valley wildflower spotting, and I've been there for many a bloom. But flowers aren't the only reason I make the five-hour drive from Los Angeles anymore. I go to Death Valley to get lost in the dunes.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 12 Jul 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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