It was just before noon on a recent Sunday morning and a line had formed for the port-a-potties near the Wildflower Trail at Diamond Valley Lake in Riverside County. Cars were backed up around a bend in the road, and frustrated people resorted to parking two miles away and walking in.
They had come to see the "super bloom," of wildflowers that have sprung up around the trails snaking around this drinking water reservoir. People are excited to take pictures of the flowers and themselves among the flowers, and many areas have been trampled.
As a result, a half-mile section of the trail has been closed indefinitely. (Check here for updates.)
“We haven’t seen these kinds of crowds. Ever,” said Wendy Picht, an environmental specialist for the Metropolitan Water District, which manages the lake.
Diamond Valley staff had called in Picht and Alex Marks, another MWD environmental specialist, to assess the extent of the flower damage. Informal trails through fields of poppies, goldfields, Ranchers fiddleneck and Arroyo lupine led away from the main, gravel path. There were many scattered flattened patches of broken stems and crumpled petals where people had sat or laid down to take pictures in the flowers.
“It’s upsetting to see the destruction,” Marks said, looking down at a bare patch. “'Cause you can stand back and you can see the beauty of it without getting so close and trampling everything.”
The north side of Diamond Valley Lake is an ecological reserve that protects some 32 species, including horned lizards, Stephens' kangaroo rats, Southwestern willow flycatcher and mountain lions. It was created to offset habitat loss in the valley, which was flooded when MWD completed the reservoir in 2003. There are signs along the main trail marking the boundary of the reserve, but overly-enthusiastic wildflower viewers ignore them.
“It’s sometimes nice to see yourself in a really nice picture with a really cool background,” said Robin Kopf, who was trying to get her friend Christina Barrett, who was sitting cross-legged in a patch of poppies, to pose. The girls had driven two-hours from West L.A. in Barrett’s mom’s minivan with a group of their friends from high school.
But in order to get the picture, Kopf and Barrett had flattened a patch of poppies. They seemed to feel badly about it.
“I don’t want to crush them,” Barrett said.
“They seem pretty resilient,” Kopf said, looking over her shoulder at the poppies. “Lots of people are doing this.”
And it was true: most people were wandering off the main trail into the fields of flowers. Most just walked on previously flattened paths, but others forged ahead into new territory.
“When people start pioneering a trail, people behind them follow. And before you know it, they think they’re on a legitimate trail,” Picht said. “So it’s up to us to make sure they have the information to know where the trail is and where they can and can’t go.”
Picht and Marks have started putting up signs that say, clearly, “Stay on the trail." They also are tilling compacted soil and may re-seed bare areas with native wildflower seeds. In addition, Metropolitan Water District is placing staff along the trail to make sure people aren’t traipsing into the reserve. A half-mile section of the most heavily trampled area remains closed.
Jonathan Pong of Glendale and a friend were climbing an informal trail up a steep slope covered in poppies and lupines. Pong said he knew he was supposed to stay on the trail, but couldn't resist. "But we tried very hard not to touch any of the flowers," he said. "And I think most people do that, but when you have a little too many [people], they probably get trampled."