By Tommy Hough
With Interstate 15 running through the middle of it, I knew my visit to Walker Canyon to see the superbloom wouldn't exactly be a wilderness experience. Like it or not, however, this is the year to go.
The bloom is like nothing you'll see outside the brief riot of color in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, or the vast wildflower blooms along the San Andreas Fault at Carrizo Plain National Monument in the southwest corner of the San Joaquin Valley. The intensity and volume of this year's bloom in Walker Canyon also rivals anything I've seen at the similarly spectacular, and more predictable, Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve near Lancaster.
The problem is, Walker Canyon isn't designed to handle more than a few visitors at a time. And with a major Southern California freeway delivering motorists directly into the blooming hills that can be seen from 10 miles away as a red apparition floating along the horizon, the crush of tens of thousands of sightseers compelled to pull off at Lake Drive and get out, walk around, get in the way of other cars and take selfies is simply unavoidable.
Located just north of Lake Elsinore in the hills of the Temescal Mountains, Walker Canyon is managed by the Riverside County Regional Park and Open Space District, and is a designated county wildlife conservation area. It isn't managed as a park, because it's not a park. It's open space that has been so denuded by wildfires over the last 20 years due to its proximity to the freeway, and further damaged by excessive off-road vehicle use, that its value as an aesthetic outdoor destination are somehwat lacking – except during rare superblooms. Almost every other day of the year the Temescal Mountains and Walker Canyon are, at worst, dismissed as the "ugly, brown hills north of Lake Elsinore" one drives through on the way to destinations in the Inland Empire.
Curiously, the canyon's persistent fires and off-road vehicle abuse, aided by the presence of a major freeway and a wind tunnel effect into the Temescal Valley, make for ideal poppy-seeding conditions. While this isn't an endorsement of unnecessary wildfire or destructive recreation, California poppies love to grow in burned and disturbed areas, often capitalizing on fresh layers of soil revealed from the scorching effect of wildfires. The wind from traffic and nature also do a excellent job of blowing poppy seeds into all corners of the canyon, part of the larger reason why California motorists often find bright "explosions" of poppies next to major roads and freeways during the spring.
My first wildflower stop that day was Railroad Canyon in the city of Lake Elsinore, but when I arrived at Walker Canyon just to the north I was amazed at the traffic. The first thing that crossed my mind was the chaos of the 1969 Woodstock festival, and the miles upon miles of traffic chaos and cars jammed into clumsy parallel parking slots along the length of a few narrow, rural roads. The second thought that crossed my mind was this is what it would look like at places like Yosemite or the Redwoods if we didn't have management for our parks and special places. We have designated places or conservation so we don't stomp our resources to death, even out of love and attention.
The other major "bloom" sites in our end of the state have greater resources available to them because, by and large, they're parks with a heritage of managing hordes of visitors before they stomp to death the wildlife or wildflowers they've come to see. Carrizo Plain National Monument is probably the most primitive of these locales, in part because the area is so massive and there are so few nearby services. Walker Canyon has the opposite problem: it has a major freeway going down the middle of it and is five minutes away from an In-n-Out Burger.
I was heartened to see that Riverside County had done what they could to rope off swaths of the area, so visitors were kept to the trails and dirt roads, and the wildflowers could be plainly seen but not crushed. Drawing from their lessons from the 2017 bloom, the county has essentially funnelled visitors to three trailheads along Walker Canyon Rd. The heaviest use I saw was at the trailhead at the Lake Street exit off I-15, but heading south the crowds thinned out to less-dangerous levels, and I wound up parking my car by the gate at the end of the road.
The county had also posted dozens of quickly-made signs asking visitors to "stay off the flowers," and had good signage noting closed trails. While visitors and sightseers have largely obeyed, it was clear a few thousand more people would make things much more difficult to manage. I commended a ranger for the work his small staff had been able to do, but on my hike back I began to see dozens of people on ridges and closer to the trailhead already taking liberties and wandering off into the flowers themselves, no doubt crushing some of the thousands of painted ladies, butterfly chrysalises, and flowers themselves.
The next day, the entire area was shut down due to the volume of humanity descending on it, when visitors overwhelmed the rope barriers and any semblance of order, crushing many of the bloom areas in the process. While that's a sad bit of news, the ranger I'd spoken with the day before told me they expect the bloom to continue for another few weeks, in part due to the extraordinary rain we've received this winter, additional rain that was expected, and warming temperatures.
Since my visit on the Ides of March I've seen even more impressive photos of Walker Canyon from the nearby Ortega Highway along the eastern edge of the Santa Ana Mountains, and as well as an aerial photo of taken by flight intructor David Werntz, who flies out of the El Monte Airport in the San Gabriel Valley. I've shared some of my Railroad Canyon and Walker Canyon photos as a slideshow below.
So while Anza-Borrego's bloom may be spectacularly short-lived and the Antelope Valley and Carrizo Plain certainly worthy of a lengthier investment of time from San Diego, Walker Canyon and the Riverside County backcountry may be blooming for the forseeable future. Step lightly.
All photos © 2019 Tommy Hough
A San Diego County planning commissioner and former radio host at 91X and FM 94/9, Tommy Hough works as an environmental consultant with the ReWild Mission Bay campaign, and is a California Democratic Party delegate and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action.