Local folks call it The Hill, but to flatlanders from the Los Angeles Basin, a trip to Idyllwild means a drive up honest-to-goodness mountains.
Three routes to the mile-high town are surrounded by the peace and quiet of the San Bernardino National Forest. The first, a one-way toll road from Hemet that gave loggers access to the area's tall timber, was opened in 1875.
Once known as Strawberry Valley, Idyllwild became site of a tuberculosis sanitarium at the turn of the century. When it burned down in 1904, a resort was built for families attracted to the fresh mountain air.
Their cars climbed from Hemet along the narrow dirt road that had certain hours designated for up travel and others for down travel. The Hill was easier to ascend after World War II when a highway from Banning was completed.
Nowadays there also is access to Idyllwild from Palm Desert and other communities in the Colorado Desert via the Pines-to-Palms Highway.
Lots of Mountain Scenery
Whichever of the wiggly roads you drive, all three lead to wonderful mountain scenery and a friendly community that has the welcome mat out year-round. Visitors enjoy Idyllwild's gift shops, restaurants and picture-post card cabins where you can spend the night.
For the quickest route from Los Angeles to this north woods village, head east via Interstate 10 to Banning. Then go southeast on California 243, the Banning-Idyllwild Highway, a two-lane switchback road that's an official state scenic highway.
The mountain drive especially is enchanting after a snowfall. Regardless of the weather, always carry tire chains at this time of year.
After the road quickly ascends through boulder-strewn terrain into the national forest, turnouts offer bird's-eye views of the San Jacinto Mountain range and valleys. Halfway up the hill you can hike, picnic or fish at tiny Lake Fulmor.
Just beyond is another popular rest stop, the Indian Mountain vista point. Cahuilla Indians, the area's first visitors, came here from the lowlands to hunt game and gather acorns and berries.
Indian relics and other reminders of the mountain's history are exhibited at the Idyllwild Park Visitors Center. Look for its entrance after you pass the hamlet of Pine Cove.
Meeting Flora and Fauna
Dioramas at the center also introduce you to birds and animals of the region. Follow the half-mile self-guiding nature trail to learn more about the forest's flora and fauna. The center is open without charge Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (to 5 p.m. on weekends).
After the road passes Mt. San Jacinto State Park and its year-round Idyllwild campground, bear left on North Circle Drive to the village center. There's a large parking area in the heart of town, but first make an orientation tour toward Fern Valley.
Continue on North Circle Drive, go right on South Circle Drive, and turn right again on Village Center Drive to return to your starting point. Along the way you'll find numerous gift and antique shops, restaurants and lodgings.
A short side trip on Fern Valley Road gives you a good view of Lily Rock (some call it Tahquitz Rock), a granite monolith that's an Idyllwild landmark.
At the end of the road is Humber Park, where an 8-mile trail leads through state wilderness to the mountain station of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. For less strenuous exercise, follow "Ten Easy Walks Around Idyllwild," an Izaak Walton League guide sold in village book shops.
Squirrels and Jays
Families like to stroll through the pine-scented woods, with the children keeping an eye out for bushy-tailed squirrels and squawking blue jays. Listen for woodpeckers making music on tree trunks, too.
Smoke curling from the chimneys of log cabins entices many visitors to idle overnight in Idyllwild. Wood-burning fireplaces are featured at many of the mountain's accommodations. Some of the cottages also have kitchens.
Get a list of lodgings by writing the Idyllwild Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 304, Idyllwild 92349. Or call (714) 659-2810 to reach the Sugar Pine Shop, the chamber's representative that's open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Visitors can drop by the gift shop, 54274 N. Circle Drive, for the lodging list and an Idyllwild map.
Among the accommodations is a bed-and-breakfast, the Strawberry Creek Inn, just south of the village center on the Banning-Idyllwild Highway (California 243). Beyond is the Wilkum B&B, as well as the AAA-rated Bluebird Motel.
Near the center you'll find the Idyllwild Inn, with cottages and motel units. A block away the Silver Pines cottages overlook Strawberry Creek. Scattered in the woods farther from town are 11 cottages of the Fern Valley Inn, and Woodland Park Manor's modern cottages and motel rooms.
To help visitors find lodgings, the Chamber of Commerce has reservations coordinators who rotate duty on a monthly basis. Call (714) 659-4139 for the current coordinator's phone number, along with Idyllwild's weather and road report that's taped daily.
The community boasts two after-5 p.m. dinner houses, Gastrognome that serves continental dishes as well as seafood and steak, and the Chart House at Fern Valley Corners. At the same crossroads is Chef in the Forest, an all-day eatery that's also a local favorite.
Before you leave town, drop by the rather bizarre Horton & Fogg outdoor sculpture garden. It's on lower Pine Crest Avenue, not far from the new fire and sheriff's station.
Leave The Hill via an alternative route, California 74. Follow it west through Hemet to Interstate 215 and then go north to join California 60 back to Los Angeles.
Round trip from Los Angeles to take it easy in Idyllwild is 226 miles.