There’s an old saying among people who cherish the outdoors: “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.”
While the origin of the phrase is murky, the intent is clear: stay on the trail, minimize your human impact on the flora and fauna, leave no trace behind, and take only memories.
Thousands of visitors flocking to "super bloom" sites across California this spring, though, have left destruction of fragile desert wildflowers in their wake. I visited Walker Canyon, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, Joshua Tree National Park, and the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve only to see tourist after tourist traipsing off trail, damaging and destroying plants just to get that perfect shot.
When you veer off the marked trail and lay down in a bed of flowers, you risk damaging them. It could potentially take years for the plants to fully recover.
To enter the California Poppy Reserve, I paid the California state park ranger $10 and got a verbal warning to “stay on the trail” as well as a written pamphlet which added that “going off trail damages wildflowers.” Signs around the parking lot and the trail politely made the same request. Yet, within plain sight of the entrance gate, I witnessed visitors exit their cars and carelessly step right into the flowers.
Park employees did their best to keep order, but a handful of park employees is no match for thousands of visitors.
It’s understandable that people get excited when seeing a once-in-a-decade wildflower bloom, but a desire for social media Likes shouldn’t get in the way of rational thought and care. It’s easy to accidentally step a few inches off trail, slowly widening a path and damaging more plants. “It’s already damaged,” or “I’m just one person,” leads to the same thing being repeated many times over, and the compounding effects can be disastrous.
The Poppy Reserve hadn’t returned our request for comment on the damage at time of publish. Dustin McLain, natural resource manager with Riverside County Parks & Open Space District, which oversees Walker Canyon, said staff were definitely caught off guard by the influx of people. "Most people were very cognizant of not trampling," he said, but "there were a good portion that were trying to do the right thing but just didn’t." That has left a network of trails on the ground that could lead to future erosion.
David Smith, superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park, said trampling is less of a problem in the harsh Mojave Desert since the plants are hardier, but that there’s another good reason to stay on trails even if you can’t be bothered about conservation — rattlesnakes.
The first time I visited the Poppy Reserve, a family was cutting the trail, and I politely mentioned that they might get a ticket for walking off the set path. They quickly stepped back on. During another visit, I gave up as dozens of visitors kept walking into flowerbeds. I decided instead to channel my frustration by documenting the damage.
The regulations are there for a reason: keeping the flowers intact for future generations to enjoy. Even in areas adjacent to parks or reserves where you won’t get a fine, the same care should apply. I’m no park ranger — I’m just someone who cares about enjoying and documenting the outdoors ethically and responsibly.
That’s so one day my grandchildren and your grandchildren will be able to visit the colorful blooms too — if the wildflowers are still there at all.