In the lexicon of Southern California weekend getaways, "roughing it in the mountains" is one of our more loosely defined terms. On any weekend in those SoCal hills, you can bet some are experiencing it with fluffy down pillows and microwaved s'mores in a rustic cabin on the north shore of Big Bear Lake, and others on a slope of icy granite in the Sierra with a tarp and flint lighter.
My own off-season alpine fix falls somewhere in the middle: driving up California Highway 243 (a.k.a. the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway) into the still white-capped San Jacinto Mountains, pitching a cheap three-season tent beside a gurgling brook at Hurkey Creek Park and crossing my fingers that it doesn't start pelting snow -- or worse, freezing rain -- in the middle of the night as it apparently did a few Saturdays ago.
Hurkey Creek Park is about 10 miles from Idyllwild in the San Jacinto Mountains. From Los Angeles, drive 90 miles east on Interstate 10 to the 8th Street exit at Banning and follow the signs to California Highway 243, which winds southeast for 30 miles through Idyllwild to the California Highway 74 junction at Mountain Center. Turn left onto Highway 74 and drive 4 1/2 miles to the park entrance (on the left at the Apple Canyon Road turnoff). The park is also accessible from Palm Desert and Hemet by way of California 74.
Hurkey Creek Park has more than 100 sites (plus five large group sites) with picnic tables, fire pits, restroom and shower facilities, and a two-vehicle/six-person limit per site. Large RVs and trailers are permitted, but there are no hook-ups. Sites cost $20 per night. Reserve with Riverside County Parks between April and October. The campground is also open for day use ($2 per adult, $1 per 12-and-under) from dawn to dusk.
Riverside County Parks, (800) 234-7275, www.riversidecountyparks.org
"It can be pretty unpredictable around here even in early spring," says Randall Higgins, the on-site supervisor at Hurkey Creek -- a spacious campground with more than 100 sites sprinkled with pines, leafless poplars and sweet mountain views about 10 miles down the road from the town of Idyllwild. "Last month, a storm blew in and we got 21 inches of snow just like that. Tonight ought to be clear, but it'll probably drop at least 50 degrees. So it's not exactly summer yet."
Briefly driving above the 6,000-foot-elevation mark on the way here, I passed kids in jackets and hats chucking snowballs at their parents beside the road. Dropping a couple of thousand feet and pulling into Hurkey Creek Park, tucked in an alpine valley near Lake Hemet, I found the temp a comfy 82 degrees and not a trace of snow. It felt a lot like summer at this campground on a Saturday afternoon in March -- save the telltale sign that it wasn't: Nobody was here.
"You can go pick yourself out a campsite," says Higgins, selling me a $5 wad of firewood by the front gate. "The ones in the back are closed for winter, but I think you'll still have a few to choose from tonight."
On the last weekend in April, this place will teem with mountain bikers gathered for spring's "24 Hours of Adrenalin," an all-day-and-all-night single-track relay along a looping 10-mile trail behind the park. And by Memorial Day, Inland Empire families will start piling in here to beat the desert heat.
But on a sunny day on the cusp of spring, with a 98% chance of an insane temperature drop by nightfall, Hurkey Creek Park was still in hibernation mode. Only seven sites in the 60-acre facility were occupied, all but one of them by winter-friendly campers and RVs. After all, what sensible, thin-blooded Southern Californian would drive into the mountains to pitch a tent with a 30-degree night in the works?
"We love it up here," says Courtney Lindsay, a weekend warrior from Temecula camping with his family in a huge travel trailer that makes their Ford F-250 look like a Smart Car. "You've got the mountains, the pine trees and a whole lot more charm than some wall-to-wall RV park by the ocean."
The only potential snag with this place: no hook-ups. "So our TV doesn't work and our fireplace and microwave aren't running -- but we don't mind roughing it with just plumbing and heat," he says.
As the sun sets at Hurkey Creek and the thermometer starts a free fall, the thought of retiring to a warm travel trailer in a charmingly vacant campground in the San Jacintos sounds like a good way to go. Lacking that, I opt for plan B: snapping together some freezing tent poles in a thicket of Jeffrey pines, sticking on a hat, lighting a fire and watching a brilliant canvas of constellations and my breath magically appear while the world vanishes into silhouettes.
For a while there are some faint camping sounds -- a coyote howling in the distance, a ulous old frog croaking itself to sleep in a trickling creek, someone's dog snarling (at a mother skunk and her eight skunklets) and a demented crow above my picnic table that didn't read about the ground's "quiet hours." Then those vanish too, leaving solo campers at Hurkey Creek Park alone in the cold, smoky dark to rummage in their own thoughts.
One little thought I have is that camping in a facility this large and empty feels a bit like swimming in the ocean at night -- refreshing and a tad creepy.
Bottom line, I'm glad I didn't bring any Stephen King novels and even happier I remembered gloves and long johns. It was getting colder by the second.
But nevermind. Staring at burning embers and Orion's belt into the wee hours is worth a little shivering -- even if after glancing at your watch you notice that it is actually 8 p.m. and not the wee hours at all.
After a brisk night in my cozy sleeping bag, the crow is back in the same tree squawking "Reveille," the temperature is gloriously climbing with the sun and my handful of neighbors at Hurkey Creek Park are still as happy to be here as I am.
"We have friends who go up to Big Bear every weekend who don't even know about this place -- and honestly I try not to tell too many of them about it because who wants that mob scene?" says Lenette Poor, a Chino Hills resident and the only other tent camper that weekend, along with her fiancé, Marco Scorcelletti; her 8-year-old daughter, Madison; and a boxer-Dalmatian puppy named Lilly.
"It can get a little cool at night," adds Marco, an engineer who works in Irvine, "but this is the best time to come here because, look around: nobody."
"By the way, have you had breakfast?" Lenette asks. "You're more than welcome to join us."
I assume this is just the usual immediate kinship between early birds at Hurkey Creek Park who made it through a frigid night with nothing but nylon walls. But soon, I am sitting at Lenette and Marco's picnic table under the pines and beside a glistening creek.
I have a bounty of eggs, bacon, sausage, sweet rolls and coffee and am hearing about their plans to move up into these hills permanently.
"Truthfully, the whole idea is a little nuts," Marco says later as we tramp through the park's signature Hike 'n' Bike trail with Lilly. "It'll mean a two-hour commute to and from my job in Irvine twice a day. But . . . "
He leaves it hanging and points to a bright, bouldery mountainscape that wouldn't be out of place somewhere in the Pyrenees.
"Anyway," he says, "don't advertise this place too much. We like it this way."
Mum's the word.
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