A clump of hedgehog cacti (Pediocactus nigrispinus) blooming in the deserts of central Washington
One of our favorite times of year when living in southern Utah was late spring, when the desert would come alive with a wide variety of vibrantly colored cactus blossoms (which were soon followed by delicious fruits that made superb sauces, beer, and margaritas!) Central Washington is a bit lacking in the cacti-department, but we do actually have a few species that can put on a springtime show if you know where to look.
The most widespread species is the Columbia Prickly Pear (Opuntia columbiana), however I’ve yet to see any flowers. I am beginning to suspect that this species blooms only in certain years with the proper moisture conditions, though I haven’t been able to confirm this.
Another species, a variety of hedgehog cactus (Pediocactus nigrispinus), is harder to find, but quite reminiscent of the stout barrel cacti of Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. Once more common in central Washington, Pediocactus nigrispinus has sadly been the target of illegal collecting and poaching, reducing its numbers to the point that it is now a threatened species here in Washington. We’ve run across patches of this cactus on two recent hikes, and the second time we were delighted to find many of the buds in bloom. This little cactus, robust but generally no more than a few inches high, has electric-pink flowers that really stand out, even when surrounded by tons of other spring flowers on the sagebrush steppe.
A hedgehog cactus (Pediocactus nigrispinus) blooming in the deserts of central Washington
And for good measure, a few other flowers from recent excursions:
Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sp.) flowers in the Yakima River Canyon of central Washington.
Low-growing lupine (Lupinus sp.) in the Yakima River Canyon of central Washington.
Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sp.) flowers at Steamboat Rock State Park in central Washington.
Tips on identifying specific balsamroot or lupine species are welcome! There seem to be dozens of different varieties out here, but I sure as heck can’t tell them apart…
A beautiful view from our camp in Gold Butte National Monument just after sunset, looking north towards the Virgin Mountains.
Gold Butte is one of our nation’s newest National Monuments, tucked away into a small corner of Southern Nevada, northeast of Lake Mead and snuggled up along the Arizona border. Unfortunately, Gold Butte was recently recommended for a “boundary reduction.” After spending a few days exploring the areas, I can confidently say that this is a truly stunning Mojave Desert landscape, home to amazing views, endangered wildlife, unique geology, and priceless relics of the past. If nothing else, I hope these photos demonstrate that this area is worthy of more protection, not less.
With abundant Joshua Trees, Creosote Bush, and stark rock formations, much of the landscape is vaguely reminiscent of Joshua Tree National Park, but with the colorful Aztec Sandstone providing a wonderful ruddy backdrop to the bright green Joshua Trees.
Late-afternoon view from a ridge overlooking Whitney Pocket, Gold Butte National Monument. You can just barely see our car next to the rocks at center right.
The Aztec Sandstone in this area is without a doubt the most colorful rock formation I’ve ever seen. Much like at nearby Valley of Fire State Park, around every corner are stunning swirls of color that would look more at home in a modern art gallery than in the desert.
We found the most intense colors on un-weathered boulders associated with recent rockfalls.
Many of the ridges and mountains in the Gold Butte area consist of Paleozoic limestones. Fossils, such as the brachiopods seen here, are a dime a dozen.
One of the primary justifications for the creation of Gold Butte National Monument was the abundance of rock art throughout the region. We saw petroglyphs pretty much wherever we went. The “Falling Man” seen here is perhaps the most well-known.
Petroglyphs, Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada.
More petroglyphs…Desert Tortoises perhaps?
Lest we neglect the living, we also saw roadrunners, kangaroo rats (one inspected our dinner one night but successfully eluded being photographed) as well as burrows made by endangered Desert Tortoises and other creatures. Somewhat more stationary and easier to capture were the bright pink and yellow spines of the California Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus)
A tiny fishhook cactus (Mammillaria tetrancistra) growing in rock rubble.
Utah Yuccas (Yucca Utahensis) thrive in the thin sandy soils formed in alcoves within the Aztec Sandstone.
A large Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia) specimen.
I’m ornithologically-challenged; this appears to be some sort of hawk waiting patiently for it’s next meal from atop this Joshua Tree. If you know what it is, let me know!
Southern Utah isn’t typically known for its wildflowers, but one particular family of plants puts on an annual show that rivals the rocks in brilliance and diversity of hues. While snow still lingers in the mountains, the lower elevations are bursting with color as a plethora of cacti are currently in bloom. For most of the year, the abundant low-growing prickly pear and hedgehog cacti hardly stand out in a landscape chock-full of sharp, spiny plants that collectively make cross-country hiking miserable. Right now though, it is hard not to take notice of these hardy plants. So electric are the colors that simply keeping ones eyes on the road is difficult given the rainbow peeking out from the desert scrub:
Florescent pink Beehive Cactus (Escobaria vivipara) flowers, San Francisco Mountains, Utah
Claret Cup Cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus) flowers, San Francisco Mountains, Utah
Beautiful orange, almost salmon-y, flowers of the Desert Prickly Pear (Opuntia phaeacantha), Pipe Spring National Monument, Arizona. This is the first time I’ve seen flowers this color on a prickly pear…perhaps some sort of hybrid?
Dense spines and bright pink flowers of the Mojave Prickly Pear (Opuntia erinacea), Beaver County, Utah
A stately row of pink Desert Prickly Pear (Opuntia phaeacantha) flowers, Washington County, Utah
Red and yellow flowers of the Desert Prickly Pear (Opuntia phaeacantha), Washington County, Utah
Engelmann’s Hedgehog (Echinocereus engelmannii) flower, Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Utah
Electric pink flowers of the Golden Prickly Pear (Opuntia aurea), Washington County, Utah. I realize it looks like I just jacked up the saturation on this photo, but the vibrancy of these flowers is truly that stunning, almost tropical in nature.
While the cacti may be the main event, a supporting cast of other wildflowers contribute as well:
Mylitta Crescent (Phyciodes mylitta) butterfly on Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata), Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Utah
Straggling Mariposa Lily (Calochortus flexuosus), Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Utah
Desert Four-O’Clock (Mirabilis multiflora), Pipe Spring National Monument, Arizona