Ernie Maxwell, Thanks for Your Scenic Idyllwild Trail

Usually, you have to be long dead and buried before a trail is named for you.

Don't tell that to Ernie Maxwell.

The founder of the Idyllwild Town Crier is honored by the Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail, a woodsy, 2 1/2-mile path through the San Jacinto Mountains. Maxwell, 76, Idyllwild's leading conservationist, has hiked his namesake trail many, many times over the past 30 years.

"Lots of people helped build the trail, but I hogged all the credit," Maxwell joked.

As Maxwell explained it, his trail came into being as a result of his horse's inability to get along with automobiles. After riding through the San Jacinto Wilderness, Maxwell and his fellow equestrians were forced to follow paved roads back through town to the stables. Maxwell's barn-sour pack horses, so slow and sullen on the trail, would become suddenly frisky and unmanageable as they neared home. Equine-auto conflicts were frequent. Maxwell thought: Why not build a trail from Humber Park, at the edge of the San Jacinto Wilderness, through the forest to the stables, thus avoiding the horse-spooking congestion of downtown Idyllwild?

Convicts Did the Labor

Maxwell got cooperation from the U.S. Forest Service and from Riverside County convicts, who provided the labor. Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail was completed in 1959.

And a lovely trail it is. The path meanders through a mixed forest of pine and fir and offers fine views of the granite face of Marion Ridge.

"People need trails like this one," Maxwell opined. "Experienced hikers and backpackers can take off on the Devil's Slide Trail, but the family or individual looking for a pleasant little outing will prefer the Ernie Maxwell. It's a good introduction to the San Jacinto Mountains."

Since founding the Idyllwild Town Crier in 1946, Maxwell has often written about what he wryly calls "the urban-wildlands interface issue. That's the one that deals with more people moving into the hills."

"Change is inevitable," Maxwell wrote in one of his recent Emax-bylined columns. "In compiling a history of this area (Idyllwild), I discovered that pioneers allowed three days for a shopping session in nearby San Jacinto. We now have local folks who commute every day to Orange County and Los Angeles."

Maxwell added: "We've made our own rules here for so long that compliance with those of inspectors' comes hard. There was a time when it was every man for himself, but there were so few of us it didn't matter."

Great Logging Boom

It was certainly every man for himself a hundred years ago. During the great logging boom of 1880-1910, timber barons sent their choppers farther and farther up the slopes of the San Jacintos. Ranchers grazed thousands of sheep and cattle in the alpine meadows. Even the most shortsighted could see the destruction of the mountain watershed. And with local settlers urging protection for the range, President Grover Cleveland established the San Jacinto Timberland Reserve in 1897.

Fortunately, the San Jacinto Mountains have had many conservation-minded friends, including Ernie Maxwell, who for many years served as president of the local chapter of the Izaak Walton League. Maxwell has seen the emphasis of the surrounding national forest change from commodity production to recreation; seen isolated Idyllwild become a (sometimes too) popular weekend getaway. He is well aware that the future of his mountains depends to a large extent on the attitude of the millions of Southern Californians living 7,000 feet below and a 1 1/2-hour drive away from Idyllwild.

"Walk the trails," Maxwell urges flat-landers. "Enjoy the fresh air. And get to know these mountains. The mountains need more friends."

Directions to trailhead: From Interstate 10 in Banning, exit on California 243 (the Banning-Idyllwild Highway) and proceed about 25 miles to Idyllwild County Park Visitor Center. A small museum interprets the history and natural history of the area.

From downtown Idyllwild, head up Fern Valley Road. Following the signs to Humber Park, drive two miles to the large parking area. Signed Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail departs from the lower end of the parking lot.

You won't need a wilderness permit for Ernie Maxwell Trail, but if you plan to hike into the San Jacinto Wilderness from Humber Park, you must obtain one. Such permits are likely to be in scarce supply this holiday weekend.

The hike: The trail begins at Humber Park, the main jumping-off point to the San Jacinto Wilderness for hikers and rock climbers. You'll get frequent over-the-shoulder views of the dramatic pinnacles popular with Southern California climbers. Most prominent is Lily Rock--though rock jocks prefer the more masculine-sounding Tahquitz Rock.

The mostly level trail (the convicts did a great job!) contours gently around wooded slopes. Ponderosa, Jeffrey and Coulter pines, fir and incense cedar grace the mountainside and carpet the path with needles.

Your destination, Saunders Meadow, is named for Amasa Saunders, who in 1881 operated a huge sawmill not too far down slope in Strawberry Valley. Take a moment to be thankful that not all the pine and fir became grist for Saunders' mill, then scout the tree tops for the abundant bird life. Look for Steller's jays, the white-headed woodpecker, and the colorful orange-headed, yellow-breasted western tanager.

Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail ends somewhat abruptly and ingloriously at dirt Tahquitz View Drive. Maxwell had envisioned that his trail would continue another few miles around Idyllwild and connect to the path leading to Suicide Rock, but this trail plan ended in a bureaucratic thicket.

Contemplating the notion that half a terrific trail is better than none, return the same way.

Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail

Humber Park to Saunders Meadow: 5 miles round trip; 300-foot elevation gain.

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