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Weekend Escape: Mt. San Jacinto

Back Door to Idyllwild

A tram ride to hiking trails usually seen only by backpackers

September 27, 1998|DIANA MARCUM

IDYLLWILD, Calif. — On a map it looked easy--all downhill.

We would ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway up Mt. San Jacinto to the mountain station at 8,516 feet. Then hike across the mountain to the charming town of Idyllwild, elevation 5,280 feet, to feast and lull in rented-cabin comfort before driving down the next day. Cake.

Now that the ibuprofen has kicked in, I realize it was an easy hike relative to the sights we witnessed.

But, still, do not listen to rangers who estimate it to be a three- to four-hour trip. If you have a friend, such as our friend Kevin who hiked the trail when he was younger, be sure and account for the fact that a wiry 18-year-old's perceptions have utterly nothing to do with reality for, say, a group of people in their 30s who spend a lot of hours sitting in front of computers.

Coming from Los Angeles, the hike's logistics are easy. Take two cars east on Interstate 10 to California 243 going to Idyllwild. Leave clean clothes and one car there and loop around the mountain taking California 74 down to the desert.

The tram spirits you up San Jacinto, whisking you from desert heat to cool mountain air in a few minutes. Next September the tramway is planning to install new Swiss-made cars with revolving floors. But judging by the squeals in our crowded tram car, dangling from wires over yawning gorges in a gondola with stationary floors is really enough of a thrill for most people.

From the top, there are two routes to Idyllwild. We chose the slightly longer Wellman Divide trail. Moving slowly at first, we stopped to scratch the bark on ponderosa pines and sniff their butterscotch-sundae scent. We admired clouds and creeks, fields of pale blue lupine and flame-colored Indian paintbrush, thinking that the world couldn't get any prettier. But it did.

After three miles of steady climbing we crested at Wellman Divide and ate our lunch (crusty sourdough bread and grilled vegetable sandwiches, fruit and chocolate chip cookies) on a boulder overlooking all.

We came to dub the next stretch of trail the miracle mile. We left behind the day hikers in the vicinity of the tram and were yet to run into people hiking up from Idyllwild. We came upon two newly emerged butterflies. They were the color of watermelon and tangerines, with caterpillar bodies striped in the same rose/orange color scheme.

The trail turned into a stream. We edged along the side until we came to a spring spouting out of the side of the mountain. Kevin, a wildlife biologist, declared it safe for drinking. My friend Debbie and I stood underneath it and sipped. I will never be impressed with bottled water again.

We figured we had about another hour to go. Gravity lengthened our strides. We were speeding down the switchbacks. We were a windsurfer with a good breeze. We were a baseball hit by Mark McGwire, sailing out of the park. We were wrong.

The next trail marker told us we had 7.3 miles to go to Idyllwild. Our hour estimate was a little (all right a lot) off. We grew silent; there was only the determined crunch, crunch, crunch of our hiking boots. Kevin and my boyfriend, Rich, started to whistle the song from "The Bridge on the River Kwai."


When we had first made our plans, the hike was the main event and dinner at Antonelli's Ristorante afterward a pleasant side note. Now it became our mission. Eight hours after our noon departure we scuttled into town, our bent, aching knees giving us the gait and posture of sand crabs. We had 10 minutes to check into the Idyllwild Inn, shower and change before dinner.

None of that seemed terribly important, however, once we were ensconced in tall wood booths, wine was being poured and Antonelli's house specialty appetizer--stuffed portabello mushrooms--served.

I had spent six miles daydreaming of pasta but ordered fish. Dessert was homemade chocolate mousse and death-by-chocolate cake, both so delicious they're indescribable.

After dinner--sleep. The only note I made of our one-bedroom cabin was that the bed was large and comfortable. Morning light revealed a living room with a huge fireplace, a kitchen and kitsch-free decor. The oldest inn in Idyllwild, it has 20 brown-shingled cabins, each with different candy-colored trim, dotting five wooded acres. Some cabins have handcrafted pine furniture from the 1930s; all have fireplaces and porches.

For breakfast we headed to the Bread Basket, a longtime favorite of ours mostly because of the homemade wheat bread, raspberry jam and outdoor tables with white umbrellas brushing the pine trees. Over raisin-walnut pancakes, fresh-squeezed orange juice, home-fries and yogurt, we concluded we would do a few things differently next time:

We would leave early. It's an all-day hike.

We would leave a car at Humber Park where the trail ends. Dodging speeding cars on the road into town is a real annoyance.

And even though we liked Idyllwild Inn, next time we're looking for a place with a Jacuzzi.

Marcum is a freelance writer based in Palm Springs.

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Budget for Two

Tram tickets: 35.70

Backpack lunch, snacks: 25.00

Dinner, Antonelli's: 81.00

Idyllwild Inn, 1 night: 97.90

Breakfast, Bread Basket: 31.73

FINAL TAB: $271.33

Idyllwild Inn, 54300 Village Center Drive, Idyllwild, CA 92549, tel. (888) 659-2552. Idyllwild Chamber of Commerce, tel. (909) 659-3259. Idyllwild lodging information, tel. (909) 659-5520.

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