Poppy Traumatic Stress Syndrome: As Poppy Reserve Deals With Record Crowds

On the orange hillsides of the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve in the high desert of Northern Los Angeles County, State Park Interpreter Jean Rhyne seemed like a woman trying to swat a swarm of bees.

Everywhere she turned on the trails winding through the glowing fields of orange poppies, someone was somewhere they shouldn’t be. The second she chided someone for walking off the trail, someone else would head south.

"Do not walk in the flowers," Rhyne yelled exasperatedly above the afternoon wind. "Do you guys want to kill the flowers in the park?"

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A hillside is bathed in orange California poppies at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve.

The park’s massive bloom has so far this Spring attracted thousands of visitors clamoring to witness the spectacular colors draping the hillsides like a bright orange blanket. By the afternoon of a day last week, the line of cars entering the preserve stretched down to the highway. And really, who can blame them with the seldom-seen sight of blooming poppies turning green landscapes into hills of fire, which is how early Spanish explorers described them.

The flowers this year benefitted from fall rains which then turned into steady winter rains which fueled the steady germination. The hills full of poppies, along with colorful fiddlenecks, lupine, forget-me-not, goldfield and blooming joshua trees has created a visual wonderland of nature just 15 miles from Lancaster.

Rhyne described this year’s flowers as a "near super bloom" — rating them a solid nine-and-a-half out of ten. 2008 was slightly better, she said, while 2017 was the park’s last big bloom — and the one that nearly pushed park staff to the limit as 164,000 visitors showed up.

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A wear spot shows where visitors in 2017 wore away the foliage posing for pictures with the poppies in the Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve.

"We really did get PTSD from it," Rhyne said. "We jokingly call it poppy traumatic stress disorder."

That year, Rhyne said, visitors frequently wandered off trails, wearing dirt paths into the poppy fields as they positioned for photos. She pointed to a barren spot leftover from 2017 where the photographic subjects had worn away the foliage with their bottoms.

Rhyne blamed the blossoming of social media for inspiring people to veer off the trails to snap photos of themselves laying in the poppies, standing in the poppies — sitting on the poppies.

"It’s called ‘ego-tourism,'" Rhyne said of the offenders. "They’re not here for a hike, they’re here for a picture."

But even with the chaos of 2017 in the rearview mirror, no one could’ve predicted what happened last week when a pair of sightseers landed a helicopter in one of the park’s poppy fields. The couple got out of the helicopter and began walking around, only to make a quick retreat to the skies as California State Parks Rangers tried to intercept them. No one has yet been caught.

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A visitor snaps a picture of poppies in the Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve.

"It can be stressful trying to remind people to stay on the trail," said volunteer Laurie Mohning, reciting the park’s mantra; "Don’t doom the bloom."

The hassle of crowds and traffic didn’t deter Richard Smith who along with his wife made the trek from Idaho. The couple walked along the paths lined with golden colors stretching along the distant hills.

"It just looks like the hand of God," Smith said, "it’s absolutely amazing."

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A hillside is bathed in orange California poppies at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve.

State Park officials are trying to spread the word about the park’s regulations; no dogs, no drones and no picnicking on the paths. Yet even though park staff are stretched thin keeping visitors in check, they said there are 1700 acres worth of reasons to overcome the hassles and experience the sight.

"Beautiful colors, of yellows, oranges, blues, slight breeze and the birds are chirping," Smith said. "Can’t get any prettier."

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