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 Last Sunset: Kauaʻi’s Keʻe Beach

There’s a place in Hawaii on the Island of Kauaʻi that I like to think of has having the last sunset in the United States. The place is called Keʻe Beach, and it forms the northern terminus of Highway 560, the Kuhio Highway, part of the hodgepodge of highways and roads which partially circumnavigates the island. Partially.

First, a point on pronunciation. To pronounce words in Hawaiian, you pronounce all of the letters, including the [ ʻ ], called the ʻokina, which is a little pause or technically a phonemic glottal stop. If I call the place Kee Beach, most readers would incorrectly think of it as a monosyllabic word homophonetic with the English work “key.” This is wrong. The correct pronunciation is closer to kay-eh, as two syllables. The ʻokina also informs the pronunciation of the Hawaiian dress the muʻu muʻu, which most non-islanders would call a “moo-moo,” but which is more accurately pronounced moo-oo moo-oo, with four syllables.

Keʻe Beach is not the last sunset in the United States. First of all, it’s not as far west as the Aleutian Islands, and it’s not even the furthest west spot on the island of Kauaʻi (did you notice the ʻokina? Yes, you pronounce and spell Kauaʻi with an ʻokina). And it’s not even the western-most of the inhabited Hawaiian Islands, with the “Forbidden” island of Niʻihau, home to some 200 or so native Hawaiians, lying 18 miles off Kauaʻi’s western shore. But when you’re at Keʻe Beach, knowing you’re at the end of the highway, watching the sunset over the beautiful but poorly named Pacific Ocean, knowing that this is no mere channel between islands, the sunset feels like one of the last ones in the world.

Kauaʻi is the oldest of the main Hawaiian Islands, and stands apart from the others in many ways. The Hawaiian Channels are the waterways that separate the various islands, and they are all named. The Kaiwi channel separates the islands of Oʻahu and Molokaʻi, and is about 26 miles wide. On a clear day, you can see Molokaʻi from eastern stretches of Oʻahu. Likewise, the Alenuihaha channel separates the islands of Maui and Hawaiʻi Island, and is some 30 miles wide and a few thousand feet deep, frequently with treacherous currents and heavy seas. From many places in Northern Hawaiʻi Island, you can see the towering peaks of Maui’s massive Haleakala, the great shield volcano that rises in the east of the island. But even this great channel pales in comparison to the Kaʻieʻie Channel, separating Kauaʻi from Oʻahu. At 72 miles wide and over 11,000 feet deep, this channel, sometimes called simply the Kauaʻi channel, is essentially wide open ocean.

Kauaʻi’s moniker as the “Garden Island” stands in tribute to the strong agricultural influence on the island, and importance of the rugged natural beauty of the island in its history and today. Visitors can see countless taro fields forming a patchwork across the island, growing the plant known in Hawaiian as kalo, from which is made the traditional Hawaiian dish poi, among other foods. There is great tradition and symbolism to the kalo and the poi, linked to the Hawaiian concept of ʻohana or family, which comes from the word oha, the young green stalk that grows from a kalo root.

Taro farm on Kauaʻi

Kauaʻi is separated from the other Hawaiian Islands by vast stretches of open ocean, and by rugged, diverse ecology. Kauaʻi is so rugged that there is no encircling highway as there are on the three larger islands. There is a 16-mile stretch of shoreline on the northwest coast of Kauaʻi that is utterly inaccessible by car, and can only be seen on foot, from a boat, or from the air. This place is called Na Pali, and it is one of the most spectacular, dramatic coastlines in the world. No road can or ever should mar this beautiful coastline, so visitors by car can only travel as far as Keʻe Beach in the north, or Polihale Beach in the south (though road access to Polihale is questionable at times). Beyond there is a vast wilderness of jagged, steep canyons and wild open ocean. You have traveled as far as the roads in Kauaʻi will take you, lending the location a remoteness, a feeling of isolation, of distance. That’s why Keʻe Beach feels like the last sunset, the last place that will see the sun until tomorrow.

Na Pali by helicopter

There is much more that can be said about the island of Kauaʻi. I’ve spent a great deal of time on Kauaʻi (though not as much as others), and there are many more stories to share about the beautiful, remarkable locations on the island.

Paso Robles: California’s Most Sincere Wine Region

Rows of grape vines in the Central California town of Paso Robles, with rolling hills in the background.

If you remember the Peanuts Halloween classic It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, the titular Great Pumpkin was reputed (by Linus) to rise out of the most sincere pumpkin patch around. It always struck me as humorous that the relevant trait for the pumpkin patch was sincerity. How can a pumpkin patch be sincere? The question is perhaps answered in the statement that Paso Robles in Central California is California’s most sincere wine making region.

I’ll contrast this with California’s other premier wine making region, Northern California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys, which one could argued are somewhat insincere, this based on being overrun with tourists, and coated in heavy layers of pretense. The wine in Napa is excellent, to be sure, but much of the scene is quite firmly wrapped up in a sense of self-importance– one might even say it is fairly well lodged up it’s own backside. Enter Paso Robles. The wine is on par with much of Napa’s or Sonoma’s production, but with none of the pretense or pompous patronizing one can often experience in Napa. That’s why I’m comfortable calling Paso Robles California’s most sincere wine region.

The town is not on the Central Coast of California, nor is it in the Central Valley, but it is in Central California. It’s about half-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco along Highway 101, and about 30 miles inland by car from the Central Coast town of Cambria near Hearst Castle. It straddles the Salinas River, and its rolling, oak-covered hills are home to some 40,000 acres of vineyards, and more than 200 individual wineries.

The commercial wine industry in Paso Robles began in 1882, though the Franciscan Friars of nearby Mission San Miguel planted the first wine grapes in the region around 1797. Much of the early wine produced in the region was Zinfandel, but today, Cabernet Sauvignon makes up the largest percentage of wines produced.

The dining options in Paso Robles are as varied as the wine choices, and a few notable spots include Berry Hill Bistro for salads, sandwiches, and comfort food, Buona Travola for excellent traditional Northern Italian fare, Paso Terra for traditional French preparations of fresh seafood, Cello for upscale modern Italian, and Margie’s Diner for huge portions of classic American diner fare and great breakfasts. Nearly every restaurant in town has an excellent selection of fine local wines.

Paso Robles is not just about wine and food. Firestone-Walker Brewing Company produces dozens of excellent beers, including the now-legendary 805, a refreshing blonde ale named for the local telephone area code. Brewery and barrel room tours are available, and every year on August 5 (8/05), the brewery celebrates the date with special offers, exclusive merchandise, and live music.

The biggest event every year in Paso Robles is the California Mid-State fair in late July, which includes the annual Central Coast Wine Competition. A panel of experts blind-tests hundreds of local wines, recognizing the best Red, White, Rosé, Sparkling, and Dessert wines from the region. Other traditional fair activities include live music, livestock shows, and plenty of great fair food.

With so much to see and do in Paso Robles, one hopes that this gem of Central California will remain modest and relaxed, sincere, in a way that Charlie Brown’s friend Linus would appreciate. It never feels like a tourist destination, the crowds are moderate, the traffic is reasonable, and the locals are friendly and inviting. Here’s hoping it stays that way.