Lake Elsinore, Walker Canyon, Borrego Springs overwhelmed with Disney-like crowds for California's superbloom

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 fields, 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.

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 the fields in Riverside County and elsewhere as Southern California revels in a super bloom of wildflowers, thanks to an unusually wet winter.

"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.

He joked about alternate names for the breathtaking natural phenomenon that was drawing "Disneyland-size crowds" to Lake Elsinore's backyard: Super blossom. Poppy-palooza. Poppy apocalypse.

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 they expected and the problems extended far beyond the parking lots.

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Manos and many other Lake Elsinore city staff members worked shifts on Sunday controlling traffic and crowds after heeding complaints from residents that the traffic was getting out of hand.

The city started a shuttle service for $5 per person that transported 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 residents.

Officials closed some roads to residents and designated a shuttle-only lane on the freeway. But by 2pm 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 pm, it became clear the city had to call it quits. Access to Walker Canyon was shut down an hour later.

"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. "I don't see the necessity in showing the residents the back of your hand."

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

She also was in constant communication with her neighbour, 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 her 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 poured in to 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."

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.

St. Patrick's Day exacerbated the crowds at restaurants Sunday. Next door to Main Street Kitchen at Stadium Pizza, the food was running low too, said employee Gavin Steed. Staff members had to shop around local businesses 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 BBQ with Soul. He did not want to be named because he was not authorised 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 re-evaluating 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."

Andy Macuga, honorary mayor of the desert town of Borrego Springs, another wildflower hotspot, said he feels for Lake Elsinore.

In 2017, a rain-fed super bloom brought in more than a half-million visitors to the town of 3500. Restaurants ran out of food. Gas stations ran out of fuel. Traffic backed up on a single road for 32 kilometres.

The city is again experiencing a super bloom.

The crowds are back. Hotels are full. More than 6000 people on a recent Saturday stopped at the visitor's centre at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California's largest park with 2590 sq km.

But it helps that the masses of blooms are appearing in several different areas this time, and some sections are fading, while others are lighting up with flowers, helping to disperse the crowds a bit.

Most importantly, Macuga said, the town's businesses prepared this time as if a major storm was about to hit. His restaurant, Carlee's, is averaging more than 550 meals a day, compared to 300 on a normal March day.

"We were completely caught off guard in 2017 because it was the first time that we had had a flower season like this with social media," he said. "It helps now knowing what's coming."

LA TIMES with AAP

See also: Offbeat California: 7 amazing things that lurk in the So Cal desert

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