The Hidden Yucca Forest of Death Valley

Yucca Forest at Death Valley

Like most people, I suspect, I had a certain image in my head of Death Valley.  I imagined this bleak, flat, dry, barren desert.  Even a casual glance at a map of Death Valley National Park proves otherwise, showing a crazy array of contours shaping mountains and valleys and washes.  But I still had a barren landscape in my mind.  I mean, I’ve been in parts of the Andes in South America where the steep mountains and valleys are truly barren, devoid of any living thing.  So I think I expected the same from this California desert.

But I was severely mistaken.

Despite the ominous name, Death Valley is teeming with life.  The Mojave Desert, much like the Sonoran Desert here in Arizona, is a desert full of life and I was continuously surprised at just how much existed.  The most impressive for me though, and the place that had me most mesmerized was the hidden Yucca Forest on the back side of Tin Mountain along the road to Racetrack Valley.

Bumping along the rocky dirt road behind Tin Mountain your eye is pulled up toward the mountain peaks.  The road cuts along a narrow valley between the Panamint Range and Last Chance Range.  As you climb higher in elevation the vegetation goes through a series of changes, leaving behind low, scrubby sage brush and creosote bush and introducing exciting new surprises.

First we started to see interesting clusters of Barrel Cactus, and for time they became very thick.  As we continued to climb we transitioned from the Barrel Cacti into Yucca territory.  Eventually, the valley floor was choked with dwarf Joshua Trees as far as the eye could see.  It was totally unexpected and captivating.  It was a narrow strip of elevation that was allowing these yuccas to grow, but where they were growing the population had boomed and was incredibly healthy.  Soon we drove out of it, and up to Teakettle Junction toward the Racetrack.  But I missed the yuccas.

On the way back I was even more intent watching the forest take shape as we drove back into it.  I eventually made the suggestion to stop so I could poke around and take some pictures.  Maybe it’s just because I work with desert plants all the time, but to me this was one of the highlights to my trip to Death Valley.  Not just the uniqueness of this lone stand of yuccas in this narrow elevation range in an isolated valley, but the unexpected nature of finding so much vegetation in a place I expected to see nothing but rock.

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