Wildflower Hunting in the California Desert | Travel | Smithsonian
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Wildflower Hunting in the California Desert

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ocotillo flower

Temperature: 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Sky: blue. Breeze: light.

Those were the idyllic conditions when my family and I visited California’s Joshua Tree National Park. Summer time is a different story, of course, with temperatures across the 550,000-acre park where the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts meet routinely over 100.

It takes singular personalities like Edward Abbey and Mary Hunter Austin to love desert places. My family must have the right genes.

Stuffed into a rented Toyota Camry, we entered Joshua Tree from the north and hiked the one-mile Hidden Valley loop. In the isolated canyon once favored by cattle rustlers, it’s said, we talked to a ranger about pinyon pine trees (bearing the nuts used in pesto sauce), watched rock climbers suspended along one of the geometrically-fractured joints that cross-hatch Joshua Tree cliffs, and picnicked in the shade of a Mojave yucca. Then it was on to Barker Dam (built around 1900 to create a reservoir for livestock); the boulder heaps at Jumbo Rocks; and 4,500-foot Sheep Pass leading east toward the wide, hazy Pinto Basin.

When we finally reached Cottonwood Springs we learned that torrential rainfall the previous September had flooded the road, closed trails, campgrounds and the visitor center on the south side of the park. Consequently, we couldn’t hike to Lost Palms Oasis visited by desert tortoises and bighorn sheep. But on the way out of the park we got a surprise; my niece Sarah saw it first.

“Stop!” she cried from the back seat.

I thought she’d chipped a tooth on trail mix, but it turns out she‘d seen ocotillo, miraculously blooming in winter. We pulled over and piled out to inspect about two dozen tall, spiny ocotillo plants pointing flame-red fingers into the sky. They usually bloom in the spring; in fact, March is the month for wildflower viewing in Joshua Tree. But September rains had apparently fooled them, presenting us with a gift on a delightful day in the desert.

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