Vibrant fields of yellow, white and pink wildflowers are expected to soon blanket Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in Southern California in what experts think will be a banner blooming season.
Every year, around late February to mid-March, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park becomes the stage for Mother Nature’s spectacular show known as the “Desert Bloom.” This year – thanks to a trifecta of rainfall, mild temperatures and wind – all signs point to a memorable, picturesque bloom that could very well be worth the trip for San Diegans.
The Formula & The Process:
Betsy Knaak, executive director of the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association (ABDNHA), told NBC 7 the peak of the Desert Bloom, traditionally, arrives in mid-March.
This winter, the desert has experienced a healthy dose of rain – and, according to Knaak, the right type of rain.
“We’ve had winter storms with that gentle rain that has soaked into the ground,” she explained. “So, with that, we’re anticipating really beautiful blooms this year.”
Knaak, who has lived in the Anza-Borrego desert since 1978, said that typically, the formula for a successful Desert Bloom includes regular rain in November, followed by winter storms in December and January, and maybe a little extra rainfall in February. Simultaneously, temperatures must remain on the mild side. The same goes for the wind, as stronger gusts can dry out the Earth and damage some of the more delicate wildflower species.
Under these conditions, seeds germinate, sprouting stalks and leaves. After that, come the flowers. Once their short but sweet life cycle is over, wildflowers shed their seeds onto the soil and those seeds wait their turn until the next Desert Bloom, Knaak said.
If this formula remains steady over the next few weeks, the Desert Bloom is in business. Knaak has faith this will be the case.
“The rain has soaked into the sand this year and the roots and seeds have enough moisture to combat the heat and winds,” she said.
However, in the end, she knows it’s all up to Mother Nature to decide the outcome.
“This is the part no one knows, except Mother Nature herself,” Knaak added.
Ernie Cowan, president of the Anza-Borrego Foundation (ABF), also believes it will be a banner year for blooms.
“From everything we’re seeing, it’s shaping up to be a great Desert Bloom,” he told NBC 7. “It’s all coming together.”
Cowan likened the formula for a successful bloom to a “three-legged stool.” One leg is the rain, in just the right amount, one leg is the temperature, and the third is the wind.
According to NBC 7 meteorologist Jodi Kodesh, the desert has received above average rainfall, so far, this rainfall season.
At last check with the National Weather Service on Feb. 15, Kodesh confirmed that Anza-Borrego had received 3.28 inches of rain since Oct. 1, 2016. Since Jan. 1, 2017, the area has received 2.15 inches of rain.
“Normal rainfall for that area, since January, is 1.79 inches,” she explained.
Kodesh said if desert temperatures stay below 85 degrees for the next few weeks and if the wind is not too strong, all of the ingredients will be there to create the recipe for a perfect bloom season.
Kodesh said two other rainfall gauges in the desert near Anza-Borrego State Park – Thermal and Palm Springs – are also reporting above average precipitation for this season. Since Oct. 1, 2016, Thermal has measured 2.99 inches of rainfall – 1.21 inches above average. Since Oct. 1, 2016, Palm Springs has measured 5.32 inches of rainfall, which is 2.06 inches above average.
Kodesh said those area, though not in Anza-Borrego, are good examples of what Southern California’s deserts are experiencing.
And, with the winter storm forecasted for this weekend, the rainfall totals in those areas will increase.
“We will be further above average,” said Kodesh.
Once the Desert Bloom arrives, it yields fields of pink desert sand verbena, desert sunflowers, Dune Evening primrose, desert lilies, brittlebrush and Ocotillo – to name a few of the showy species seen in the region.
Knaak described the flower-filled, seasonal sight as “colorful patches all over the desert, carpeting the sand,” living against the backdrop of the mountains and blue, clear skies.
“It is beautiful,” she said. “It’s the birth of spring.”
In addition to wildflowers, Knaak said Ocotillo plants, with their thin, eight to 12-foot-tall stalks, produce spectacular blooms. She said a “bonus” desert perk is the cactus bloom, which yields magenta and chartreuse-colored blooms, typically from mid-March to mid-April.
Mike McElhatton, of the ABDNHA, told NBC 7 the Desert Bloom brings out White Lined Sphinx Moth, a colorful yellow and green species of caterpillar. The critters tend to come out in full force during the event.
“They’re like an Army that springs to action,” McElhatton explained, adding that the critters start out in the west valley and head east.
The caterpillars then attract Swainson's Hawks migrating from South America. They take break to feed on the caterpillars in the Anza-Borrego Desert.
“It’s an explosion of life in the desert,” he added, referring to this special time.
Where the Wildflowers Grow:
Cowan said the western edges of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park – the Badlands – is a well-known wildflower zone. Already, desert lilies are sprouting there.
Both Cowan and Knaak also said Henderson Canyon Road is a must-see spot for blooms, including Dune Evening primrose, desert sand verbena and desert sunflower. Knaak said that spot is highly-photographed by park visitors looking for an unforgettable view.
Cowan also recommends checking out Di Giorgio Road where, at the end, there are sand dunes and a spectacular pod of colorful wildflowers.
“It’s a great place to get out and go for a walk,” he explained.
For hikers, Cowan said Borrego Palm Canyon offers a mild, 3-mile hike. The area is home to a stream, which can lead to some big horn sheep sightings as the water and palm groves create what he described as an “oasis-like environment.” It gets busy here, so Cowan said the best bet is to visit on a weekday.
Knaak said hikers also enjoy trekking in the Western Canyon.
Best Practices for Anza-Borrego Visitors:
Anza-Borrego State Park, the largest state park in California, is located about 90 miles east of downtown San Diego. One-fifth of the park lies in San Diego County, while the rest lies in Imperial and Riverside counties, spanning Borrego Springs and Shelter Valley.
For those visiting Anza-Borrego State Park during the Desert Bloom, the experts have a few tips for an enjoyable trip.
For starters, Cowan said visitors should call the park’s Wildflower Hotline at (760) 767-4684 when planning their visit. Updated daily, the hotline offers details on what’s growing and where, and other informative tidbits.
“Desert lilies are in bud, but not blooming yet,” the hotline’s recorded message said on Feb. 16.
Cowan recommends visitors start their trip at the Anza-Borrego State Park Visitor Center, located at 300 Palm Canyon Dr. in Borrego Springs. There, they can enjoy manicured trails and flowers as an introductory course, so to speak, to desert life.
Knaak said visitors can drop by ABDNHA’s Desert Nature Center, located at 652 Palm Canyon Dr., to pick up a free flower map that is updated weekly with tips about where to see which blooms. Also available: a $1 brochure with information on the 55 most common blooming plants in the desert.
For gear, both Cowan and Knaak suggest visitors wear comfortable, sturdy walking or hiking shoes.
Knaak said the weather is a bit hotter than what San Diegans are used to, so light-breathable clothing is best, plus sun hats, sunglasses and sunscreen.
Bring plenty of water to avoid becoming dehydrated during the trip.
Cowan also said it’s smart to pack a small comb in your bag. He said a comb is a handy tool for removing cactus spines from shoes and clothing so you don’t have to use your hands.
Both the ABDNHA and ABF will host nature walks throughout the Desert Bloom season. Visitors can check their websites for those events as the season blossoms.
On March 18 – at the height of the Desert Bloom – the ABDNHA will host its Garden Tour from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., which will take visitors to seven locations in Borrego Springs. Tickets are $30 per person.
On April 1, the ABF will ring in a milestone with its 50th Anniversary Celebration from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center located at 401 Tilting T Dr. in Borrego Springs. The party includes live music, auctions and a chance to speak with park staff, volunteers and ABF leaders. Julian-based craft brewery, Nickel Beer Company, will be pouring a special brew at the 50th Anniversary party, too. Tickets are $55 per person.
Desert Bloom of Seasons Past:
It’s been a while since Anza-Borrego State Park experienced a top-notch Desert Bloom, which makes this season all the more exciting.
In recent memory, Cowan said 2010 was the last “wonderful year” for the Desert Bloom. Seven years have passed, and the area is due for another good show. Before that, he said the 1993 Desert Bloom was an unforgettable one – an event that the ABF measures the season by.
From her experience as a longtime desert resident, Knaak said the late 1970s to early 1980s also brought great Desert Blooms.
“The sand verbena fields would carpet the agriculture fields,” she recalled, adding that this created imagery often seen in the pages of calendars.
More recently, she said 2005 was a “super bloom year,” as well as the 2008 to 2010 seasons. She said last year’s bloom was pretty good, but this year’s should be even better.