The first day of spring is two months away, but Death Valley is getting an early jump on things.
An explosion of wildflowers is underway in select parts of the National Park 100 miles west of Las Vegas, with carpets of bright yellow blossoms so thick they are stirring memories of the great bloom of 2005, which many experts consider a once-in-a-lifetime event.
At the southern end of the park, near Ashford Mill, the brown, rocky hillsides are dusted green and yellow with Desert Gold, while in sandier areas, ground-hugging sand verbena is sprouting clusters of tiny pink blossoms.
"Ashford Mill is unique. Most of our area is not exploding with flowers the way Ashford Mill is," said Patrick Donnelly, a desert conservationist who lives in Shoshone, California, just outside the national park. "Everywhere else appears to be just heating up. By early February, we might be talking about the whole desert."
But the same autumn storms credited for fueling this year's bloom have made it harder to get to the wildflower show.
The most direct route from Las Vegas to Ashford Mill — California Route 178 west from Shoshone — remains closed because of flash flooding in October that washed away sections of the pavement along the 19-mile stretch through Jubilee Pass.
What used to be a 115-mile trip from Las Vegas to the southern end of Death Valley is now closer to 165 miles on California Route 190 from Death Valley Junction to Furnace Creek, then south on Badwater Road.
Or you could take Donnelly's preferred path along Harry Wade Road, a 30-mile unpaved track that runs northwest into the park from California Route 127. That route is about 150 miles one way from Las Vegas, but Donnelly said the dirt road was in good shape when he drove it last week.
According to a post on Death Valley National Park's Facebook page, the southern end of the park is "going crazy with wildflowers."
"It looks like March instead of early January down there, with entire hillsides carpeted with gold," said the post from Wednesday.
Donnelly, who serves as executive director of the Shoshone-based Amargosa Conservancy, said he hopes to make several trips a week into the desert to see how the bloom develops. Last year, Death Valley saw its wettest October on record, but conditions since then have been predictably dry, he said, so there is no telling how big this year's crop of flowers might be.
"I'm telling people, 'Expect nothing, but keep your eyes open,'" Donnelly said.