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Superbloom Turns Southern California City Into a #Poppynightmare

Lake Elsinore has seen tens of thousands of people descend on Walker Canyon to see the recent superbloom, overwhelming local resources

Wildflower enthusiasts waiting to exit toward Walker Canyon on March 9, 2019. (Photo by Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
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Cities face all kinds of natural disasters—floods, droughts, windstorms and earthquakes. But the City of Lake Elsinore in Southern California is experiencing something less expected: a dangerous outbreak of flowers. A rare “superbloom” currently taking place in nearby Walker Canyon drew so many people to the city last weekend it overwhelmed local services and authorities, leading the city to shut it all down for a brief period.

The Press Enterprise’ David Downey reports that the city of approximately 66,000 saw an estimated 100,000 people descend on the area, overwhelming officials’ ability to control traffic, and causing gridlock on main thoroughfares. In a bid to see the stunning superbloom, cars were even parking on the 15 Freeway. Even worse, once they made it to Walker Canyon, tourists were ignoring signs and wading into the fields of poppies to take photos, lie down in them and, even, pick some.

The city, not normally a tourist destination, tried to control the “Disneyland size crowds,” cautioning residents via Facebook to stay off the local roads if possible and asking visitors to try coming later, during a weekday, when things were calmer. “People are creating chaos out there and we have already had an injury,” the city wrote in a statement. “This is a public safety crisis so we ask your support.”

Mayor Steve Manos described the scene as “insane” on the social media site. “One of our employees was hit and run by a driver. A rattlesnake bit a visitor. Residents have been screaming at the people directing traffic,” he said.

By Sunday night, it was all too much and the city decided to shut down access to Walker Canyon around 7 P.M. But on Monday, officials realized it was not possible to keep visitors away, and reopened the canyon at 10 A.M. saying they were looking into ways to reduce the strain on the community and local resources.

Nicole Hadyn of the Palm Springs Desert Sun captures the scene from the ground: “The poppies did not pop up on a flat stretch of land, but instead found home on the steep sides of the canyon. This did not deter visitors. Wildflower-seekers slid and fell down the side of Walker Canyon that was never meant to be hiked on, though some managed to do so anyways — even in very chic wedge heels,” she writes.

Two years ago, Walker Canyon also experienced a superbloom that attracted crowds, but the attention this year is on another level. “We’re getting the crowd numbers Los Angeles gets for large sporting events,” Nicole Dailey, Assistant to the Lake Elsinore City Manager tells the BBC. “Social media buzz has brought numbers that the city has never gone through before.”

So why, exactly, is Walker Canyon carpeted in Insta-ready orange poppies and other native wildflowers? Sarah Gibbens at National Geographic reports that superblooms happen when winter rainfall occurs in certain amounts and at just the right time in deserts and arid ecosystems. Dormant native wildflower seeds that have waited in the ground, sometimes for years, then burst to life in the spring, blooming in unison. The result paints the hillsides and deserts with color before the flowers set new seed and shrivel away until the next round of winter rains. California has recently received lots of precipitation, enough to officially end its seven-year drought.

According to the Wildflower Hotline, which monitors blooms across southern California, there are lots of other places besides Walker Canyon currently carpeted in flowers. Anza Borrego Desert State Park and the southern portion of Joshua Tree National Park are in bloom, and the Carrizo Plain National Monument and Antelope Valley California State Poppy Reserve are starting to get some color after a delay.

But Walker Canyon, just 70 miles from Los Angeles proper, is an easy daytrip for millions, which made it such a popular superbloom stop.

The BBC reports that rain is forecast for next weekend, which could be a double-edged sword for Lake Elsinore. It may stop the crowds for one weekend, but the precipitation will likely extend the ephemeral bloom later into April.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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