Death Valley is predicted to be bloomless this year

Mention a California winter escape that involves stargazing and vast desert landscapes, and Death Valley National Park immediately comes to mind. At 3.4 million acres straddling the California and Nevada border, it is the largest national park outside of Alaska. It is also the darkest, drawing astronomy enthusiasts year-round to its unobstructed starry skies and otherworldly stretches of sand, mountains, and canyons.

The drive to get there, though, can take half a day from most parts of Southern California, and, this year, Death Valley visitors will also encounter the continued closure of a marquee attraction and damage inflicted during the recent partial government shutdown. Scotty’s Castle, the storied 1920s-era Spanish villa named after colorful con man and gold prospector Walter Scott, remains closed until at least 2020 because of flash flooding in 2015. And, while workers have dealt with most of the littering and vandalism that happened during the shutdown, the harm caused to delicate ecosystems by off-road vehicles will take longer to address, and might never be mitigated.

In a further setback, a park website post warns: “It would be very unlikely at this point to see a 2019 spring superbloom” — when a perfect storm of drought conditions and excess rains combine to produce a Technicolor burst of wildflowers that coats the desert floor. On the positive side: this might mean fewer crowds for those seeking a quieter late-winter desert experience.

Location: Furnace Creek Visitor Center, Highway 190, 760-786-3200;

Anza-Borrego is expected to burst with wildflowers.

About 250 miles south of Death Valley lies Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California's largest one. At 650,000 acres, it's significantly smaller and not nearly as famous as its northern neighbor, but it shares the distinction of being one of 62 designated International Dark Sky Parks in the country, and its striking desert vistas and trails are much more convenient to Los Angeles or San Diego.

Surrounded by mountains, sand dunes and palm groves, the park is named for Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and the Spanish word for bighorn sheep, the endangered curved-horn creature that dwells there along with roadrunners, rattlesnakes and kit foxes. Nearby Borrego Springs, a town of adventure outfitters, cafes and giant outdoor sculptures, suggests a mini Moab, Utah, mixed with a dose of maverick backcountry pride. Free stargazing programs and full-moon walks are regular calendar activities; this year, there's also a bike concession and behind-the-scenes tours of its paleontology and archaeology labs.

Unlike Death Valley, Anza-Borrego is anticipating a superbloom, which should peak in early to mid-March. (Area campgrounds are already booked solid.) A local natural history website offers updates on sightings of sand verbena, brown-eyed evening primrose, lupine and more, with specific mile markers and road conditions. For wildflower touring, consider entering the park from the east entrance (via Salton City), rather than congestion-prone Highway 78 on the west. Yes, you'll bypass the (excellent) visitor center, but the best blooms often lie miles from it — in the Borrego Badlands, on the Salton Borrego Highway and off Di Giorgio Road north of town, for example. Another option: the Anza-Borrego Foundation Store at 537 Palm Canyon Drive, where volunteers are ready to steer newcomers to the best spots to experience these rare, unforgettable shows of nature.

Location: Visitor Center, 200 Palm Canyon Dr., Borrego Springs. 760-767-0446;

Randall is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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