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Activities | Road Trip / Idyllwild

For Sport-Utility Drivers Who Love Scenery, Not a Bumpy Ride

July 30, 1998|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Total time: Three hours

Distance: About 25 miles over route described. The trail is about 90 miles from Los Angeles County, 70 miles from Orange County.

Level of difficulty: Moderate

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This is for the Ferdinands out there--those who, like the cartoon bull of the same name, may look tough but would rather smell the flowers than grind them into the dirt.

You know who you are. You drive a brawny sport-utility vehicle with knobby tires. But the only time you have engaged the four-wheel drive was at the dealership, when the salesman showed you how.

Well, here's a relatively gentle off-road trip that will satisfy your craving for adventure without jarring your spine or ripping the paint off the flanks of your mechanical steed.

And it features flowers. Wild ones. If you hurry.

The destination is a series of dirt truck tracks that hang off the side of Mt. San Jacinto, overlooking San Jacinto Valley and leading eventually to the mile-high town of Idyllwild in the San Bernardino National Forest in Riverside County.

The trail starts about 70 miles outside of Orange County, almost 90 miles from Los Angeles, on California 243 at its junction with Interstate 10 in Banning.

Take the two-lane road up into the hills about three miles past the U.S. Forest Service fire station and start looking for a signpost on the right that points to Mellor Ranch Road.

The designation--on the signpost and on the trail map you should have bought at an off-roading store, map supplier or ranger station before you left on the trip--is 4S05. (A ranger informs that the "S" means the road heads south and the "4" is the sector of the federal wilderness area it is in. The last digits are the road's name.)

You're at an elevation of 3,000 feet when you leave the asphalt, and you head sharply down for the next three miles. The scenery on the sinuous trail is rocky, scrubby, quasi-Mediterranean Southern California native.

The road designation changes frequently, but if you follow your map and always take the left-hand fork in the trail you'll be all right: At the three-mile mark you'll switch from 4S05 to 4S06, and half a mile after that you'll want to take the fork marked 4S10. Stay on that track for about four miles and then veer left again onto 5S09, which takes you back uphill and onto California 243 again.

We took the drive with our Jeep-loving neighbors early this month. After about 15 or 20 minutes, the sides of the dirt track burst into bloom with a profusion of wildflowers in brilliant yellows and royal purples.

The Forest Service says the flowers are out later than usual because of the heavy winter rains and the unseasonably cool spring. But rangers warn that as the weather has heated up and dried out, so have the flowers. There are still blooms to be seen, but in another week or so they'll be gone until spring. (That's a caveat: Don't holler at us if the flowers are gone when you take the drive--we do a lot of stuff, but we can't control nature.)

Even without the flowers, though, the trip is a nice one to get you started in off-roading.

Take it slow to avoid too much jouncing over the washboard surface of the trail and to enjoy the show. Scenery was plentiful for most of the next 20 miles as we wound along the mountainside, occasionally crossing a shallow stream sliding downhill but never running into a patch of road that required much in the way of off-highway skills to navigate.

(In fact, you could probably make the trip in a two-wheel-drive SUV or pickup, and certainly on a motorcycle, although it might get iffy in a passenger car.)

The views were great, with sweeping vistas of San Jacinto Valley laid out below and stands of live oak, manzanita and sycamores giving way to towering pines as the trail heads uphill on the last leg of the roughly three-hour drive.

One place you'll want to stop is about five miles from the end of the trail, where 5S09 crosses the north fork of the San Jacinto River.

There's a small waterfall, a spreading pool and a rocky stream bed with gently gurgling water to sooth the senses. A huge Western azalea--otherwise known as a rhododendron--perfumed the air when we were there. The white-flowered shrub has got to be at least 20 feet tall and equally broad.

At the end of the trip, where the truck track brings you back onto California 243, you can turn left and head back down the mountain. If you didn't picnic on the trail (and please cart your trash out--the beer cans scattered by the unenlightened detract from the grandeur of nature), you can turn right and head up the hill and into rustic Idyllwild. There are enough shops, watering holes and restaurants there to keep you entertained the rest of the afternoon.

FELLOW TRAVELERS

Have a favorite California drive you'd like to suggest to other readers? Send ideas (general route, places of interest along the way, distance and duration of trip) to Highway 1, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Via e-mail: highway1@latimes.com. If your idea is printed, your reward is a Highway 1 commuter mug.

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