Still Plenty of Wildflowers to See in Joshua Tree

Desert dandelion and pincushion line the roads into Covington Flat | Photo: Chris Clarke

If you miss the peak floral display in progress at the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve you still have a couple weeks to catch a truly fine bit of bloom farther east in the Mojave.

Despite the desert having endured the same bone-crushing drought as the rest of the state, a single bout of torrential rain that washed over Joshua Tree National Park at the end of February has brought out some really wonderful spring wildflowers.

Desert dandelions and cacti have been blooming in the park's lower elevations for a couple of weeks already and other species are already adding their own color as well, but if you plan your visit properly you should be able to catch some nice color well into May -- and we've got a suggestion of a floral spot you might not have thought of.

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According to the Park's website, popular spots in the highlands area of Joshua tree National Park are still showing a respectable bloom: Hidden Valley and the area between Barker Dam and the Desert Queen Mine area are good, accessible spots for spring color. The Indian Cove area has cacti coming into bloom, which means if you're out here next weekend you may well have your mind blown by psychedelic shades of red (on the Mojave mound and hedgehog cacti) and purple (on beavertail prickly pears.)

The west entrance area is starting to fade, but may well still have enough color to tempt you out of your car with your camera over the next couple weeks; upper elevations like Queen Valley will probably show bloom for longer.

But a bit of Sunday afternoon reconnaissance by yours truly reveals a little-traveled place in the park that's got a bloom on to rival legendary seasons like 1998 and 2005, and there are enough new buds on the plants -- and enough new seedlings coming up -- that it's sure to last long enough for you to call in sick on Friday.

That place is Covington Flat, a rough valley in the west end of the park that even on Easter weekend had fewer than half a dozen visitors in the two afternoon hours I was there.

And there's a reason for that: it's at least eight miles off the pavement. But unless another storm washes out the dirt road between now and your visit, and it's always a good idea to check with park rangers anyway, you should be able to make either of the Flats area's two trailheads in a sedan with moderate clearance.

Along the way, you'll see increasing evidence of good botanizing ahead, as the roadsides are lined with blooming desert dandelions, bright orange globemallow, chia and purple Canterbury bells, among a dozen other species. Look sharp for a few stunning desert sage, Salvia dorrii, among the creosote on the way into Lower Covington Flat:

Salvia dorrii | Photo: Chris Clarke

Keep a sharp eye out for different shades of yellow. Between the mats of desert gold California poppy ...

Eschscholzia glyptosperma | Photo: Chris Clarke

... and half a dozen other species, much of the Lower Covington Flat area looks pretty much like this:

Lower Covington Flat | Photo: Chris Clarke

There wasn't much in bloom at Upper Covington Flat on Sunday, which at 4,900 feet or so above sea level is only about 200 feet higher than Lower Covington Flat. That raises the possibility that the immediate vicinity of the Upper Covington trailhead missed out on some of the rain. But the road between the two has some good bloom, and at 5,100 feet at its summit it's likely to be there for another couple weeks.

To get to Covington Flat, take Route 62 east from Yucca Valley to La Contenta Road, then turn right toward the Park. The pavement ends in a mile at a T-intersection, and the road beyond -- yes, that's a road -- is fairly rutted for the first two miles past rural residences. (Driving slowly will make things safer and keep you from coating the locals with dust.) At 1.8 miles off the pavement, make the well-signed left turn onto Covington Flat Road. Proceed past the Park boundary 1.6 miles past the turn, and then another 4.2 miles brings you to the junction where you choose between Upper and Lower Covington Flats. Drive slowly and watch for tortoises, which may well be out enjoying the salad bar. And you did bring enough water and snacks for the day, right?

You can consult Joshua Tree National Park's website for suggestions of other spots. The area around Pipes Canyon and Pioneertown is also pretty nice right now, and definitely worth an exploratory drive.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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