Under the Influence of a ‘Super Bloom’

“At the beginning of the year, if you told me this is what we were going to be dealing with, I would have called you crazy,” said Steve Manos, the mayor of Lake Elsinore, a small town in Southern California. He was taking a brief reprieve from dealing with the biggest crisis of his short term in office yet: an explosion of picture-perfect California poppies in the Temescal Mountains, just northwest of the center of town.

“The poppy bloom in Lake Elsinore is unlike anything I’ve seen in my 32 years living in Lake Elsinore,” he said. “The flowers are especially vibrant in color, they are numerous and they’re covering the entire mountain.”

The problem for the mayor isn’t the flame-orange poppies themselves, which blossom in the springtime after heavy winter rains follow an extended drought. It’s their adoring, smartphone-equipped fans, who have shown up in droves over the past three weeks, bringing with them horrible traffic and occasionally horrible etiquette when they wander off the trail to pose with, trample or even pick the poppies.

The first week of March, when the buds first turned to blooms, “there were a couple of social media influencers who came out and decided to take advantage of the beautiful backdrop,” Mr. Manos recalled. “We saw an explosion in interest and — all of sudden — lots and lots of visitors.” As many as 100,000 over the course of St. Patrick’s Day weekend, to be more precise.

“We’ve never had 50,000 or 100,000 in this city all at onetime,” Mr. Manos added. “The city’s not advertising this. It’s not an event, and for those reasons it’s really hard to plan for anything like that.”

Perhaps no one had a better plan than Jaci Marie Smith, a 24-year-old influencer from Los Angeles with more than 400,000 Instagram followers. In a post from March 1, she is shown nestled amid poppy blossoms in an all-orange outfit of overalls and a henley, with a wide-brimmed hat atop her head. A single orange poppy pokes out of her mouth. Some 60,000 people liked that post, and on March 5, she posted more poppy content — this time, of her holding a bouquet of the flowers — as a vehicle to promote a brand of press-on nails (“$7.99 at Ulta, CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Rite Aid, or impressmanicure.com!”).

“You’ll never influence the world by trying to be like it,” read Ms. Smith’s first poppy photo caption. And yet, as more people posed for poppy pictures, and international news outlets picked up the story, influence the world they did. Within three weeks, so many people were influenced to come pose in the flowery hills that the city had to figure out how to intervene. After a Lake Elsinore official was hit by a car, and a visitor was bit by a rattlesnake, the city shut down access to Walker Canyon, the main trailhead, from the nearest roads and set up a $5 shuttle service to bring visitors from the local outlet malls. But the hordes found other places to park and walk in, and the city lacked the manpower to enforce the closure.

The overall economic impact of super-bloom tourism has yet to be determined. At Jack’s BBQ Shack, the head of human resources, Leslie Lloyd, reported that the restaurant had its “best weekend out of five years because of the poppies.” Ribs were selling out before 11 a.m. But for businesses that involve moving around town, like the plumbing company Darrell Brown works for in nearby Murrieta, Calif., the so-called #PoppyApocalypse is much more dire. “I told our office, don’t send people there,” he said of Lake Elsinore, after hearing rumors of how bad the traffic was. “We lost somewhere between five and eight thousand dollars just on Saturday alone.”

Other sites that are expecting significant wildflower blooms this year, like Joshua Tree National Park, are major year-round attractions that have visitor centers and ample parking. The same goes for Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, where other so-called “super blooms” are already flourishing. Walker Canyon, on the other hand, doesn’t have permanent toilets or a shop to buy water.

“We are not really trying at this time to figure out how to monetize the event in any way shape or form,” said the mayor. After conferencing with the California Highway Patrol, city officials decided to ban parking near the trailhead this weekend and double the shuttle price to $10. Forty additional deputies from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department will help guide traffic.

Occasionally, a food truck parks near the trailhead, which is walking distance from the freeway overpass. Overflow traffic backs up into the offramps, and there’s a thick sense of despair among the cars stuck in traffic — the type of anxiety associated with the worst L.A. traffic or music festival parking lots, but even more unpredictable. Last Wednesday, the parking situation along Walker Canyon Road was dog-eat-dog, with drivers stopping and idling in the middle of the road whenever they saw a hiker emerge from the trail who might free up a parking space.

This rare spectacle seems to be worth the trouble for many visitors. The last major super bloom in Lake Elsinore, and perhaps the first of the Instagram era, was in 2017, thanks to another consistently rainy winter. Last year’s drier winter prevented a bloom. But it also paved the way for this year’s explosion, because the dry winter killed off some of the nonnative plants that compete with the poppy. But the poppies may be no match for the more destructive invasive species: the influencer who gets too close. “Poppies die quickly when they’re stepped on,” said Jean Rhyne, an interpreter for California State Parks. “Even when people walk between them, it crushes the roots,” she said, creating unofficial trails amid the flowers and encouraging more destructive foot traffic.

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