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?

Lily Rock above 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.

Strawberry Creek through Idyllwild in Winter

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.

How to Spot Mt. Whitney

When traveling north or south along the eastern edge of California, between locations in Southern California and destinations around Lake Tahoe, or to Reno or Mammoth, or for those rare travelers heading north beyond Reno, perhaps to Gerlach, Nevada to see the Fly Geyser, or even to the nearby Black Rock Desert to go to Burning Man, or maybe just to visit Sierra Army Depot outside of Herlong, California, the road for most travelers is US Highway 395. One question often comes up, while traveling through the Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierra between the towns of Ridgecrest and Bishop: which one is Mt. Whitney?

California’s tallest mountain, and the tallest in the contiguous US, stands at 14,505 feet tall, some 66 feet taller than the tallest mountain in the Colorado Rockies, Mt. Elbert, at 14,439. In fact, Colorado has some 53 “Fourteeners,” mountain peaks over 14,000 feet tall, while California has only 12 Fourteeners. But Mt. Whitney stands above them all, a fact that provokes the consternation of many a Colorado hiker.

Of course if you venture outside of the contiguous US, the stakes change drastically. Mexico’s Pico de Orizaba stands at 18,491 feet, and Canada’s Mt. Logan reaches 19,551 feet high. Mexico has a round half-dozen mountain peaks taller than Mt. Whitney, and Canada has an even 10, but none of them are taller than Alaska’s Denali, at 20,310, the only mountain in North America above 20,000 feet or 6,000 meters. Interestingly, the second tallest mountain in Canada and the United States is the same mountain, Mt. Saint Elias, at 18,009, along the US/Canadian border between Alaska and the Yukon Territory.

So compared to those giants, Mt. Whitney is relatively modest, but it’s what we have, and we’re proud of it. So when you’re traveling along the Eastern Sierra, and want to locate California’s tallest mountain, look to the west around the town of Lone Pine.

The location of Mt. Whitney

There’s a large mountain peak in the foreground slightly to the left, with two jagged ridges that transverse diagonally, downward and to the north, reaching the very base of the mountain just above the valley floor. Scan to the right from there, down along a saddle ridge, past a smaller secondary summit, and you’ll see a series of jagged, rocky, sawtooth peaks. The largest and tallest of those is Mt. Whitney, rising nearly 11,000 feet above the valley floor. The summit elevation is calculated at 14,505 feet, although the USGS brass benchmark anchored into the summit reads 14,494. It has been reputed that Mt. Whitney is visible from Badwater Basin in Death Valley, North America’s lowest point, but that assertion appears to be apocryphal.

The Three Californias

There’s been a lot of talk lately about splitting California into two different states, but the fact is that there are already three different Californias, not two. No, they’re not different political states, but the three Californias have as many similarities and differences as any three neighboring states. They are of course Southern California, Northern California, and the often-overlooked Central California.

This leads to the obvious questions: where does Southern California end, where does Northern California begin, and what’s in the middle?

Californians identify as Northern, Southern, or Central based on geography, but the differences are greater than simply where you live, and one of the biggest differences is climate. Southern California is warmer and drier than Northern California, and that’s not just in coastal areas. If you look at the eastern portions of the state, they could scarcely be more different. In the South, the eastern side of California is a vast expanses of desert. In the Central and Northern regions, it’s the Sierra Nevada mountains. Interestingly, it’s the mountains in the north that set up the biggest conflict between the different ends of the state: water rights.

Central California Almond Grove

Northern California gets most of the rain, but more people live in the south, and the agricultural economy in Central California relys on a steady flow of water, as well. Much of the water in the South is transported there via aqueducts, a fact which is a sore spot for many people in the North, who feel that the South is stealing their water. People in the South consider it a shared resource, so it can’t really be stolen. Benefits of being one state.

Economically, the differences between regions are sharp. Central California is the true bread basket of the world, or more accurately, the almond grove of the world. California produces more agricultural output than any other state, and the Central Valley is the heart of it. The economy of Southern California is much more diverse. People generally think of the entertainment and media industries in LA, but the reality is, there are many other industries that are just as important, but get less attention than show business. A partial list of major Southern California industries includes aerospace, transportation and shipping, tourism, bio-medical, the military industrial complex, and others. These industries also exist in the Northern and Central regions to some extent, but not nearly at the scale or diversity at which they are present in the South. Northern California is dominated by technology. There are many other industries in the region, but tech is the essence of the regional economy. Without it, the economy would collapse– statewide.

Culturally, the different regions of the state are highly diverse. The Northern and Central regions have nothing that compares with the size and scale of Los Angeles. LA is huge, several times larger than the largest cities in Northern or Central California. But it’s even larger relatively when you consider the greater metro area. LA is a truly global city, in a way that the North’s biggest city San Jose, or the Central’s biggest city Fresno simply aren’t. San Francisco comes close culturally, but it’s size is an order of magnitude smaller than LA.

Northern California has Napa Valley, which produces some of the finest wines in the world. Central California has Pass Robles which produces comparably fine wines. Southern California has San Diego, which produces some of the finest beers in the world. Southern California’s beaches are better, mostly because it’s warmer, and there are more of them. Northern California is arguably more scenic than Southern California, but Central California has one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. Southern California has Disneyland. In fact, the region is arguably the theme park capitol of the west. Central California has Yosemite and King’s Canyon National Parks, among the finest in the world. Northern California has great skiing at Lake Tahoe and the surrounding area. Southern California has some of the worst traffic in the world. Central California is somewhat isolated, without good access to major international airports. Northern California has some of the highest housing prices in the world, achieving an absurdity all their own. There are pros and cons to each separate region, but they are all unique.

As for boundaries, to a Southern Californian, SoCal ends at the north end of the Tejon Pass on Interstate 5, also known as the Grapevine. That’s the point at which you enter the Central Valley, wherein lie the cities of Fresno, Bakersfield, and the shining metropolis of Visalia. These aren’t Southern California, but they’re not Northern California, either.

Along the coast, Southern California ends at Solvang, which is still close enough to Santa Barbara to count as Southern. And yes, Santa Barbara is Southern. Lompoc goes to Central California, but Southern California keeps Buellton, and the Pea Soup Anderson’s off Highway 101. In the east, the South includes the Interstate 15 corridor through to the state line at Nevada, but nothing north of Fort Irwin or Highway 58. Death Valley is Central, but Tehachapi is Southern. Barely.

On the other end, the southern limit of Northern California is Carmel. Below that, and you’re on the Central Coast. North from there, and you’re in Northern California. There is some debate as to whether the dividing line in the Central Valley puts Merced in the Northern or the Central part of the state, but in my opinion, Merced is Central and Modesto is in the North. In the east, along Highway 395, Bishop is the dividing line between Northern and Central. In fact, it specifically transects a place called Schat’s Bakery in Bishop, California, the very line passing along the wall that separates the sandwich and bread shop from the pastry shop. Anyone driving from Southern California to Mammoth or Tahoe should understand the importance of Schat’s Bakery. North of Bishop is Northern California, and  south of it is Central.

Erick Schat’s Bakery in Bishop, California, the dividing line between Central and Northern California

Altogether, Northern, Central, and Southern California are as similar and as different as any other neighboring states. But there is one final cultural point that must be addressed: how Southern Californians talk about freeways. We use the definite article “the” when identifying freeways because we invented them (sort of… a little… at least in the west), and that’s what we called them before they were numbered. Often the ones that were numbered were different numbers at different points, so it made sense to name them for where they were going. Hence, the freeway that went over the Cahuenga Pass was called the Cahuenga Pass Freeway. But today, we no longer say the name of the freeway, we just say the number. The number. The 405, the 91, the 10. Like nature intended. The reality is, a few of us Southerners are capable code-switching, to blend in with our Northern neighbors when necessary, but when we’re on our home turf, we exclusively use our local vernacular, as a shibboleth. Not everyone can be from here.