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California

Are crowds ruining California’s super bloom? A debate over ‘poppy mania’

Officials reopen the entrance to Lake Elsinore, which had been overrun during this year’s super bloom.

Super blossom. Poppy-palooza. Poppy apocalypse. Poppy mania.

Whatever you call it, the explosion of flowers is drawing big crowds but also causing problems.

One day after Lake Elsinore announced it was closing access to the popular poppy fields in Walker Canyon, city officials reopened the entrance to the flowered hillsides, which have been overrun during this year’s super bloom.

The hills — and the city — were invaded by flower fanatics on Saturday and Sunday. Between 50,000 and 100,000 people visited the canyon each day over the weekend, causing gridlock and traffic jams that overwhelmed Lake Elsinore, which has a population of 63,000, officials said.

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By Sunday afternoon, the city decided enough was enough, closing freeway ramps leading into the canyon and shutting down a newly launched shuttle that transported guests from a nearby shopping mall.

“This weekend has been unbearable,” a Facebook post noting the closure said.

But on Monday, the city changed its mind, saying it wasn’t feasible to keep visitors away.

Throngs have been trooping to Riverside County and elsewhere as Southern California revels in a super bloom of wildflowers, thanks to an unusually wet winter.

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“We’re heading into poppy mania,” Lake Elsinore Mayor Steve Manos said in a video posted on Facebook as he walked toward Walker Canyon’s main trail.

Anticipating this year’s super bloom, Lake Elsinore officials began planning two months ago how to welcome visitors and alleviate traffic congestion, including opening two lots for parking at Walker Canyon. But the blooms ended up being far better — or worse, depending on how you view it — than the super bloom of 2017, which was then the largest in more than a decade.

Manos and many other Lake Elsinore city staff members worked shifts on Sunday directing cars and crowds after residents complained that traffic was getting out of hand.

The city started a shuttle service for $5 a person, transporting visitors to Walker Canyon from the Outlets at Lake Elsinore, and requested help from neighboring cities’ law enforcement agencies for traffic enforcement.

Just a couple of weeks earlier, supervision at Walker Canyon was nonexistent as visitors stretched out on beds of poppies and walked away with orange bouquets.

But with each new weekend, more problems arose: snake bites, twisted ankles, heat exhaustion and a growing number of angry locals.

Officials closed some roads to residents and designated a shuttle-only lane on the 15 Freeway. But by 2 p.m. Sunday, traffic overload had stymied efforts to smooth the way for visitors, who were subject to hours-long waits. Residents were being denied access to their homes for the convenience of the shuttles. By 4 p.m., it became clear the city had to call it quits. Access to Walker Canyon was shut down an hour later.

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“Residents aren’t being considered at all,” said Micah Council, 35, who was forced to turn around at Lake Street, two minutes from her home, and drive for 45 minutes on an alternate route.

Council said she felt the city was more interested in making revenue from visitors than accommodating its own residents. She canceled all her weekend plans and went out only once — to Target.

She also was in constant communication with her neighbor, who is pregnant: “Do you need toilet paper? Anything?” Council said she worried that if the woman went into labor, she wouldn’t be able to get to the hospital. And when Council’s own 4-year-old daughter injured her head over the weekend, she wondered: What if it had been more serious?

“It has been a mess, but this weekend was just unreal. This weekend was something I’ve never seen before,” she said.

Manos said anger and frustration like Council’s has been heaped on city officials through emails and Facebook comments.

“The impacts on the community have caused some of the residents to voice loud and clear that they’re frustrated by some of the crowds,” he said. “Our city has gone through a unique year. We’ve had fires. We’ve had floods. We’ve had impacts to our lake. We came through all of that perfectly fine. We’re going to get through fine with this.”

Where to find the super blooms in Southern California »

Plus, the visitors have brought appreciated patronage to local businesses, he said. At Main Street Kitchen and Tap, employees had to cross out eight items on their menu; they were running out of food.

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St. Patrick’s Day exacerbated the crowds at many restaurants Sunday. Next door to Main Street Kitchen at Stadium Pizza, the food ran low too, said employee Gavin Steed. Staff members had to stock up for the week. But it was a good problem to have for many of them.

“It was a lot of fun,” said one employee at Felix’s BBQ with Soul. He did not want to be named because he was not authorized to give interviews. “A lot of people showed us their pictures [of the blooms].”

At the Outlets, “there were more people there than there were during the high time for Christmas,” Manos said. And that was true even for business on weekdays, he said.

The city is now reevaluating how best to handle all the super bloom sightseers. In a Facebook post with a hashtag advising residents to “hang in there,” officials said Lake Elsinore is working on a new plan for the coming weekend.

Walker Canyon was reopened Monday morning because the crowds on weekdays aren’t nearly as bad, Manos said. But throughout the day, he had meetings scheduled with staff members and traffic control engineers in an effort to reach a better solution before Saturday.

Most likely, he said, Walker Canyon will be open this weekend.

“This is an opportunity to showcase the natural beauty for the city of Lake Elsinore,” he said. “This is something that should be welcomed. It’s an inconvenience to residents, but we’re doing our best to accommodate the visitors and provide the best opportunities for our residents to navigate what is coming, whether we like it or not.”

alejandra.reyesvelarde@latimes.com

Twitter: @r_valejandra


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