By Kate Prengaman
April: Finding springtime color in the southern desert.
When I decided to move to Nevada a few years ago to take a job as a field botanist, my mother was afraid I would be disappointed. "Won't it be boring to study plants in the desert?" she asked, "There can't be that many, right?"
Lucky for all of us in southern Nevada, my mother had no idea what she was talking about (just this one time). Although perhaps not obvious at first glance, the Mojave desert is home to nearly 2,000 species of plants. Even luckier for us, this is the perfect time to head out into the wilderness to appreciate them. Our heavy winter rains have watered a larger-than-average crop of annual wildflowers, and lots of them are opening up flowers in April. Isn't it nice of the flowers to bloom before it gets too hot to hike happily?
So, where should you go to find spring showing off? The options, like the plant diversity, are pretty great, but I thought I'd recommend a few accessible places that would make good day hikes. First, I'll admit to some bias: I'm currently working at Lake Mead NRA, so my best knowledge of what's in bloom where is around there. Plus, with the lower elevation near the lake, this region blooms sooner and sometimes showier than the higher elevation Spring Mountains. There's lots of great wilderness in and around the park, so here are a few ideas to get you started this flower season:
Ireteba Peaks Wilderness
Take 95 S to Nelson Road, 165. In Nelson, cut south on an unmarked, but wide, graded dirt road. Follow the road south and then east, until you cross the boundary for Lake Mead. Several roads cut off toward the lake, but if you continue south on the main road, you'll approach the boundary of the wilderness area, which starts just south of the road as it cuts east toward the lake. I recommend hiking down one of the park roads toward the lake if you like trail-ish hiking. You'll see scattered stands of jumping cholla, brittlebush in bloom, and a carpet of wildflowers like lupines, suncups, Sego Lilies, monekyflowers, and wooly daisies. If you are in the mood to hike cross country, just head south into the wilderness area and pick a route to climb up a ridge; you'll find a whole new set of flowers on the rocky slopes.
Spirit Mountain Wilderness
Head south on 95, past Searchlight. If you've got a vehicle with decent clearance, I recommend taking Christmas Tree Pass road east into the park. It'll take you from the boring creosote and bursage scrub up into the pretty pink granite rockfaces of the Newberry mountains. At the higher elevation, it's a whole new world: juniper trees, Mohave yucca, blackbrush, California buckwheat, buckhorn cholla, and plenty of wildflowers underneath. Spirit Mountain is the peak to the north as you cross the park boundary. Find a good place to park, and trace your own route to the top for spectacular views of the plants and the scenery.
If your car doesn't have great clearance, you can access the base of the mountain by taking 95 all the way to 163. After 13 miles on 163, turn north on park road 20. This graded road will take you past Grapevine Canyon (another great place to explore for wildflowers this time of year) and towards the base of the mountain. Drive it as a loop to get the best views.
Pinto Valley Wilderness
You can access Lake Mead's Northshore Road from Boulder City, Henderson, or North Las Vegas. There's a closed road through the Pinto Valley that makes a nice hiking trail. As a loop, it's too long for just a day trip, so you'll probably just want to hike out and back. You can access the "trail" by parking near milepost 18 or 25.5 and looking for a footpath in a wash to the south. Starting near milepost 18, you'll hike up the wash toward a spring, and then you'll be in gypsum-rich hills which are habitat for several of the park's rare plants, including bear poppy and sunrays, both of which having stunningly-happy yellow blooms this time of year. Their habitat is on very fragile soil, however, so while exploring in this area, try to stay on hard-packed surfaces or the closed road track. If you find your footsteps sinking in to fluffy soil, try to back out and find a different path.
A final note
If you want to learn the names of all of the colorful blooms out there this month, you might want to pick up a field guide. Pam MacKay's Falcon Guide to Mojave Desert Wildflowers, organized by flower color and plant family, makes an excellent choice. Mojave Desert Wildflowers, by Jon Mark Stewart, is another great option. This book is organized by color and has big photos. See what's on the self at the bookstore before you head out on your next flower hike.
Happy hiking and identifying!
Kate Prengaman is a Field Botanist with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who also writes and volunteers for Friends of Nevada Wilderness.