Shuttle diplomacy works for Lake Elsinore poppy visitors

by in News

Visitors to the Walker Canyon poppy fields in Lake Elsinore were free Monday to use streets and key freeway off-ramps closed over the weekend to control thousands of visitors to see the rare superbloom of spring flowers, heading to their natural end as temperatures warm.

But enough people showed up by midday Monday for the Lake Street off-ramps of the 15 Freeway to close, and Walker Canyon Road was shut down to parking due to traffic congestion. It was a return to some of the restrictions the city imposed Saturday and Sunday to control crowds.

“This weekend worked far better than any others to date, having Lake Street closed and no pedestrian parking,” city spokeswoman Nicole Dailey said.

Lake Street’s off-ramps can take visitors north on the street to the Walker Canyon Ecological Preserve, home of the visible-from-space blooms. A right turn from Lake Street takes motorists on Walker Canyon Road, which parallels the preserve.

The plan was to keep both open for weekdays, but even on Monday the crowds proved too much.

The ramps were closed for a time beginning at noon, and Walker Canyon Road also was closed to parking because of traffic and pedestrian congestion, Dailey said. Decisions on closures will be day-to-day during the week.

Officials on Thursday, after an overwhelming weekend that saw a March 17 shutdown of access to the poppy fields, announced Lake Street and its freeway off-ramps would be closed for the weekend as well as other roadways in the area, and some streets restricted to residents.

Visitors were brought to the poppy bloom areas by hired bus shuttles running from two parking lots, charging $10  per ticket — up from $5 on previous weekends —  to cover the costs to the city. An estimated 14,000 visitors used the shuttles on both Saturday and Sunday, the city said.

The operation “had the least impact on the community, the freeway, and the visitors,” Dailey said. “We thought it was a great way to balance the needs of our residents and the visitors.”

The shuttles will return next weekend, she said.

The various agencies involved in the planning for weekend visitors will meet Wednesday to go over how things went the past weekend and discuss what changes might be made. Saturday, April 6 is California Poppy Day, which may increase interest even more, Dailey said.

Spring break season is making it more competitive to find private buses available for next weekend’s planned shuttle runs, Dailey said. And if the blooms last into mid-April, private coaches are also in demand for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, set for the weekends of April 12-14 and April 19-21, she added.

One thing no one can change: It’s getting warmer.

The National Weather Service has a mixed daytime forecast for this week — a high of 76 Tuesday; partly sunny and 69 Wednesday; chance of morning showers and 68 Thursday; sunny and 73 Friday, with high temps back to 76 Saturday, 79 Sunday and 77 Monday.

“I’m starting to see a decline. It’s hard to predict, but generally as temperatures warm, the flowers start to wilt and drop seeds, and we’ll see that progress as it warms even more,”  said Kyla Brown, assistant director for Riverside County Parks.

She said there was no timeline for the flowers to begin to fade; some at upper elevations such as fields on Box Springs Mountain are just now in full bloom, she said, along with other locations such as the Santa Rosa Plateau. “It depends on where they sit, soil, and temperature,” she said.

The Walker Canyon preserve land is under control of the Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority. The preserve also includes some county territory, Brown said. The conservation authority manages it, and contracts with Riverside County to patrol the land.