Poppy apocalypse: Crowds descend on California city to see 'superbloom'

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) - Spring has arrived in Southern California and with it a crisis has blossomed in the small city of Lake Elsinore, where tens of thousands of visitors have flocked to see a "superbloom" of poppies in a desert canyon.

The rare profusion of orange poppies in Walker Canyon, set in the Temescal Mountains and accessible on foot via a trail, owes thanks to above-average rainfall in the arid region. The profusion of tourists in Lake Elsinore, located about 70 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, apparently owes thanks to the popularity of Instagram.

The hashtag #superbloom had been used over 100,000 times on Instagram as of Monday.

The city of 63,300 has seen 50,000 tourists from around the country and as far away as Europe come to the 3.5-mile (5.6 km) trail in Walker Canyon over the last two weeks to take in the orange flowers carpeting the surrounding hills.

The crowds have been so overwhelming that the city of Lake Elsinore shut Walker Canyon for a day to staunch the tourist flood and declared a public safety crisis. The city reopened Walker Canyon on Monday.

"This year's is substantially larger than we've ever seen in terms of the numbers of flowers and the numbers of visitors," Lake Elsinore City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Dailey said. The previous superbloom occurred in 2017.

The droves of people who started coming earlier this month prompted the city to start a shuttle service to Walker Canyon to ease traffic. This past weekend, tourists began lining up for the shuttle at 5:30 a.m., Dailey said, and wait times rose to two hours.

Some local residents have expressed outrage at the crowds and resulting gridlock, dubbing the superbloom season the "Poppy Apocalypse." The hashtags #PoppyNightmare and #IsitOverYet have also popped up on social media.

"We know it has been miserable and has caused unnecessary hardships for our entire community," a posting on the city's Facebook page on Sunday said.

Lake Elsinore Mayor Steve Manos wrote on Facebook on Saturday that a city employee was struck by a hit-and-run driver at the site, and a tourist was bitten by a rattlesnake.

Lake Elsinore has enlisted the help of the California Highway Patrol, the county sheriff's office, neighboring cities and private contractors to manage traffic around Walker Canyon, which has no designated public parking.

Rain in the forecast this week might deter some tourists from coming - or it could cause even more poppies to bloom and attract even more tourists. Dailey said she hoped wet weather would bring some relief for locals.

"We did not expect the crowds that we saw," she said. "Our freeways and our cities are not designed for crowds that you see in L.A."

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Leslie Adler)