LONG VALLEY, Calif. — We could hear our footsteps keeping slow rhythm with the early morning bird serenade until the woodland path took us closer to the creek. Then the sound of rippling water took over, as if responding to nature's baton.
It was an Easter week morning near the Long Valley Ranger Station in Mt. San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness, at an altitude of 8,400 feet and scarcely half an hour above Palm Springs. There, attention was focused on community efforts to keep the student influx during spring break under control.
There were students up here, too, but they hadn't come to the desert to cruise Palm Canyon Drive. They had been sunning at pool sides below and wanted to experience the wilderness and learn about rewarding summertime destinations in the Southern California mountains.
Where else can you hike across less than a dozen miles of wildflowers and spectacular mountain scenery to be greeted by flutes in the forest?
The flutes will be played by students at ISOMATA, the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts, which opens this summer on July 21.
Hiking to Idyllwild
The trail from Mountain Station of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway across the mountains to Idyllwild has been growing in popularity and will draw hikers from as far away as Japan this summer, but it is only one of many trails that can be enjoyed in this park wilderness.
The hike from Mountain Station to Idyllwild can be shortened to about eight miles--an easy four hours--by having a car meet you at Humber Park, about 2.5 miles closer than Idyllwild village.
Or you can commune with nature along a one-mile loop beside the creek in Long Valley, below Mountain Station. Or you can relax in a wagon drawn by a team of mules on a Guided Wilderness Trail Ride.
On the other hand, if the generally downgrade hike from Mountain Valley to Idyllwild doesn't seem like enough of a challenge for your mountaineering spirit, you could climb to 10,804-foot Mt. San Jacinto Peak.
Callers to Long Valley Ranger Station have asked when the trails will be ready for hiking, what permissions will be necessary and what camping sites are available for hikes of longer than one day. Bird watchers and wildflower aficionados have also called.
My wife, Elfriede, and I found the Long Valley loops enjoyable for walking during Easter week. The nearest nature trail is marked by dried tree trunks and branches. In sunlit open areas among the trees, the pathway was as dry as midsummer. There were still patches of ice under trees, although below in Palm Springs the temperature was around 100 degrees.
The trail to Idyllwild, generally descending from the 8,400-foot elevation at Long Valley, is expected to be free of ice along the Devil's Slide switchbacks by mid-June. Higher trails should be accessible in July.
A few years ago in late June, we reversed the route across the St. Jacinto wilderness to hike from Humber Park to the Mountain Station of the Tramway.Wildflowers were starting to bloom all along the way. Friends drove us to Humber Park, then met us at the bottom of the tram.
Volunteers of the Mt. San Jacinto Natural History Assn. have an office at Mountain Station. You can buy books and other materials there to prepare for a wilderness walk or hike. Or you can browse through these materials at the nearby ranger station.
Linda Jean Foster, at the ranger station, is a biology student who has made the hike to Idyllwild several times and is well-versed on wildflowers along the way. She paged through the natural history wildflower booklet to point out some of the flowers not to be missed:
"The azaleas are so wonderful along Devil's Slide in July. . . . There will be lots of small monkey flowers along the creeks, and the sedges beside the creeks were used by Indians for basket weaving. . . . Purple Sage is near the Hidden Lake Divide, and you'll see zillions of lupine."
Among many other flowers that bloom in this summer wonderland, she noted: "Indian paintbrush at the base of the rocks . . . lotus before you hit Willow Creek . . . needlegrass wherever there's water, wild buckwheat, pennyroyal, paintbrush, bright yellow wallflowers along the trail, scarlet bugler in Strawberry Creek, mistletoe high up in the trees. . . ."
The natural history booklet has sketches of each wildflower.
For bird watchers, "Birds of the Idyllwild Area" is a checklist designed to help the beginning birder. It lists 185 kinds of birds that might be seen from lower elevations all the way to the summit of San Jacinto Peak. The list includes resident and migrant, common and rare birds. We think we saw a golden eagle during our last visit.
Desert View Trail out of Long Valley provides grand views of the desert and peaks approaching 10,000 feet. There are 54 miles of hiking trails winding through 14,000 acres of wilderness.