THE UNBEATEN PATH
Escape From L.A.
Sunday, July 1, 2007
It takes a little while to locate the nerve center of Idyllwild.
It's not in front of the racks of horsehair zipper pulls and medicine pouches for sale outside Mountain Mike's, nor among the macchiato-sipping crowds at the hip Cafe Aroma. Nor is it evident at the deserted outdoor display of chain-saw wood carvings, or the friendly little place that sells a dozen kinds of jerky. And I didn't sense that any one restaurant serves as the town's primary gathering place, though the red-shingled Idyllwild Cafe, with its roaring fireplace and all-day breakfast menu, comes close.
This mountain village two hours southeast of Los Angeles has everything you might want in a low-key getaway: cool, pine-scented air, art galleries and antiques stores, and cozy rental cabins with decks, fireplaces and hand-carved signs that say, "Here's where we Idyll away the happy hours."
At the same time, visitors should be prepared for the haphazard string of retail shops, restaurants and busy sidewalk-less streets that make up the center of town. Pretty as the overall mountain setting is, my husband and I were surprised to find a Curves studio, a Thomas Kinkade Gallery and souvenir shops selling such things as John Deere coaster sets for $22.95 when we arrived for a mid-spring weekend escape with our toddler son and friends Linda and Mark.
It wasn't until I wandered into the U.S. Forest Service office just off the main road to pick up some hiking maps that I started to get the real story behind Idyllwild's appeal.
The sunny, high-ceilinged room was buzzing as phones rang and three rangers answered questions and highlighted maps for a steady stream of visitors. The office, open daily, gets a mix of hard-core outdoors lovers and first-time visitors who know little about the surrounding mountains, according to ranger Roman Rodriguez.
"This is basically an adult recreation area. Folks come to chill out and renew their relationships with their spouses," Rodriguez said. "They have no idea that we have trails that are better than an 'E' ticket ride at Disneyland."
A few hours later, zigzagging up Devil's Slide Trail, I understood what he meant. Minutes after leaving my car, I was surrounded by ponderosa pines, groves of scarlet-branched manzanita bushes and pine cones the size of footballs, images of the Kinkade landscapes since forgotten.
Less than three miles later, I reached a wooded clearing that connects with the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, the West Coast's version of the Appalachian Trail, and rested on a fallen log near a small patch of snow. It was a reminder that I had just climbed 1,700 feet to an elevation of more than 8,000 feet.
Another 5 1/2 miles on the trail would have brought me to the top of San Jacinto Peak, the tallest summit in Riverside County, with views that reach as far as the Pacific.
Devil's Slide, named by early 20th-century ranchers who took their cattle to the top to graze before a clear trail was blazed, is Idyllwild's most popular trail, according to the Forest Service. The title is deserved, but there are many more choices nearby, including the easy, shaded Ernie Maxwell Trail and Spitler Peak Trail, a strenuous five-miler on the outskirts of town that leads you from dense pine and maple forest up to stellar views of Palm Springs and the surrounding Coachella Valley.
Tucked in the middle of the San Bernardino National Forest, Idyllwild has about 3,500 full-time residents and is home to a prestigious private arts academy, a Zen Buddhist training center and several fundamentalist Christian retreats. The town gets its name from a tuberculosis sanitarium that operated here in the early 1900s. Hollywood discovered it in the 1920s, when dozens of westerns (and, later, TV's "Bonanza") were shot in nearby Garner Valley.