Tens of thousands converge on California ‘poppy apocalypse’

  • In this Wednesday, March 6, 2019, photo, people walk among wildflowers in bloom near Borrego Springs, Calif. Two years after steady rains sparked seeds dormant for decades under the desert floor to burst open and produce a spectacular display dubbed the “super bloom,” another winter soaking this year is shaping up to be possibly even better. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • In this Wednesday, March 6, 2019, photo, a woman sits in a field of wildflowers in bloom near Borrego Springs, Calif. Two years after steady rains sparked seeds dormant for decades under the desert floor to burst open and produce a spectacular display dubbed the “super bloom,” another winter soaking this year is shaping up to be possibly even better. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • People pose for a picture among wildflowers in bloom Monday, March 18, 2019, in Lake Elsinore, Calif. About 150,000 people flocked over the weekend to see this year’s rain-fed flaming orange patches of poppies lighting up the hillsides near Lake Elsinore, a city of about 60,000 residents. The crowds became so bad Sunday that Lake Elsinore officials closed access to poppy-blanketed Walker Canyon. By Monday the #poppyshutdown announced by the city on Twitter was over and the road to the canyon was re-opened. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • A model poses among wildflowers in bloom Monday, March 18, 2019, in Lake Elsinore, Calif. About 150,000 people flocked over the weekend to see this year’s rain-fed flaming orange patches of poppies lighting up the hillsides near Lake Elsinores, about a 90-minute drive from either San Diego or Los Angeles. The crowds became so bad Sunday that Lake Elsinore officials closed access to poppy-blanketed Walker Canyon. By Monday the #poppyshutdown announced by the city on Twitter was over and the road to the canyon was re-opened. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. — Like Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz,” the Southern California city of Lake Elsinore is being overwhelmed by the power of the poppies.

About 150,000 people over the weekend flocked to see this year’s rain-fed flaming orange patches of poppies lighting up the hillsides near the city of about 60,000 residents, about a 90-minute drive from either San Diego or Los Angeles.

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Interstate 15 was a parking lot. People fainted in the heat; a dog romping through the fields was bitten by a rattlesnake.

A vibrant field of poppies lures Dorothy into a trap in the “Wizard of Oz” when the wicked witch, acknowledging that no one can resist their beauty, poisons the wildflowers and she slips into a fatal slumber until the good witch reverses the spell.

Lake Elsinore had tried to prepare for the crush of people drawn by the super bloom, a rare occurrence that usually happens about once a decade because it requires a wet winter and warm temperatures that stay above freezing.

It offered a free shuttle service to the top viewing spots, but it wasn’t enough.

Sunday traffic got so bad that Lake Elsinore officials requested law enforcement assistance from neighboring jurisdictions. At one point, the city pulled down the curtain and closed access to poppy-blanketed Walker Canyon.

“It was insane, absolutely insane,” said Mayor Steve Manos, who described it as a “poppy apocalypse.”

By Monday the #poppyshutdown announced by the city on Twitter was over and the road to the canyon was re-opened.

And people were streaming in again.

Young and old visitors to the Lake Elsinore area seemed equally enchanted as they snapped selfies against the natural carpet of iridescent orange.

Some contacted friends and family on video calls so they could share the beauty in real time. Artists propped canvasses on the side of the trail to paint the super bloom, while drones buzzed overhead.

Patty Bishop, 48, of nearby Lake Forest, was on her second visit. The native Californian had never seen such an explosion of color from the state flower. She battled traffic Sunday but that didn’t deter her from going back Monday for another look. She got there at sunrise and stayed for hours.

“There’s been so many in just one area,” she said. “I think that’s probably the main reason why I’m out here personally is because it’s so beautiful.”

Stephen Kim and his girlfriend got to Lake Elsinore even before sunrise Sunday to beat the crowds but there were already hundreds of people.

The two wedding photographers hiked on the designated trails with an engaged couple to do a photo shoot with the flowers in the background, but they were upset to see so many people going off-trail and so much garbage. They picked up as many discarded water bottles as they could carry.

“You see this beautiful pristine photo of nature but then you look to the left and there’s plastic Starbucks cups and water bottles on the trail and selfie sticks and people having road rage because some people were walking slower,” said Kim, 24, of Carlsbad.

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 3,500. Restaurants ran out of food. Gas stations ran out of fuel. Traffic backed up on a single road for 20 miles (32 kilometers).

The city is again experiencing a super bloom.

The crowds are back. Hotels are full. More than 6,000 people on a recent Saturday stopped at the visitor’s center at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California’s largest park with 1,000 square miles (2,590 sq. kilometers).

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.”

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Rain brings 2nd California super bloom in 2 years

By JULIE WATSON

Associated Press

BORREGO SPRINGS, Calif. — It started with the desert lilies in December. Since then, a wave of wildflower blooms has been crescendoing across Southern California’s Anza-Borrego desert in a burst of color so vivid it can be seen from mountain tops thousands of feet above.

Two years after steady rains followed by warm temperatures caused seeds dormant for decades under the desert floor to burst open and produce a spectacular display dubbed the “super bloom,” another winter soaking this year is expected to create possibly an even better show by Mother Nature.

Having two super blooms in two years is highly unusual.

In California, super blooms happen about once in a decade in a given area, and they have been occurring less frequently with the drought.

The 2017 super bloom was the best seen in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in 20 years and drew mass crowds to Borrego Springs, a town of 3,500 that abuts the park.

“There’s just an abundance in where it’s blooming and it’s coming in waves,” said Betsy Knaak, executive director of the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association, which tracks the blooms.

On a recent day, Knaak wandered through swaths of bright yellow and acres of purple outside Borrego Springs. Families, retired couples and college students traipsed into the fields trying to capture the natural wonder in photos.

Stephen Rawding drove out from Carlsbad, north of San Diego, to take photos with his girlfriend after a friend told him it was better than the one in 2017.

“It’s unreal,” Rawding said. “It’s just like they said — so beautiful.”

The setting sun lit up the yellow flowers that contrasted sharply against the brown and copper mountains in the background.

By the beginning of March there were tapestries of hot pink Bigelow’s Monkey Flower, purple Sand Verbena, delicate white and yellow Evening Primrose and of course the desert lilies, which bloomed extremely early, opening up in December, signaling a super bloom was possible.

Bright orange poppies also are blanketing the sides of Southern California highways.

“It’s a painting of colors at the moment out there in many of the areas,” said Jim Dice, reserve manager of Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center, University of California Natural Reserve System.

So far, six times the amount of rain has fallen in the Anza-Borrego desert this weather season compared to last year, Dice said.

If the caterpillars and freezing temperatures stay away, the already gorgeous wave of wildflowers could intensify and light up other areas well into spring.

The state park with 640,000 acres (1,000 square miles) is California’s largest, with hundreds of species of plants including blazing stars and the tall spiny Ocotillo, which are covered in buds that will open to flaming orange-red flowers.

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A research associate at Dice’s center recently hiked up to the top of Coyote Mountain and shot a photo of the purple fields 3,000 feet (914 meters) below.

“It was pretty spectacular to see that from up above,” Dice said.

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