California poppy bloom tempts visitors to break coronavirus stay-at-home order

Shana Zhao, left, photographs her sister, Vivi Zhao, among blooming California poppies in a field in Lancaster.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t thwarted Mother Nature’s springtime show in the Antelope Valley, where rolling hillsides are blanketed in a fiery orange hue from a recent poppy bloom.

But like everything else deemed nonessential during the pandemic, the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve near Lancaster — where crowds have flocked in years past to witness the breathtaking bloom — is closed to visitors. The California Department of Parks and Recreation has set up a live cam of the bloom in the hopes that people will enjoy the spectacular sight from home.

State parks officials have also set up roadblocks to allow only local traffic into the area and to reduce fence-jumping from those hoping to snap a photo among the flowers. But even that hasn’t kept everyone away, officials say.

Isabella Cardenas, 7, runs through blooming California poppies in a field in Lancaster.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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On Tuesday, a handful of people were spotted dancing, running and posing for photos among a sea of flowers.

“There are a lot of people not obeying the stay-at-home order, but visitation to the valley is only a fraction of what it would normally be at this time,” California State Parks Interpreter Jean Rhyne told SFGate.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order, which has been in effect for more than a month, requires Californians to not leave their residences except for essential errands such as grocery shopping and doctor visits. Outdoor exercise is permitted, but state officials have asked people to walk, run and hike in their own neighborhoods rather than visiting destination parks that have the potential to draw crowds.

The nature reserve, which frequently draws swarms of people from across California, landed on the state’s list of closures amid the pandemic over fears that people would be unable to social distance on the tight trails.

A couple take a selfie among blooming California poppies in Lancaster outside of the perimeter of the California Poppy State Natural Reserve.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Officials in Riverside County have voiced similar concerns, especially in the wake of last year’s massive crowds.

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A wet winter in 2019 resulted in an epic super-bloom that attracted thousands to Lake Elsinore’s hillsides of golden poppies. The interest was so significant that Lake Elsinore temporary closed access to the popular poppy fields in Walker Canyon after flower fanatics invaded the region, causing gridlock and traffic jams that overwhelmed the city.

After months of no rain this winter, it didn’t appear the poppies would bloom at all in 2020. However, significant rain that fell across Southern California last month, which pulled the region out of drought conditions, also yielded a mini-bloom.

“I’m not sure anyone would call it a superbloom,” said Betsy Dionne, ecological resource specialist for the Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority. “It’s definitely not as showy this year because we got the rain so late.”

Vehicles crowd Lancaster Boulevard where scores of people were enjoying the blooming poppies in Lancaster.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Jonathan Reinig, natural resource manager for Riverside County parks, said despite the lackluster bloom, officials were seeing 20 to 50 people each day in Walker Canyon, even after the stay-at-home order was put in place last month. When Lake Elsinore blocked access to Walker Canyon Road and began threatening to hand out parking tickets, that number dropped significantly, he said.

While Riverside County this week reopened parks and trails with certain social distancing measures, Lake Elsinore intends to continue blocking access to Walker Canyon.

These are some of the unusual new scenes across the Southland during the coronavirus outbreak.

“We don’t feel we have the resources during this COVID-19 pandemic to be able to manage an influx of visitors,” said Nicole Dailey, assistant to the city manager in Lake Elsinore. “Last year was beautiful and the display of flowers was amazing, but the crowds were far beyond what we have the resources to handle.”

The city is working to place a camera in the fields where flowers are blooming to give enthusiasts a chance to check them out from home. She also warned the display isn’t nearly as impressive as it was last year.

“There isn’t really anything to see,” she said. “I think if people come out, they’ll be disappointed.”

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 Vivi Zhao of Santa Monica dances among blooming California poppies in Lancaster outside of the perimeter of the California Poppy State Natural Reserve.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)