A California town curbs visits to Walker Canyon, where a poppy "superbloom" draws hordes of tourists who may be loving the land to death
Amid blooming California poppies, the state’s official flower, tourists walk off-trail along a new path carved out by previous visitors to Walker Canyon in the spring of 2019. (Photo by Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
TRANSFORMED BY HEAVY RAINS after years of drought, the dun-colored hillsides of Southern California’s Walker Canyon (directly below) exploded with carpets of vibrant orange poppies in spring 2019—as once-calm country roads became gridlocked by visitors vying to see the flowers (second below).
Drawing tens of thousands of tourists from Riverside, Los Angeles and far beyond, the canyon’s 2019 “superbloom” trapped local residents in their homes and first responders on the roads, with one California Highway Patrol officer struck and killed by a car speeding along the shoulder. On its Facebook and Instagram pages, the nearby city of Lake Elsinore posted that the situation “has caused unnecessary hardships for our entire community,” adding the hashtag #poppynightmare.
Once visitors left their cars, the troubles began for the canyon’s fragile habitat, as people ventured off the trails in pursuit of the perfect photo op (below). Much of Walker Canyon is land protected by the Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority as part of a 500,000-acre conservation plan to benefit 146 native species. According to Jonathan Reinig, reserve manager for lands owned by the authority, the canyon “is important habitat for a number of rare or endangered plant and animal species,” including the coastal California gnatcatcher, a federally threatened bird whose breeding season unfortunately coincided with the tourist onslaught.
But the worst damage may have been to the poppies themselves. “In some areas, you can still see tracks with compacted soils that visitors carved out,” Reinig says, and where 50 percent of the plants were trampled before they could set seed.
In 2023, as a wet winter following drought promised another superbloom, authorities acted fast to protect both people and habitat, announcing in February Walker Canyon’s immediate closure to visitors. This spring, poppies bloomed throughout the canyon (above) with no #poppynightmare. The closure was “overwhelmingly well received” by residents, says Reinig, who watched gnatcatchers breed among the flowers and felt grateful to witness “poppies complete their life cycles unimpeded.”
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