I lived for years in Los Angeles before I first learned about Idyllwild, a steadfast wisp of a town nestled in the forest of the San Jacinto mountains. Angelenos are obsessed with their own coastline, and fascinated by the arid vacation playground of Palm Springs, and even mildly intrigued by the anthropomorphic Joshua Tree National Park. But the forests east of L.A. draw far fewer visitors and I can’t decide if that’s a bonus. It’s allowed towns like Idyllwild to retain a tranquil, folksy feel even in the height of summer vacation season. But of course I’d like even the pokiest café there to succeed, and it floors me to think some lifelong Californians still don’t know Idyllwild. Even after providing the backdrop for an episode of “Transparent”, its potential for buzzy weekend getaway hasn’t lit a match with the L.A. crowd as a whole. I spent a blissful couple of days in July getting re-acquainted with old friends, and Idyllwild was one of them.
An apocalyptic carved-wood menagerie welcomes visitors to the heart of town, which is about a quarter-mile in radius and features a pretty, new green space in the middle. Rustic architecture abounds, and proprietors capitalize on the throwback aura with kitsch aplenty. Visitors can shop for locally made food and clothing, souvenirs and bric-a-brac. One stand-out enterprise is Mountain Mike’s. The stock is mostly leather goods crafted by the store’s namesake: a burly-looking, gentle man whose personal style is a study in native Americana—extending even to his motorcycle. The town also offers a movie theater, a few good coffee shops, and enough opportunities to stock up on groceries, although you’ll have to drive down the mountain to Hemet if you want an enormous selection.
Tommy’s Kitchen is fronted by an al fresco deck and a sign that teased us Thursday visitors with $3 mimosas (available only on weekends). Taking pride of place on their morning/lunchtime menu on any day is the Swiss version of hash browns, rösti. Try it atop roasted vegetables or as a side to an omelette. Idyllwild’s dining options aren’t confined to lazy brunches; there are old-school Mexican restaurants, the “upscale” Gastrognome (if garden gnomes can represent upscale), and the night-lively Idyllwild BrewPub and Idyology. The latter two bring live music to their bar/deck/parking lot. At Idyology we enjoyed a mellow dinner on the deck and were taken by surprise each time we made a bathroom run inside, squeezing past a lively bluegrass band and their 15 euphoric, dancing fans.
The sprawling tasting room and art gallery of Middle Ridge Winery should not be missed. Its effusive captain, Chris Johnston, walked us through a first-class tasting of his wines whose grapes he sourced from around California and processed at his Temecula winery. July heat notwithstanding, we swished and swallowed our way through a flight of reds and I was delighted to discover a Pinot Noir that may be my favorite from California.
A mountain experience demands charming mountain accommodations, and there’s no shortage within a short drive of Idyllwild’s center. A-frame houses and log cabins are dotted around the mountainside and listed on the standard vacation rental websites. The Boulder Lodge is just up the hill in Pine Cove and can sleep up to 7 people. Lovers of Frank Lloyd Wright will bask in the outside-inside design of this 1960s-era house: a 15-foot piece of granite rock takes up most of a living-room wall. The original black metal chimney and mighty fireplace sit neatly in front of the boulder: fire and earth allied to bring guests primitive comfort in the most artful way.
The exterior of the Boulder Lodge echoes the period of its construction but the old-fashioned mountain charm ends at the doorstep. The owners have created a plush, modern retreat with just the right dose of bohemian homage. Think swish ski chalet rather than Grandpa’s hunting lodge. You can explore the granite landscape of the back yard, push your lung capacity on the nearby hiking trails (6,000 feet above sea level!), then sink onto the daybed overlooking the mountains, and spend a tranquil hour with your laptop or book. At night, the wraparound top deck shows off pink skies that reflect the sunset off of Suicide Rock, a favorite climbing spot.
There are hiking trails aplenty, winding up through fantastical manzanita trees and lizards lazing on rocks. At this height above sea level it can be tough to catch your breath at times, but the views and utter peace are well worth the effort. The intrepid hiker can aim for the top of the Palm Springs cable car system in just 10 miles.
The happy-go-lucky inhabitants of Idyllwild are a symbiotic blend of old and young, retiree vacationers and hippies. They’ve staked their claim on this part of the world for its timeless allure: a snapshot of another era, or maybe even another planet, where residents gather on fold-out chairs in front of a wooden bear to debate local issues. They wear moccasins. They see shamans. Their mayor is a Golden Retriever named Max. And they’ve solidified their resistance to all the commercial plasticity of that metropolis 100 miles west, opting instead for a hopeful life of small-town good vibes. The vibes may not last forever, but I’ll be back again to try to catch some.
On 25 July 2018 an arsonist started the Cranston fire in the forests of the San Jacintos. By the next day, the fire had mushroomed and was destroying the area’s iconic Ponderosa pines and any other wildlife in its path. All communities in and around Idyllwild were evacuated and at least five homes perished before the fire was fully contained. The town itself was spared and is back open for business, although the windy, scenic road leading up to it from the desert flatlands is blackened and barren until nature begins another cycle. Show your support for this lovely community by booking a weekend and enjoying everything it has to offer!