20 things to do in Idyllwild, an eclectic mountaintop town that still feels like a secret
About 2½ hours east of Los Angeles, perched 5,400 feet up in the San Jacinto Mountains amid a forest of pine and cedar trees, there’s a tiny town called Idyllwild. You may know it for its tight-knit community and invigorating mountain air. (“If Colorado and Southern California had a baby, it would be Idyllwild,” says Erin Ochs Klair, owner of the community’s beloved Café Aroma.) Or maybe you know it as home to the Idyllwild Arts Academy, a premier boarding school that holds public events such as the Jazz in the Pines festival and art shows at the Parks Exhibition Center. Or perhaps you’ve heard of the quirky charm — the elected mayor is a golden retriever named Max (the deputy mayors, also dogs, are Meadow, Mitzi and Mikey).
This idyllic spot has beckoned people for thousands of years. During summer, the Cahuilla people would hike up to the area to escape the heat and gather and grind acorns in bowl-shaped carvings called bedrock mortars. These can still be found around Idyllwild, including in the area known as the Meadow on the Idyllwild Arts Academy campus.
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In the 1860s, ranchers began to drive cattle and sheep up the mountain to graze. Construction of the Southern Pacific Railroad brought the first logging crews though the San Gorgonio Pass, sourcing wood for locomotive fuel and railroad ties. By the 1870s, campers and vacationers had also begun to follow the steep road up the mountain, seeking the cool breezes among the trees.
In 1897, President Grover Cleveland created the San Jacinto Forest Reserve, the 740,000 acres surrounding Idyllwild. This eventually became part of the San Bernardino National Forest, a more than 820,000-acre area that now encompasses seven wilderness areas, including Barton Flats, Big Bear Lake, Lytle Creek, Lake Arrowhead and the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument.
With the precarious mountain routes and creation of the forest reserve, logging was no longer a viable business for the area. Lumberman George Hannahs opened the first hotel in the valley — a tent resort called Camp Idylwilde, from which the area officially got its name in 1901. More lodging was built, as well as a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients that quickly transformed into a hotel and later became the Idyllwild Inn, a favorite vacation spot that still exists today.
As the population in grew, arts and entertainment became part of the fabric of Idyllwild. Clark Gable spent time here at his High Castle lodge (maybe with Queen, his beloved Irish setter dog). Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz sought the peacefulness of the rustic setting. Cecil B. DeMille filmed “The Girl of the Golden West” here in 1915. And Elvis Presley played a boxer in the 1962 musical “Kid Galahad,” a film celebrated with memorabilia at the Idyllwild Area Historical Society and at the Hidden Lodge, a dog-friendly rental that sleeps 12.
The gateway to Mt. San Jacinto State Park and the San Jacinto Wilderness area, the community — population 2,963 — provides access to miles of hiking trails, some of which intersect with the Pacific Crest Trail. Each year, Idyllwild is a favorite rest stop among trail through-hikers in late spring.
Here, dogs are not only beloved pets but also elected city officials. As an unincorporated town, Idyllwild — in combination with the communities of Pine Grove and Fern Valley — has no local government. In 2012, an election was held as a fundraiser for the Idyllwild Animal Rescue Friends in which local residents could nominate their cats and dogs as mayor. Max the golden retriever, owned by residents Phyllis Mueller and Glenn Warren, became the first mayor. He was so popular that in 2014, Idyllwild decided to continue Mayor Max’s office in perpetuity.
When the first Max died at age 12 in 2013, Mueller and Warren, who run a marketing firm, continued the fluffy tradition with Max II. He donned the official mayoral stars-and-stripes necktie to serve his post until his death this summer. This month, new puppy Max III, along with his adorable sister Meadow, made their official debut. The popularity of these golden-haired cuties, whom locals and visitors flock to see at their weekly local appearances, reflects the exuberant dog-friendliness of the community. (The Brew Pub, a popular meeting spot, welcomes dogs on its deck and offers a dog menu of beef patties and chopped chicken.)
You’ll know you’ve arrived in Idyllwild when you see “Harmony,” a cedar tree monument depicting a bear surrounded by other mountain creatures, with details reflecting the hiking trails and arts community. It was carved with a chain saw by artist David Roy, who was living in Idyllwild at the time. Take a deep breath of mountain air, check into your inn or cabin rental and settle in.
Idyllwild is a destination for hikers, rock climbers, music aficionados, art enthusiasts, nature lovers, bird watchers and anyone in search of a quiet, cozy place to unwind. Here’s what to do, see and eat on a weekend visit.
The Fireside Inn
Currently, the rustic alpine lodging located next to the Idyllwild monument offers eight rooms and two suites that are not pet friendly, and 19 pet-friendly cabins, some built in 1910, and others added from the ’90s up to today. Rates range from $139 for a room to $259 for a three-bedroom cabin. The inn’s owners also operate four vacation homes around town, including a three-bedroom log cabin built in the early 1900s. Be sure to ask about placing an order from Leisa Wood, who works at the inn’s front desk and bakes fruit pies, including her favorite mixed-berries flavor, the Razzle Dazzle, for her company Tahquitz Pies.
Experience Idyllwild cabin rentals
Idyllwild Gardens Nursery
El Buen Cacao
El Buen Cacao’s offers dark chocolate bars, made only with cacao and sugar, along with flavored chocolate bars and truffles. The couple source ethical and organic chocolate, in many cases directly from fair labor cacao farms around the world. The single-origin chocolate bars and various truffles make for great souvenirs. While you’re there, grab a cup of hot sipping chocolate (or a chocolate shake when the weather is warm).
Mountain Paws pet boutique
At the bar, order a classic cocktail or the bartender’s daily creation (recently, a creative riff on a Vieux Carré). Stewart Klair helms the kitchen, serving beloved menu items such as pastas with a few new favorites along the way (one of the primary goals is to offer more plant-based options, like a vegan mac and cheese with kimchi). Reservations are highly recommended. The tradition of being a welcoming community gathering place continues with live music Thursday and Sunday nights.
Mama’s Egg House
Black Mountain Coffee Roasting
Vertical Adventures Rock Climbing School
Bob Gaines, who founded the company in 1983, has written climbing guidebooks for the Tahquitz Rocks and Suicide Rocks. He coordinates memorable expeditions, with plenty of stories about the legacy of this historic site in the world of rock climbing. For anyone who would rather be a spectator, Gaines tells us that Devil’s Slide Trail (located on this map) provides both a scenic hike and some of the best views of rock climbers on Tahquitz Peak.
Idyllwild Nature Center
Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail
Idyllwild Arts Academy
Idyllwild Area Historical Society
Idyllwild Art in the Park
Meet Mayor Max at Wooley’s
Hit up Amelia’s Donuts and More for official Mayor Max merch and, of course, donuts, including the Glazed Amazing, a raised yeast creation dipped in butter glaze. In mid-December, new puppy Mayor Max III makes his debut along with his sister (and Deputy Mayor) Meadow. Max and his deputies will star in the town’s yearly calendar and make mayoral appearances for fundraisers and events.
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