Our 2016 Mojave Desert Road Trip

In February 2016 we took a road trip through the Mojave Desert: hiking and looking at wildflowers and pretty rocks. This post summarizes the road trip and has links to our posts for the road trip.

Here’s the google map we made as we planned our trip. From the San Francisco Bay Area, we drove Las Vegas, Death Valley National Park in time to see the superbloom, and the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve near Lancaster.

Our Mojave Desert road trip
Our Mojave Desert road trip

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In Search of Poppies

After leaving Death Valley, we drove to the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve near Lancaster, California. The park website says that poppies start blooming in mid-February, but this year the early bloomers got cut down by a frost. Finding poppies there would be a long shot, but Death Valley was too far to comfortably drive home in one day, so we stayed with our plan and saw the poppy reserve.

After driving over 200 miles, we arrived at the Reserve and saw the green hills shown above. A few poppy plants are blooming on the bank next to the parking lot — poppies have orange flowers. A couple returning to the parking lot said these poppies were as good as any poppies they found in the hills. On March 10, the park service posted “generally late March to mid-April is the best bloom”, but that didn’t help us in late February.

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Death Valley: Wildflowers of the Panamint Range

After enjoying the 2016 superbloom at Death Valley, we crossed the Panamint Range to go to the Antelope Valley State Poppy Reserve near Los Angeles. On the way, we hoped to find the cotton-top cactus, like the ones my wife spotted above Mosaic Canyon. According to Mojave Desert Wildflowers, the cotton-top cactus “occupies rocky slopes and ridges from 2,000 feet to 5,000 feet”, and we would drive through this zone.

On the west side of the Panamint Range, we saw some pink clumps. We pulled off the road and walked up the hillside. We were rewarded with new wildflowers that we hadn’t seen at Badwater Road and Beatty Cutoff Road.

Above, a car speeds past notch-leaf phacelias (phacelia crenulata). At a shutter speed of 1/40 second, the speeding car is a blur behind the phacelia. Click on any photo to view a larger image. All plants are California natives. Plant descriptions are from Mojave Desert Wildflowers.

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Death Valley: Wildflowers of Badwater Road

Although Death Valley averages only 2″ of rain a year, California native plants have adapted and put forth beautiful blooms when it rains. In October 2015, a large rainstorm at the south end of the park washed out the road. On February 18, as part of our Mojave Desert road trip, we drove to the south end of Badwater Road to see the resulting wildflower ‘superbloom‘.

This post covers the wildflowers we saw at the south end of Death Valley, such as the desert five-spot shown above. All these plants are part of the creosote bush scrub community. The terrain is dominated by creosote bush and is flat, covering most of the valley floor and alluvial fan.

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Death Valley: Superbloom of 2016

We wanted to see and photograph wildflowers at Death Valley National Park, but the wind blew very hard our first sunset and sunrise at the park. For a sharp photo, the flower has to be motionless, not a blur as it whips back and forth in the wind.

The wind died down in the morning while we hiked Golden Canyon, so after lunch we drove more than an hour south to the end of Badwater Road, where the best wildflowers were reported to be. Death Valley usually gets only 2″ of rain a year. Record rains last October washed out the road to Badwater from the east, and that storm triggered the best wildflower bloom since 2005, according to the New York Times.

Shown above, a plain of desert gold flowers is the face of the Death Valley superbloom — fields of desert gold or desert sunflower (geraea canescens), with the Amargosa Range in the background.

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Black Mountain Trail

Last Monday I joined fellow members of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) to hike up Black Mountain, a ridge that separates the Santa Clara Valley from the San Andreas Fault. I had hiked the San Andreas Fault earlier, so this hike offered views and hiking with people who know about California native plants.

This map shows both hikes. The blue squares show the first part of the San Andreas Fault hike, from the Monte Bello trailhead to Stevens Canyon. The straight valley between those two points marks the San Andreas Fault, and the trail follows the fault.

Black Mountain Map
Black Mountain Map

Black Mountain is the ridge just north of the San Andreas Fault. Monday’s hike, shown with red balloons, started at the Rhus Ridge trailhead and proceeded to the Black Mountain summit. We took the Black Mountain Trail, hiking 5.1 miles each way, with a 2,400 foot elevation gain. The CNPS members knew all sorts of California native plants and happily shared their knowledge, so I learned a lot.

The initial 3.5 miles of the hike is through woodland. This ribes menziesii, canyon gooseberry, has thorns, fine hairs on the edges of its leaves, and small red flowers.

ribes menziesii
ribes menziesii

This pedicularis densiflora, indian warrior, has dark red flowers.

pedicularis densiflora
pedicularis densiflora

This trillium chloropetalum, common trillium, has a dark burgundy flower emerging from the middle of three broad leaves. A very striking combination!

trillium chloropetalum
trillium chloropetalum

This young rattlesnake, with only one rattle, was lying on a bank beside the trail. The rattlesnake kills by injecting venom from its fangs. It then swallows its prey whole.

rattlesnake
rattlesnake

This piperia elegans, elegant rein orchid, is growing on this dry hillside.

piperia elegans
piperia elegans

The last 1.5 miles in on a dirt road up a ridge line. This trail is steeper, sunny and hot. You just keep going, to get it over with.

We stopped for lunch on a limestone outcropping at the summit. Lupines grow at the summit, especially in the limestone rocks.

upine on limestone outcropping at Black Mt. summit
lupine on limestone outcropping at Black Mountain summit

This view west from Black Mountain has a hazy Pacific Ocean beyond the hills. In person, we were able to see the ocean through the gap in the hills, but this photo doesn’t have enough contrast. The San Andreas Fault is in the valley below Black Mountain.

view west from Black Mountain
view west from Black Mountain

Hiking down the ridge line from the summit, we’re rewarded with views of the San Francisco Bay. The aircraft hangers at Moffett Field show up as a large, light-colored object on this side of the bay, with the cities of Los Altos and Mountain View in between. When monitoring rainfall, I use records from Moffett Field.

hiking down the ridgeline from the summit
hiking down the ridge line from the summit

Black Mountain and this ridge form part of the headwaters of Permanente Creek. In the photo below, the barren mountaintop is the Lehigh Cement Plant. The limestone in these mountains contains calcium, the primary component of cement. Permanente Creek is in the canyon below this ridge. Permanente Creek flows to the right of the Lehigh plant and out to the bay.

headwaters of Permanente Creek
headwaters of Permanente Creek

This patch of toxicoscordion fremontii, Fremont’s star lily, grows on the south side of the road. I saw this lily last week at Rancho Canada del Oro in San Jose.

toxicoscordion fremontii
toxicoscordion fremontii

Back in the woodland we spotted this ring-necked snake on the trail, so we carefully placed it off the trail where it wouldn’t get stepped on. Notice the red belly and red ring around its neck.

ring-necked snake
ring-necked snake

The hike to Black Mountain offers bay and ocean views, California native plants, and wildlife — all at the edge of Silicon Valley. The 10-mile hike with a 2400-foot elevation gain took most of the day. Pack a lunch, and carry 2 liters of water. The parking lot at the trailhead is small, so start early. Hiking in a group is wonderful — you see and appreciate so much more because different people will spot something and point it out to the others. With the wildflowers, spring is a great time to go take a hike.