Of Southern California’s major mountain towns, the smallest and most isolated is Idyllwild. Other notable mountain destinations like Wrightwood, Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear, and their various neighboring localities all have much to offer, from skiing and snowboarding to lakeside activities and boating, but what sets Idyllwild apart is that is doesn’t have much of any of these to offer. There’s so much less to do in Idyllwild, in the best possible way.
Straddling Highway 243 in the San Jacinto Mountains, Idyllwild has been popular travel destination since the 1890s, but it was once the summer time home for native bands of Cahuilla Indians who migrated to the area to escape the summer heat of the desert valleys below. With summertime temperatures peaking in the mid 90s, the cooler mountain air is a welcome relief.
The locality that most visitors would call Idyllwild is actually several neighboring communities, each with its own personality and charm, though the largest and most central of them all is Idyllwild. The others include Pine Cove, Fern Valley, Mountain Center, and Garner Valley. The majority of these “Hill Communities” are mostly residential, but they have their destinations and their charm. But in general, it’s acceptable to group them into one destination which, for the sake of simplicity, we’ll call Idyllwild.
There’s not a lot to do in Idyllwild. There’s no skiing, unless you enjoy cross-country skiing on dozens of miles of marked trails. And there’s no boating, unless you enjoy the 470 acres of pristine alpine lake and 12 miles of shoreline on Lake Hemet, stocked with rainbow trout and catfish. And there’s not much for entertainment, unless you enjoy world-renowned jazz artists appearing annually at the Jazz in the Pines Festival, or the Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema. And the rock climbing really isn’t great, unless you love massive big-wall climbs on Suicide Rock and legendary Lily Rock (also known as Tahquitz Rock), second only to Yosemite in the west. And the hiking, well there is at least one taller mountain in Southern California. Just one. At 10,834 feet, the view from San Jacinto Peak was described by John Muir as “the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth.” Its north escarpment rises over 10,000 vertical feet in elevation in over just 7 horizontal miles, and is one of the sharpest elevation gains in the contiguous US. But still, there is at least one taller mountain in Southern California. So I guess the question is, why even bother going to Idyllwild?
There’s shopping at countless quaint boutiques and shops, offering everything from antiques and home-made arts and crafts, to fine works of local art. And speaking of art, the arts community in Idyllwild is one of the finest in the region, bolstered by the Idyllwild Arts Academy, a world-recognized college-preparatory institute for education in the arts. Dozens of fine art galleries and studios featuring works in a variety of media to suite any taste color the community with a cultural richness and an artistic sophistication rarely seen in a town of this size.
The lodging choices are surprisingly diverse. Choose from any of the 20 or more local properties, with options ranging from bed and breakfasts, cabin rentals, and lodges, to sophisticated hotel properties with a full suite of services and luxury amenities. Most offer excellent rates, especially for non-peak weekends. Favorite spots include the Grand Idyllwild Lodge for luxury accommodations including private decks and in-house spa facilities, the Silver Pines Lodge for secluded cabins and a comfortable, homey feel, the Idyllwild Inn for themed rooms and a variety of studio, 1-room, 2-room, and 3-room cabins for any party size, just steps away from the most popular shopping and dining areas in town, and the Fern Valley Inn to get away from it all and relax in any of the 10 comfortable cottages. Most properties offer in-room fireplaces, and many of the lodges and cabin rentals welcome pets.
For those with simpler tastes in lodging, there are a dozen or so public and private campgrounds offering everything from primitive camping to RV resorts with pull-through sites and full hookups. Idyllwild County Park has a large number of wilderness and developed campsites which are open to the public, and private resorts like Thousand Trails offer a larger selection of amenities, and membership is not required to make a reservation.
The dining options are nearly as diverse as the lodging choices. Cafe Aroma is an Italian focused bistro on North Circle Drive. La Casita also on North Circle has excellent Mexican food. The Red Kettle in the center of town offers hearty breakfast classics and sandwiches, but isn’t open for dinner, and Mile High Cafe on Highway 243 at Saunders Meadow Road has many of those same classics, in a slightly less rustic, slightly more polished setting, and has a dinner menu as well.
The Gastrognome in the center of town is an Idyllwild standard for more sophisticated dining, and offers well-prepared American fare with a focus on fresh seafood, chops, and steaks. And the bread is legendary. The setting is refined but comfortable, and the service is without reproach. Fratello’s Ristorante offers authentic interpretations of traditional Italian pasta and meat dishes, along with wood-fired pizzas. The selection of red wines is ample, and includes a notable range of Italian and California wines.
Of course for many visitors, the best places to eat are more casual. I’ve been eating at Idyllwild Pizza Company for as long as I can remember. They make a great pie, and they’ve got a respectable selection of Southern California craft beers on tap. And speaking of local craft beer, in the same parking lot is the Idyllwild Brew Pub, a delightfully current food and drink place, with a large selection of beers made in-house, along and the most well-stocked bar in town. The menu is elevated pub food, excellent salads, and some surprising desserts. Standouts include the calamari sandwich on a hoagie roll with shaved cucumber and ponzu mayonnaise, and the bread pudding smothered in bourbon caramel sauce. It’s an easy walk back from the Brew Pub to your cozy cabin at the Idyllwild Inn.
One of Idyllwild’s biggest attractions– literally– is the trees. Most of the massive Jeffrey Pines that once covered the mountains were felled in logging operations in the early 1900s. There are still a few remaining Jeffreys dating from the pre-logging era, mostly those specimens which were not suitable for lumber due to their twisting, spiral trunks. Many of those survivors are now absolutely massive. You can tell them by their bright orange bark and staggering size. Smell the trunks and you’ll find a sweet, alluring vanilla scent.
The mountainsides have all but been reforested in the intervening years by dense stands of Ponderosa pines, which soar to slightly less lofty heights, but are majestic and fragrant nonetheless. The Ponderosas are however, slightly less hearty, less drought-tolerant than their colossal cousins, and have been stricken across the west in recent years by bark beetle infestation due to the lingering drought.
The only remaining questions one might be tempted to ask is, “Why Idyllwild?” For those of us who have been going there for our entire lives, it’s an easy answer. It’s a small town take on mountain destinations. And let’s be honest, when you’re visiting the mountains, a small town feel is right. If you want alpine skiing, go somewhere else. You come to Idyllwild for the stunning natural beauty of the mountains and the trees, uncluttered by urban encroachments. If you want quiet, tranquil beauty– which is what mountain destinations are all about– then Idyllwild may be the place for you.