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By The Way
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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

To avert ‘poppy apocalypse,’ California city closes canyon to visitors

The superbloom of 2019 in Lake Elsinore’s Walker Canyon proved irresistible to Instagram-posting visitors

Visitors pose for a picture among wildflowers in bloom in March 2019 in Lake Elsinore, Calif. (Gregory Bull/AP)
4 min

Wildflower lovers won’t be able to get their fix this year in one Southern California city after officials announced that they were closing trails, roads and parking at a canyon that attracted thousands of visitors during an earlier poppy bloom.

The superbloom of 2019 blanketed Lake Elsinore’s Walker Canyon with a layer of vibrant orange poppies. They proved irresistible to phone-wielding, Instagram-posting visitors, who clogged roadways and trails, trampled the growth and occasionally needed rescuing due to heat and exertion and at least one rattlesnake bite.

“The flowers were beautiful,” Lake Elsinore Mayor Natasha Johnson said during a news conference this week with patches of California poppies in the background. “The scene was a nightmare.”

Facing another seasonal bloom — though likely not a supersized one — city, county and law enforcement officials decided not to risk a repeat. Johnson announced that the trails on Walker Canyon, as well as parking around it and an access road, are all closed. Shuttles will not run to the canyon, as they did for part of the 2019 season. Trails were closed in the spring of 2020 due to the pandemic, and drought kept blooms away for the last couple of years.

We’re in the age of the overtourist. You can avoid being one of them.

“While typically the city of Lake Elsinore welcomes visitors to enjoy our vibrant community and boost our economy, the overwhelming number and unfortunate behavior of our visitors to Walker Canyon in 2019 came at a cost that was way too steep for our residents and our wildlife,” Johnson said.

Riverside Sheriff Chad Bianco warned that the penalty for visiting anyway could be steep, though he said courts would determine any fine.

“We don’t want anybody coming here thinking that they’ll pay the fine and be good with it,” he said. “It’s a misdemeanor infraction subject to arrest.”

Walker Canyon, which closed in 2019 due to the crowds, has become the latest popular destination to close because of overtourism. A daffodil-dotted ranch east of Sacramento that had been open to the public for decades announced it was closing indefinitely in 2019 after being overwhelmed by a “crush of visitors.” Comparing the influx of tourists to a “zombie apocalypse,” Ontario farmers shut down access to their sunflower fields after a little more than a week, the New York Times reported in 2018.

The story has been similar around the globe, with a canyon in Iceland, an island in the Philippines and a bay in Thailand closing, at least temporarily, due to an influx of tourists.

In Lake Elsinore, reaction on the Facebook page that carried the news conference ranged from laudatory to disappointed to politically charged.

“So instead of responsibility, City officials decide to take away our rights,” one person wrote. “Taking their orders from the progressives.”

Another was more succinct: “Poppy police,” they wrote.

Some residents said they had been excited to explore the canyon, though others — still scarred from 2019 — were glad to escape a few weekends of gridlock. Many chastised officials for missing out on the chance to make some money from the phenomenon.

“You’re going to lose million in tax and tourist revenue,” one commenter wrote. “Should have leaned in and had a poppy festival with shuttles etc. Missed opportunity.”

The new rules of travel

But Bianco, the county sheriff, said there was no way to safely accommodate the crowds that have shown up in the past.

“Your warning is right now; we will have a zero-tolerance policy for people that are here trespassing and parking on sides of the roadways,” he said. “If you are going to come here and you are going to park your car, you are subject to citation and possibly the towing of your vehicle.”

For poppy fans who need updates on the bloom, the city has live video footage of Walker Canyon linked from its website.

“We understand that this is not the news that everybody may want to have heard, but our community’s safety as well as preservation is our main focus,” Johnson said. “Thank you for your support and especially your poppy patience. This weekend I encourage you to focus on the Super Bowl and not the superbloom that we’re not having.”