New Englanders like to brag about the canopy of color that carpets the Northeast in the fall. But when conditions are right, as they appear to be this year, there’s little that rivals the bloom of millions of wildflowers on the floor of the Anza-Borrego desert.
And just like back East, where the hordes take to the road to view the turning of the leaves, visitors from throughout Southern California will come by the thousands to the small desert community of Borrego Springs to witness the so-called super bloom.
But unlike two years ago, when the town was overwhelmed and unprepared for the nearly half-million people who descended on the state’s largest park, officials say this year they are ready to handle the crush of beauty-seeking visitors.
There will be no Flowergeddon 2, they insist, referencing the term used to describe the chaos that erupted the first couple weekends in March 2017, the most spectacular bloom of wildflowers in a decade.
A traffic jam nearly 20 miles long stretched from Lake Henshaw all the way down Montezuma Valley Road (County Highway S-22) to the desert floor that first big Saturday.
Once people finally got to town, confusion ruled. Many didn’t know where the flowers were and they couldn’t find a place to go to the bathroom, or eat, or purchase water, or park, or get gas.
“It was that first weekend in March 2017 that took us totally by surprise,” said Betsy Knapp, the executive director of the Anza-Borrego Foundation.
“This time, there is a real sense of preparedness,” added Bri Fordem, the executive director of the foundation. “People should feel comfortable coming here.”
The two women and about a dozen other business owners and managers have formed what could be known as the Flowergeddon Prevention Committee, though they don’t really call it that. Officially they’ve been meeting as part of the Borrego Village Assn.
They are ready for what is to come, they say.
The latest flower forecast predicts flowers should start popping in as little as two weeks and last through much of March. But experts say nothing is for sure until it happens.
“Two years ago, we had an absolutely fantastic bloom,” said Jim Dice, the reserve manager at the Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center. “I don’t know if we’re going to meet that. It’s likely going to be a very good bloom, but a strong freeze right now could be very bad and a prolonged hot spell could hurt things.”
Dice said an initial bloom has already begun in spots throughout the 630,000-acre park, but not close to Borrego Springs. Still, he and other experts say, it appears a great bloom is quickly approaching.
It’s impossible to say how many people drove from Los Angeles and San Diego — not to mention other parts of the country and even the world — to view the flowers from late February to early April two years ago.
Most estimates place the number at 250,000 to 500,000. Weekends were insane. Even weekdays were at times uncomfortably crowded.
Despite the chaos, the super bloom was tremendous for business in the town that is home to only about 3,500 permanent residents. Some business owners said they made as much money in about 45 days as they did the rest of the year.
Patrick Sampson, the general manager of La Casa del Zorro Resort and Spa and the current president of the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce, said his resort was booked for 34 days, doing more than $1 million in revenue during that span.
This time around, the group, along with state park officials, contracted for dozens of portable toilets to be spread throughout the area, in town and near the flower fields. A dozen Dumpsters are on order.
There are plans to pass out thousands of maps as people drive in showing where the fields, toilets, restaurants (there are 12 in town) and gas stations are (there was one gas station in 2017; there are two now).
Park rangers and the California Highway Patrol are getting ready and there should be far better traffic control in the area. More parking has also been provided with a lot near the Mall in the center of town having opened.
The restaurants are ramping up. Two years ago, the food establishments were overwhelmed. Some ran out of food altogether and at some, a few overworked and frustrated employees quit on the spot.
“Now I think we may be overly prepared,” said Andy Macuga, the owner of Carlee’s Restaurant and this year’s honorary mayor of Borrego Springs.
“I know I’ve hired more staff than ever out of fear,” he said. “I’m hiring people non-stop. You have a pulse? Love you. Come on in.”
Thomas Hildebrandt, the executive chef-restaurant manager at Kesling’s Kitchen across the street from Carlee’s, said they had just opened for business when the super bloom hit in 2017. He said for a month people were lined up outside.
“It was like amusement park lines and there was an amusement park feeling in the air,” he said. “It never ended.”
Hildebrandt said they know much more now and have devised a plan in which people can quickly purchase prepacked sandwiches and salads.
The committee urges people to come prepared. Bring water and sunglasses, and close-toed shoes for walking amid (but not on) the flowers. They suggest planning their driving routes ahead of time and stress that Montezuma Valley Road isn’t the only way into town.
But don’t worry about bringing a sack lunch, they say with a smile. There will be plenty of food for sale.
It’s suggested that visitors view several websites ahead of time because when hordes of people are in the valley, cellular phone service is spotty as the carriers’ systems get overwhelmed.
Some of the sites include: theabf.org; parks.ca.gov/anzaborrego and abdnha.org. There is also a Wildflower Hotline phone number with a tape-recorded message that is updated every few days: (760) 767-4684.
Fordem and others said one of the community’s hopes is that wildflower visitors will fall in love with the desert and come back to visit at other times of the year.