LAKE ELSINORE (CNS) – A Lake Elsinore canyon where a rich poppy bloom may be taking shape — certain to attract throngs to the area — will be closed to the public for the duration of the bloom as a safety precaution and to prevent a repeat of the “nightmare” scenario that played out during the last “super bloom” four years ago, officials announced Tuesday.
“We are working to keep the public safe. Our community’s safety is our main focus,” Lake Elsinore Mayor Natasha Johnson said during a news briefing adjacent to the Walker Canyon Trailhead. “Walker Canyon is closed to all visitors.”
Johnson was joined by Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco, representatives from the California Highway Patrol and others to make the announcement.
The mayor said that the current bloom, which is still in the incipient stage, does not appear to have anywhere close to the same brilliance or dimensions of the one that occurred in 2019. But the city wanted to implement a “keep out” policy ahead of time, lest outsiders be tempted to swarm the city and its environs, as happened four years ago.
“The 2019 bloom became a national … and international phenomenon,” Johnson said. “Numerous problems occurred on our trails and roads. There were Disneyland-size crowds wanting to see the poppies. This (bloom) is day and night compared to 2019. Yet here we are again, talking about another large bloom.”
According to the mayor, the memories of the prior event remain vivid, and that’s what prompted the city to opt for a hard closure, rather than attempt to make accommodations.
“The last time was like out of a movie,” she said. “There was not a neighborhood that wasn’t impacted by the gridlock. Our five freeway exits into the city were jammed. The freeway was completely stopped, with people getting out of their cars. Our first responders were having challenges getting through traffic. Our residents did not a have a quality of life for several weeks. The flowers were beautiful, but the scene was a nightmare.”
Bianco called the newly announced hard closure part of an “educational and enforcement response.”
“But we will have zero tolerance for people who are here trespassing,” the sheriff said. “This is a response to what we had last time, with the amount of people, who had no regard for the residents or properties around here. Last time, there were many injuries, and we had to conduct many rescues. We’re doing everything we can to prevent that this time.”
He noted that vehicles will be impounded and towed if they’re parked illegally in the vicinity of Walker Canyon, and individuals who ignore the closure signs going into the canyon will be subject to arrest.
California Highway Patrol Lt. Craig Palmer reminded motorists that the freeway shoulders are to be used “for emergencies only” — not for stopping to take pictures or video.
“It’s incumbent on every member of the community to do their part,” he said.
Lake Elsinore City Manager Jason Simpson pointed out that an alternate means of viewing the poppy bloom is via the city’s Walker Canyon camera.
The Riverside County Parks & Recreation Department also offers maps of potential bloom sites. The web portal is http://www.rivcoparks.org.
The Walker Canyon hillsides remain mostly green at this point.
The 2019 “Super Bloom” occurred in the wake of major winter rainfall, some of it damaging.
Officials were caught off-guard by the surge of visitors to the city, Decker Canyon, Horsethief Canyon and the Alberhill community. During the weekend before the official start of spring, tens of thousands of people converged on the area, jamming Interstate 15, turning shoulder space into temporary parking, as well as clogging the Ortega (74) Highway and lining residential streets, virtually trapping locals, including Riverside County Supervisor Kevin Jeffries and then-state Sen. Melissa Melendez, in their homes.
Law enforcement initially attempted to close roadway access to Walker Canyon, but that didn’t stop people from hiking into the hills.
Within a week, officials designed a transportation and traffic control plan, providing shuttle bus access to the poppy fields, with designated parking areas.
The bloom took a tragic turn when CHP Sgt. Steve Licon, a motorcycle patrol supervisor, was struck and killed while working extra hours to provide traffic enforcement along I-15 on Saturday, April 6, 2019.
Licon, 53, was in the process of writing a ticket when he was hit by then-36-year-old Michael Joseph Callahan, who was driving under the influence and speeding in his sedan along the shoulder of southbound I-15, just north of Nichols Road, to get around stop-and-go traffic.
Callahan was sentenced to 15 years to life in state prison in October 2021.
The bloom began to fade by early April 2019 and was all but gone later that month as conditions turned hot and dry. Poppies didn’t carpet hillsides in 2020, 2021 and 2022 due to the drought.
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