Borrego Springs feels the crowds during the ‘super bloom’

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A little town in the middle of nowhere has turned into the little town that could, all because of a fantastic spring bloom of flowers.

On a recent Saturday, thousands of cars crept down Montezuma Valley Road into Borrego Springs , about 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles. For some, the two-and-a-half-hour drive turned into a five-hour drive. At one point, officials closed down the main highway because traffic along the road to the desert town was at a standstill.

People poured in for day trips from San Diego and LA to see the “super bloom,” an explosion of wildflowers because of this winter’s generous rains.

At its peak, Borrego Palm Canyon provided a symphony of colors. Photo by Susan Valot March 19, 2017 (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“From what I’ve heard, we’ve had about 200,000 people come through town… That’s really hard to prepare when you’re a town of basically 3,000 people in the middle of nowhere.” said Bonnie Bosworth, talking about the first two weeks of the bloom, which started to peak around March 11th. Bosworth helps her parents run the Bighorn Fudge Company , an ice cream place in town.

Bosworth said the crowds brought a steady line of customers seeking cold, sweet relief from the heat at her shop. For hours on end, she said the line extended 40 to 50 people out the door.

“The first weekend, everybody was running out of food and water. The whole town ran out of ice.  We ran out of ice cream. The restaurants were overwhelmed with hour to two-hour long waits,” Bosworth said.

It’s not what you normally find in this sleepy town smack in the middle of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park .

“Normally, Borrego is a place where you just come and relax and enjoy the peace and quiet, until now” said Bosworth. “Until the ‘flower-geddon.’”

Bosworth said they knew the crowds would be coming, but they didn’t know when. So the first weekend caught many businesses off guard.

“When I walked out that first Saturday, I thought I was walking out into the middle of the city. It was so noisy outside. There was not one spot that was not occupied by either a car or a body,” Bosworth said.

The town’s septic system was overrun by the increased dishwashing and crowds using limited restrooms. That led businesses to band together through the Chamber of Commerce to bring in 40 porta-potties to spread around town and the flower fields for the duration of the bloom.

At one restaurant that first weekend, a fistfight broke out between two customers over who ordered a Reuben sandwich.

Even on a Friday, the Bighorn Fudge Company is packed with flower peepers looking for ice cream and snacks. Bonnie Bosworth helps run the shop, which is owned by her parents. Photo by Susan Valot (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Andrew Macuga and his wife, the owners of Carlee’s , a bar and restaurant, knew they had to do something.

“The increase of wildflowers, the increase of people didn’t increase Borrego’s employment pool or didn’t increase the size of my kitchen,” Macuga said. His workers have been putting in more than 60-hour weeks to handle the crowd, which show up at his door before Carlee’s even opens at 11 am.

That first heavy Saturday, Macuga closed up at his usual time and then he and his wife hopped into their SUV to drive an hour-and-a-half to make a supply run.

“My wife and I drove into Palm Springs, bought about $800 more worth of food and we were the only ones left open on that Sunday night,” Macuga said.

Macuga said the town has done a better job handling the crowds since then. Restaurants like his have increased their number of supply deliveries each week. He said he’s“strategically packing” his walk-in coolers to fit more food.

Restaurants around town have also put up signs warning of long waits on their doors to warn visitors.

Macuga said he blames social media for the crush of people streaming into town to see the flowers.

Anza Borrego Park Ranger Sally Theriault agreed, adding that the age of instant news on smart phones also added to the mad dash. Theriault oversees the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center, on the edge of town.

She said they tried to gear up for “flower-geddon” by bringing in more workers and printing more maps and pamphlets to hand out about the flower locations. But she said they ran out of those a week ago.

In the first 19 days of March, 57,000 people came to the park visitor center. That’s nearly half of its annual visitors. And that doesn’t include those turned away when the parking lot was full.

“The first two weekends on Saturday, the parking lot was full by eight. And we don’t even open until nine,” Theriault said.

Even money was short.

“The bank was reluctant to give us quarters because all the businesses in town, you know, are running out of quarters,” Theriault said.

But despite the difficulties, local businesses are happy the “super bloom” has drawn the crowds.

“We only have eight months to make our year-round income. We open the beginning of October and we close the end of May,” Bosworth said, during a break from scooping ice cream at her parents’ shop. “Usually this period of time during the spring break time is when we start to sock away savings for my mom and dad to live off for the summer and to restock the store in the fall. This is a godsend for us. Even though it’s hard to go through, it’s a godsend.”

Because of the immense crowds in town to see the “super bloom” in the desert heat, the Bighorn Fudge Company ran out of ice cream. Photo by Susan Valot (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Bosworth said this also has put Borrego Springs on the map, pointing out that a lot of people didn’t even know where it was. She said now, she sees it listed on the map in TV weather reports.

“I think for the most part, it’s going to be good for the town,” Macuga of Carlee’s said. “But at the same time, there’s gonna’ be people that see a flower season come by and say, ‘Oh, they couldn’t handle it’ and might not want to come back. That’s what worries me.”

But Macuga said he hopes visitors to the town realize they’re doing everything they can.

As for the super bloom? It’s expected to last perhaps another week, with pockets in different places in the park lasting a bit longer, especially those at higher elevations.

The vibrant yellow flower fields are already waning because of heat and caterpillars , but the cacti and stick-like ocotillo plants are starting to bloom, as the desert makes its transition to the long, hot summer and the Borrego Springs residents prepare to return to being a sleepy, desert town.