'It was like Woodstock': inside the town hit by super bloom mania

Carla Green in Lake Elsinore, California

The town of Lake Elsinore sits at the edge of a canyon newly bursting with color. Fields of poppies, lupins and other wildflowers spill across hillsides – usually covered with brown, scrubby plants – as though poured from a bucket of paint.

In the last few weeks, large swaths of southern California have been transformed into a colorful canvas of flowers. This type of “super bloom” has happened before, but this year is especially intense – an unusually wet winter following years of drought, combined with the aftermath of a brutal wildfire season, has set the stage for what many predicted would be the best bloom in years.

But the pretty picture has a dark side: the hordes of super bloom tourists overwhelming small towns without the infrastructure to handle the sudden influx. This season, Lake Elsinore has become the poster child for the super bloom tourist invasion. On a recent Sunday, the town more than doubled in population, bloated with an estimated 100,000 visitors hungry to see the flowers.

Related: #Superbloom or #poppynightmare? Selfie chaos forces canyon closure

“It was like Woodstock,” says the city’s mayor, Steve Manos. “An absolute apocalyptic scenario.”

Manos, a second-term mayor with a gap between his teeth and a warm smile, has a good sense of humor about the ridiculous situation he’s found himself in, where fury over the influx of tourists has prompted some residents of his town to threaten – albeit, maybe in jest – to burn the fields of poppies to the ground.

Speaking from his modest office, a whiteboard covered with traffic-planning scribbles hung on one wall, Manos lays out how his town’s poppy fields went viral – attracting Instagram influencers and even celebrities such as Michael Jackson’s son, Prince Jackson. “It became a social media frenzy,” he says.

The fields of poppies in Lake Elsinore attracted crowds including Instagram influencers and even celebrities.

The fields of poppies in Lake Elsinore attracted crowds including Instagram influencers and even celebrities. Photograph: Gregory Bull/AP

The mayor has become an unsuspecting celebrity in his own right. A Facebook and Instagram video of Manos standing in front of the canyon, cheerily pleading for the crowds to stop coming to Lake Elsinore was widely shared, and also ignored.

Last Sunday’s influx of visitors at Walker Canyon, about five miles from the city center, brought traffic to a halt on the freeway and on the streets of the city. Poppy tourists began leaving their cars on the shoulder of the road, climbing over the guard rail, and walking directly into the canyon. The city scrambled to provide enough shuttle buses and parking for the masses.

Manos says they eventually made the call to shut down access to the canyon over public safety concerns. Clearing the mountainside was nearly impossible, he says, but officials did their best by shutting down freeway off ramps. “It was a terrible scenario,” Manos says.

Since then, the canyon has reopened, with the local transit authority intermittently closing and re-opening certain freeway exits. But the unpredictable situation hasn’t deterred visitors.

On a recent weekday, while the streets of Lake Elsinore are mostly empty, Walker Canyon is buzzing with a mix of families and hip young people. Liann Walker, 44, brought her son to see the flowers. She home schools him, and says the super bloom is an educational opportunity. “I told him it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she says. “It didn’t matter how many people were here, we were gonna come.”

The entrance to the canyon, a narrow dirt road just spitting distance from the freeway, has become a busy thoroughfare choked with traffic and snaking lines of parked cars. Local officials strung up makeshift fences along the canyon trail in the form of fluorescent pink and yellow police tape.

But visitors seem unencumbered by the barrier, cheerfully stepping off the dirt path to take pictures with the flowers and pluck poppies to place behind their ears. Despite a chill in the air, fashionably-dressed visitors traipse up the canyon in summer dresses and sandals.

Renee LeGrand takes a picture among blooming wildflowers in Lake Elsinore.

Renee LeGrand takes a picture among blooming wildflowers in Lake Elsinore. Photograph: Gregory Bull/AP

Bettzaira Hernandez, 20, came for the selfies. She says she saw the super bloom on Instagram, “so I dragged my boyfriend to take pictures of me”. Her boyfriend stands beside her, holding a poppy in his hands. “I picked it for my girlfriend,” he says sheepishly.

Hernandez says they’d heard about the crowds over the weekend, and empathized with the locals. “But then again, they’re not gonna stop us, there’s way too much of us, so we might as well just come,” she says.

This super bloom is one of the most intense in recent memory, mostly thanks to the drought, which was declared officially over this year. Wildflowers used to bloom across the state but were pushed out by European grasses about 100 years ago, explained Richard Minnich, a professor in the earth sciences department of the University of California, Riverside. “Drought is our friend when it comes to wildflowers,” he said. “When we have wet years the area gets dominated by these grasses, which choke out the flowers. And the way you get rid of the grasses is through an extreme drought.”

While there are plenty of places for tourists to see the super bloom – Palm Springs, the Borrego Desert, Joshua Tree, Carrizo Plain – it’s Lake Elsinore that’s been hit with the lion’s share, though no one knows exactly why.

Manos blamed a combination of traditional media and Instagram. “Local media picked [it] up. And then it went international.” Manos paused. “And then it went up online,” he said gravely.

For some locals, the experience has been taxing. Samantha Tapia, an 18-year-old resident, is fed up with the traffic, and with people “taking nude pictures in the flowers”. The location tag for Lake Elsinore on Instagram – usually filled with photos from local businesses or community organizations – has been transformed. “Now it’s just poppies, people, and nudes,” Tapia says.

Wild poppies blanket the hills of Walker Canyon near Lake Elsinore.

Wild poppies blanket the hills of Walker Canyon near Lake Elsinore. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The situation has sparked a debate in town about increasing tourism, an important pillar of the platform that got Manos elected as mayor.

“Lake Elsinore is very small,” says Tapia while standing in the parking lot of the local outlet mall with her friend, Adriana Vasquez, also 18. “I don’t want Lake Elsinore to grow,” Vasquez chimes in. “I like the no traffic and getting places quick.”

Yet other residents remain unphased. Dina Thaler, who owns a gift shop, says that even though her shop in the city center is several miles from Walker Canyon, on the biggest poppy days the number of customers coming in has tripled. “Whatever we get, we love,” she says.

Residents like Thaler will be pleased to learn the super bloom is likely to continue for weeks. As for the immediate crisis, Manos has chosen a middle-of-the-road approach: gently, graciously imploring people to go elsewhere. The city has placed a warning about super bloom crowds, emblazoned in orange, on every page of its official website. A list of other places to see the super bloom sits at the top of the city’s Instagram page. But people just keep coming – in ever increasing numbers.

“This Monday was worse than the last Monday,” Manos says. “Tuesday was worse than the last Tuesday.”

He’s not sure what to expect this weekend, but he’s preparing for the worst.