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While living in or visiting Southern California, a trip to the mountains is closer than you might think. The San Jacinto range offers a stark contrast to the warm, arid climate just a few miles away and, for that reason, places like Idyllwild have become popular getaways for people who want a taste of the four seasons.

Not too much of a taste, mind you. This is all about putting that four-wheel-drive through its paces just enough to justify the couple of grand extra that you spent on it. The fact is Southern California residents, for the most part, don’t need four-wheel drive.

So up these weekenders go to the windy roads and steep ridges that take them 5,000 feet, 6,000 feet and higher above Hemet, the nearest city of any size in this part of Riverside County. The community of Idyllwild is set in amongst the pine trees that Mother Nature has combined with oak and spruce to create a powerful allure for people who grow weary of what passes for trees in Southern California’s cities.

During winter, most visitors are more than happy to return to warmer climes after their weekend dalliance because shoveling snow is just not one of the things Southern California residents are programmed to do. Many of them think it’s better to get just enough exposure to the snow and frigid temperatures to appreciate why they are willing to pay the high price of living in sunny Southern California – and then go home.

That’s why about three-quarters of the residences in Idyllwild remain vacant most of the time. It’s a city of vacation cabins – most now going for more than $300,000 – and at any given time there are only a few of them being used. Only about 2,000 hearty souls choose to reside on "The Hill" as Idyllwild has become known over the years even though as many as 50,000 visitors on a weekend day can make it tough to find a parking spot anywhere close to downtown Idyllwild. Yet no one seems deterred – people flock to Idyllwild because it’s so close and yet so different.

The "Yosemite of the South," another common nickname for Idyllwild, has grown up sporadically over the years. There have been a few attempts at major resort developments in the area – ski hills and golf courses were part of some plans – but nothing big has really taken hold. So today you find a mountain village with a few earthy folks willing to brave the elements, and then a whole bunch more of those weekend vacation warriors who turn around and head for sunny L.A. in time for work Monday morning.

There are no big resorts -- the accommodations range from smaller motel-type units to "executive’ vacation homes. There are several bed-and-breakfast or country inns as well as cabin motels offering mini-cabins mixed with several others on the same property.

For our recent trip, we chose to rent a three-bedroom "cabin" about three miles outside of Idyllwild. It really was as large as a house, but with its cedar interior, two fireplaces and a free-standing wood stove, this house gave every bit the impression that it was in fact a cabin. It was well furnished with a complete kitchen and all dishware and utensils, a living room with a comfy couch, lounge chair and satellite TV and plenty of deck space to gaze out at the spectacular – albeit slightly obstructed – view of the mountainsides and valley below.

Offered by Muir’s Mountain Vacation Rental, the "Smith" cabin was exactly what we were looking for – a true mountain retreat that was nicely separated from any nearby cabins on wooded property that gave us a true feeling of seclusion. Built just in front of a massive boulder, we hiked just a few yards higher and could gaze out on views that stretched all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The views from inside the cabin were great, too, and enhanced by the ample use of picture windows on the upper two floors.

On this particular trip we were content to spend much of our weekend at the cabin. We spent a lot of quiet time reading and just soaking up the atmosphere, or playing with our five-year-old, choosing to leave the television turned off so we could focus on being a family more than we sometimes do at home.

Even though this was a January trip, we visited Idyllwild at a somewhat atypical time when there was little snow on the ground and no need to crank up our own four-wheel drive. Skies were clear and blue but temperatures dipped down to the 20’s in the evening. We were thankful we had brought lots of warm clothing. Daytime temps were in the 40’s and 50’s, just cool enough to feel like we were a continent away from our home near San Diego.

We enjoyed spending some time in downtown Idyllwild where there seemed to be an endless variety of shops and a steady stream of visitors. There were shops selling anything you can imagine and in some unusual combinations. California Street Collectibles, for example, sells Christmas ornaments, dolls, Harley merchandise, Nascar merchandise and – financial planning.

Strolling Idyllwild’s streets, we discovered such curiosities as the old-time theater – the "Rustic" – which shows just one movie three times a day, but leaves the snack stand open for passersby to enjoy popcorn with real butter. Just down the street is the homemade candy shop which had nearly a dozen people waiting to go inside. Even the ice cream shop a few doors down was enjoying brisk business despite the cool temperatures.

In the town center is the Idyllwild Tree Monument, a 50-foot totem pole that was carved by chainsaw in 1989 as an effort to salvage a dying 400-year-old ponderosa pine. The monument depicts an eagle, mountain lion, squirrel, raccoon, American Indian, coyote and butterfly and, interestingly, is the final resting place of Ernie Maxwell, a longtime Idyllwild civic booster and founder of the local Town Crier newspaper.

Art galleries are also a big part of Idyllwild and there are no fewer than 17 of them for visitors to tour. In fact, Idyllwild is included in a new book "The 100 Best Art Towns in America" by John Villani.

We stopped by the Idyllwild Historic Society Museum, a historic 1920’s summer cabin that now has exhibits pertaining to the Idyllwild area. It turns out that the area was first settled by the Cahuilla Indians some 2500 years ago and followed by the first mining prospectors in the 1850’s. Ranching and farming came a few years later and, by 1875, there was a significant lumber operation in Idyllwild. The museum also depicts more recent history when, from the 1920’s through the 1960’s, several Hollywood films were shot on location in the area.

There are several restaurants in town and we enjoyed our dinner at the La Casita Mexican restaurant where the main dining area had just a half dozen tables. Other choices in the area include Greek and Chinese as well as several steak and seafood restaurants, pizza restaurants and more.

When we go back in summer, we will take advantage of many of the outdoor activities that Idyllwild has to offer. Lily’s Rock – a.k.a. Tahquitz Rock – is a dramatic rock face visible high on the mountainside that symbolizes the rugged outdoor beauty so prevalent in this area. Several hiking trails take visitors deeper into the forest, including the Pacific Crest Trail. There are, in fact, 272,000 acres that have been set aside and designated as the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument.


WHERE: Idyllwild is just west of the Palm Springs area and is easily reached on Highway 243, accessible from Highway 10, the main route to Palm Springs.

WHAT: Idyllwild and nearby mountain communities represent an easy-to-get-to four-seasons getaway that is just a couple of hours from Los Angeles.

WHEN: Year-round. Summers are sunny and pleasant. Winters can be cold and occasionally snowy.

WHY: It’s a charming mountain village with a wide selection of accommodations and tourist services. The scenery is spectacular.

HOW: For more information on Idyllwild, visit or phone 888-659-3259. For more information on cabin rentals, visit or phone 877-270-3285. If looking for a room rather than a cabin, the Atipahato Lodge comes recommended. Visit or phone 888-400-0071.

Please visit California Weekend for more information on California travel .
Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway