Lush With Flowers, Lousy With Tourists

Times Staff Writer

In the midst of the most spectacular wildflower bloom people here can remember -- and a crush of tourists to match -- conditions in this usually desolate place have come to this: Some park rangers are fleeing to Las Vegas for peace and quiet.

Record rains have remade Death Valley this spring into a showplace of desert golds, brown-eyed evening primroses, gravel ghosts and desert stars.

It is also a place where fistfights have broken out among customers waiting in long lines at gas pumps. Heavy traffic along a 50-mile stretch of two-lane road at the southern end of the park has left gaping potholes and crumbling pavement.


There is not a hotel room available within 100 miles. Toilet paper recently was in short supply for outlying trailhead facilities. Sales of books, gasoline and groceries are at all-time highs. Park supplies, roads, law enforcement and sewer systems are overloaded.

“We’re being hammered; we can’t catch our breath,” said Terry Baldino, the park’s assistant chief of interpretation. “I’m encouraging our staff to get away from it all on weekends,” he said, adding that some “are going to Las Vegas, others are hiding at home.”

Normally, Baldino said, there might be 4,000 visitors roaming the park’s stark geological wonders this time of year. “Last Saturday,” he said, “we had 14,000 people come through the front door of the park’s central headquarters.” Even that figure accounts for only a fraction of the influx because not all park visitors go to the headquarters.

“There’s so many people here right now, I dread going to get the mail,” said Death Valley resident Ruth Shandor. “Makes you think we need street lights.”

In the middle of the 3.3-million-acre park, Melanie Garcia, reservation manager at the Furnace Creek Ranch, and her staff have handled 700 calls a day, mostly from people desperately seeking a hotel room “for today, or tomorrow,” she said.

“I tell them, ‘Sorry, we’re full. The next available room is April 10 -- for one night only.’ ”

On Tuesday, the park’s main visitor center was packed tight with people jostling to buy field guides to wildflowers, or to ask rangers for directions to “flower hot spots.” Some just wanted to express their frustration with the crowds and even the flowers at their feet.

“I had one person come up and say, ‘I’m sick of yellow. Where can I go to see different colors?’ ” recalled Lori Spoelhof, one of two rangers brought in on an emergency basis from Yellowstone National Park to lead “flower walks.”

“At the end of my evening programs, I’m telling people that we don’t have the manpower, motel rooms, or rangers we need to meet demands,” she added, “so there are going to be tensions.”

Indeed. At Stovepipe Wells, about 17 miles north of Furnace Creek, maintenance workers were being dispatched to keep the peace at a gas station that had run out of fuel several times in recent weeks.

“Customers have been descending on us like locusts, stripping the shelves of stock and lining up cars 10 deep to buy gas,” said Craig Drissel, general manager of the park concession at Stovepipe Wells.

“We’ve been completely overrun for six solid weeks,” Drissel said. “We just don’t have the people to handle these crowds, or the garbage, or the supplies that have to be trucked in.”

Drissel was only half kidding when he blamed it all on “that bloomin’ bloom.”

David Blacker’s problem has been keeping books on the shelves at visitor centers since the tides of yellow, blue and pink flowers began spreading across what for years had been an apocalyptic landscape of pebbly earth and sand with only the sparsest of vegetation.

“We had 6,000 transactions in February,” said Blacker, head of the Death Valley Natural History Assn. “So far this month, we’ve had 20,000 transactions.”

His most popular item was a wildflower brochure that sells for $1. “We’ve already gone through what we thought was a five-year supply of that brochure,” he said. “If things hold steady, we’ll run out of stock altogether within five days.”

As of March 30, Death Valley had received 6.3 inches of rain since July, the most in the 94 years in which records have been kept. Rainfall averages less than 2 inches a year here. During some years, there is no rain.

This season’s rains included a destructive storm in August that killed two people and washed out park roads. The latest moisture came Sunday, when the park best known as the hottest, driest place in North America was pelted with rain and hail.

Signs abound that Death Valley’s wettest season in recorded history may be nearing an end. In recent weeks, vast carpets of flowers have been battered by fierce winds and rising temperatures as they move northward and up the slopes of the mountain ranges that form the park’s boundaries.

An enormous rain-filled lake that only two weeks ago was a novel gathering place for kayakers has evaporated to a depth of only a few inches.

“Eventually, the flowers will disappear, the crowds will diminish and we’ll pick up the pieces,” said Blacker. “Then, in the fall, we’ll start watching the rain totals. If they get way up there again, I guarantee we’ll be better prepared.”

That would suit Joe Fenninger just fine. Sunburned and frazzled after a motorcycle ride with friends from Houston, Fenninger stood beside vast fields of flowers -- and visitors clutching field guides and cameras.

“We never expected to see wildflowers when we began planning this trip several months ago,” he said with a laugh. “We also figured we’d be the only ones out here. In retrospect, our timing was terrible.”