What happens if, two-thirds of the way to a Palm Springs weekend, somebody grabs control of your family's vehicle, veers hard to the right, follows the cliff-clinging goat path known as California 243, then roars into the pines looking for a soft meadow between granite peaks?
Idyllwild is what happens. Arriving from Los Angeles, you first climb to the largely residential community of Pine Cove, then descend to about 5,300 feet, where you see half a dozen blocks of shops, restaurants and art and craft galleries, all surrounded by trees, rocks, scattered vacation cabins, the odd A-frame and the odder geodesic dome. The year-round population is about 3,500.
You find crisp morning air (which typically yields to summer highs in the 80s), the looming dome of Tahquitz Peak (which draws legions of rock climbers), the pine-filtered sunshine, the trail-side granite and manzanita, the utter absence of golf courses and fashion retail. Also, come to think of it, you find no Starbucks or McDonalds or Subways or KFCs.
Maybe it's no surprise, then, to discover that Idyllwild's repeat visitors tend to be a quieter, artsier bunch than those who keep Big Bear busy.
They hike, sniff pines, climb rocks, squint at old photos in the Idyllwild Area Historical Society Museum, queue up with their kids to buy treats at the Candy Cupboard, atch a movie at the 234-seat Rustic Theatre or listen to guitarists on the sun-splashed deck of Cafe Aroma. (What other cafe can boast a room dedicated to the celebration of Herb Jeffries, a nonagenarian Idyllwilder who once sang for Duke Ellington and starred in the western "The Bronze Buckaroo" in 1939.)
Other visitors play Scrabble on patios, browse at the Willow Creek Gallery, forage for cookware in rented kitchens or imagine chucking their city lives to run an upscale B&B like the Strawberry Creek Inn. Still others drop their kids at a local camp (there are several) to learn about science or playing the harp.
If you're seeking less structure and more pine needles, explore the raw landscape that loggers found here in the late 19th century, before the first tent resort opened in 1890, before the old Idyllwild Inn lodge went up in the middle of town (and later burned down).
Hikers like the 2 1/2-mile Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail from Humber Park to Tahquitz View Drive, an easy path through pine forest with views of Tahquitz Peak and Suicide Rock. Then there's the intermediate 2 1/2-mile Devil's Slide Trail from Humber Park to Saddle Junction. (For that one you need a free Forest Service permit.) Rock climbers have worked out about 300 ways up Tahquitz Peak and about 200 ways up Suicide Rock.
There's fishing on Strawberry Creek in town, picnicking at tiny Lake Fulmor, 10 miles northwest of town, and more fishing on much larger Lake Hemet, about eight miles south, where anglers find rainbow trout, catfish, bass and bluegill. At least one outfit, the Little Yellow Rose Ranch, offers guided trail rides for adults and children age 7 and up.
Just keep those horses well clear of the highway--you never know when another carful of hijacked Palm Springs people is going to turn up.
WHERE TO STAY:
Several companies rent homes and cabins, including Idyllwild Cabin Rentals, (877) 270-3285; Idyllwild Mountain Rentals, (951) 659-5349; and Idyllwild Vacation Rentals, (800) 297-1410.
Strawberry Creek Inn, 26370 Highway 243; (800) 262-8969, (951) 659-3202; www.strawberrycreekinn.com. Nine rooms, one cottage. Rates start at $119.
WHERE TO EAT
Cafe Aroma, 54750 N. Circle Drive; (951) 659-5212, www.cafearoma.org. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, with prices that top out at $24. Reservations recommended.
WHAT TO DO
Little Yellow Rose Ranch; (951-659-809-7450), www.littleyellowroseranch.com.
TO LEARN MORE
Idyllwild Chamber of Commerce; (951) 659-3259 or (888) 659-3259, www.idyllwildchamber.com.