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12 Months of National Parks — No. 8, Death Valley: The poetry of survival

First Published      Last Updated Aug 22 2016 10:06 pm

Few things in nature achieve the poetry of a desert wildflower.

The beauty and the brevity of a bloom give each petal a bit of magic. They require a sweet spot of moisture (but not enough to wash away), warmth (but not enough to scorch), cold (but not enough to freeze) and windless days —an intersection of improbably perfect conditions that the desert seldom provides.

This year, in Death Valley, it happened.

My daughter and I visited at the tail end of the "superbloom," in early April — the eighth in our 12 months of national park visits. As the carpets of wildflowers rose into the foothills of the park, the valley floors were left with iridescent seedheads and skeletal stalks of yesterday's blooms to whisper the cadence of Death Valley: Life is ephemeral here.




A few weeks after Saskia and I visited, three men were arrested on suspicion of swimming in protected water in the park and killing a pupfish — a tiny fish, just an inch or two long, that is a remnant of the prehistoric waters that have dried up. Some of Death Valley's pupfish are critically endangered; all of them live in tiny areas within the park.

Saskia and I saw the pupfish species that live at Salt Creek, a shallow stream in the middle of the park. Most of them die each summer as the water dries up and birds snatch away whichever fish get stuck in the evaporating ponds; the few that return to the springs must endure bath-hot water and extreme salinity until winter dormancy. Nearly all of the adorable fish that we saw "playing" during the spring mating season probably are dead now.

Deserts often bring admiration for the "survivors," the plants and animals that live long in harsh conditions. But as the name of the park aptly broadcasts, Death Valley's main attraction is not survival. It is a sequence of short seasons and fleeting lives that connect with each other just long enough to germinate the next miracle.

National park hike — Salt Creek Interpretive Trail

This three-quarter-mile boardwalk is best in spring, when the water is flowing and pupfish are mating. It travels through a rare Death Valley wetland and offers up-close views of the fish. The park's website has a trail description, and you can view the route on Google Maps. To get a glimpse of the rare pupfish, you can view a video posted by the park. Rangers also posted a video of park staff "tagging" the fish to get a better sense of summer survival rates.

Previous national park trip reports

12 Months of National Parks: A mother-daughter tour

12 Months of National Parks — No. 1, Acadia: Small children love nature, but on their own level

12 Months of National Parks — No. 2, Capitol Reef: 'People shouldn't be here'

12 Months of National Parks — No. 3, Arches: Are national park rules too strict?

12 Months of National Parks — No. 4, Canyonlands: The best fun may require a child's eyes

12 Months of National Parks — No. 5, Biscayne: A threatened park claws its way forward

12 Months of National Parks — No. 6, Everglades: Please don't spank the gator

12 Months of National Parks — No. 7, Bryce Canyon: The $10 lifetime senior pass needs to end

ealberty@sltrib.com

Twitter: @erinalberty

 

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