Wildflower enthusiasts have been patiently waiting for this very moment: the annual bloom has returned to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in Southern California and, judging by the colorful show Mother Nature is meticulously staging, it was worth the wait.
“It’s back to old times,” Betsy Knaak, executive director of the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association (ABDNHA) told NBC 7 Thursday. “This year is more like it was in the 1970s and 1980s, with more of the bloom in mid-March.”
Each year, around late February to mid-March, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park becomes the rugged stage for the so-called “Desert Bloom.” This year, thanks to a consistently wet winter and cooler-than-normal temperatures in the region, the bloom is robust – and may even last a little bit longer than usual.
Rain, How We Love You
Knaak, who has lived in the Anza-Borrego Desert since 1978, said the formula for a successful Desert Bloom, in large part, includes regular rain in November, followed by winter storms in December and January, and maybe a little extra rainfall in February. Simultaneously, the temperatures must remain on the mild side.
This season, the region has certainly gotten plenty of rain.
“It’s been an unusual season in that we’ve had rain every month – in abundance – since October 2018,” Knaak told NBC 7. “And it’s the right kind of rain – soaking, consistent rain. We’ve also had cooler than normal weather for a long time.”
Under these conditions, seeds germinate, sprouting stalks and leaves. Then, the flowers arrive. Once their short but sweet life cycle is over, wildflowers shed their seeds onto the desert soil, and those seeds patiently wait their turn until the next Desert Bloom, Knaak explained.
NBC 7 spoke with the National Weather Service in San Diego Thursday (March 7) about rain totals measured, thus far, this season at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The agency tracks rainfall in “water years,” which spans 12 months from October to September.
The NWS said, so far, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has received 4.44 inches of rain for the 2018-2019 water year. With six months left to go until September, that stat will continue to rise.
For comparison, the water year 2016-2017 – which brought the banner bloom of February to March 2017 – tracked 6.27 inches of rain in the region. The 2017-2018 water year brought 1.08 inches of rain to the region.
NBC 7 Meteorologist Sheena Parveen said the figures are favorable for the bloom.
“Record rainfall has hit our region this winter, so I would expect a great bloom in the desert this year,” said Parveen. “When we receive many days of light to moderate rain over a long period – as opposed to a lot of rain at once – this allows the soil to absorb the water more evenly and is ultimately better for plants and the desert bloom.”
Now, each year before the big bloom, desert travelers call Knaak at the ABDNHA and ask her when they should make that trek to Anza-Borrego to see the wildflowers. They want specific dates. Knaak tries her best, though notes Mother Nature is the one who will truly decide when it blooms.
For many years, Knaak would recommend March 15 as the best date to visit the region, give or take a week. But, when the drought hit, Knaak said the peak of the bloom became harder to pinpoint and stayed that way for about 10 years. During that time, she said the flowers would peak earlier, usually in February.
But, the "Super Bloom" of 2017 changed the game again.
Today’s Desert Bloom is much like the memorable show of two years ago – perhaps even more vibrant and widespread. Knaak believes the soaking rains have permeated once-dormant seeds buried deep in the earth and, now, it’s their turn to shine.
Where the Wildflowers Grow – This Time Around
Knaak said the bloom, as of Thursday, is happening in parts of the desert that haven’t traditionally been hotspots, so visitors will want to rely on maps, updated daily here when planning their trip.
For instance, Henderson Canyon is typically a go-to spot for blooms this time of year but, as of March 7, Knaak said the area was not yet in bloom. She said that might be a product of the cooler weather; the flowers, eventually, will arrive there.
For now, she recommended visitors head to Coyote Canyon Road, which is “getting better each day,” and to the end of DiGiorgio Road, both in Borrego Springs. Along DiGiorgio Road, on both sides and about a half-mile from the end, ABDNHA has been tracking terrain carpeted with yellow desert dandelions.
The dirt road leading into the canyon is covered with sand verbena, brown-eyed primrose, spectacle pod, sunflowers, and a mix of other colorful wildflowers inching their way up to the slopes of the mountains.
“It’s a beautiful sight,” Knaak added.
The the east of Borrego Springs, ABDNHA reports many areas are in bloom between Mile Markers 31 and 38 and into Salton City. A prime spot can be seen if you pull into a wide area on the north side of Highway S-22 at Mile Marker 31. Expect sand verbena on the hillsides and fields of sunflowers here; the area is about 10 minutes from Borrego Springs.
The Borrego Badlands – located further east off Highway S-22 – is also in bloom, including an area called Coachwhip Canyon on the north side of the road. Arizona lupine and desert sunflowers live there, radiating against the sandstone of the Badlands. On the south side of the road, the area surrounding Arroyo Salado is also in bloom.
Knaak said other noteworthy areas include the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area for views of dune evening primrose and the Devil’s Slide (via Shell Reef Road). South of Borrego Springs, the bloom has sprouted Parish’s poppy on hillsides along Highway 78 and Little Blair Valley.
In addition to the ABDNHA website and maps, visitors can also head to the Anza-Borrego Foundation’s website for a wealth of information about the Desert Bloom. There’s even a Wildflower Hotline – (760) 767-4684 – consistently maintained through the season, offering pointers on what’s blooming where.
If the line is busy, as it tends to be this time of year, keep trying.
What’s Next for the Bloom
If these weather conditions persist, Knaak said it’s possible the Desert Bloom might stretch into April, which rarely happens. And, while she, of course, can’t promise this with certainty, she said if the bloom does extend, it’ll look different later in the season than it does at its peak this month.
By then, cacti and desert agave – with their asparagus-like stalks – will likely be the stars. Ocotillo, with their red, flame-like tips, will fill out the later bloom, too, as well as brittlebush.
As You Look Out, You May Also Want to Look Up
Along with the Desert Bloom happening on the ground, something special is happening in the air at Anza-Borrego this time of year: the Swainson’s Hawk migration, as the birds – coming from South America – fly through the region from mid-February through early April.
Simultaneously, the bloom attracts an insect called the White-Lined Sphinx moth. Once those moths transform into caterpillars, the insects feed on the wildflowers. As the Swainson’s Hawks soar over the desert, they stop to eat the caterpillars, replenishing their energies to complete their migration journey.
“So, there’s this whole other interesting ecology happening in the middle of bloom season,” Knaak explained.
And once again, Mother Nature stuns.
Final Desert Details
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.
Visitors eager for tips and Desert Bloom information could begin their trip at ABDNHA’s Desert Nature Center, located at 652 Palm Canyon Dr., and pick up a hard copy of a map and other educational bloom materials. Another excellent pre-flower stop is the Anza-Borrego State Park Visitor Center, located at 300 Palm Canyon Dr. Both centers are in Borrego Springs.
In your day trip bag, you want to pack sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat and light, breathable clothing that you can layer as the temperatures rise or drop. Bring plenty of water to avoid becoming dehydrated, pack snacks, and wear comfortable, sturdy walking or hiking shoes.
To learn more about the Desert Bloom, visit these websites: