Sometimes it's necessary to escape the hustle and bustle of LA life. Thank goodness for places like Idyllwild, California! This quaint little town is nestled in the San Jacinto mountains and lies just two hours (110 miles) east of Downtown LA via I-10 or CA State Route 60. Idyllwild is the perfect escape from the hectic Los Angeles lifestyle. It's a place where you can unplug and unwind. Best of all, you can get outdoors and enjoy the crisp, clean mountain air.
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Why Escape from LA?
Most people imagine Los Angeles as a sprawling urban jungle filled with people, cars, and bright lights. Well, those people are right. And sometimes all that chaos gets to be too much. Idyllwild offers visitors a slow-paced, quiet retreat.
The stars shine brighter, the birds chirp louder and the trees grow taller up where the air is cleaner. We've been to Idyllwild a couple of times just to get away from it all, and each time we've been more than pleased with our experience.
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Leaving Los Angeles
On our most recent trip to Idyllwild, we chose to stay three nights for maximum relaxation. We left Los Angeles midday Thursday in an effort to beat the traffic. Because we'd previous gone to Idyllwild via I-10, we decided to try the more scenic route and drive along CA State Route 60.
We headed east out of Los Angeles, passing through the sprawling LA suburbs like Montebello and Hacienda Heights. We stopped briefly in Claremont, just north of Pomona, for a quick tour of the Pomona College campus and a bite to eat at The Last Drop Cafe.
Soon we were back on the road, barreling through the Inland Empire on the way toward our mountain retreat. Just east of Pomona we entered Riverside County.
Entering Mountain Country
Continuing on CA State Route 60 we came upon Banning, a small city known for its role as a stagecoach town in California history. Turning south onto CA State Route 243, we were soon ascending into the San Jacinto Mountains, eventually climbing over 5,000 ft.
Word to the wise: CA State Route 243 was easy to miss. But this quiet little road soon became a beautiful drive. Trust me; this scenic route was breathtakingly beautiful, with multiple places to stop along the way to take in the scenery.
The tall pines, mountainous landscape, and fresh air were intoxicating. Cabins began peppering the highway after approximately 45 minutes (25 miles) of twisting, winding roads. It's then we knew we were getting close to our ultimate destination of Idyllwild.
Arriving in Idyllwild
The first thing we did upon arrival in Idyllwild was to seek out our lodgings. For our most recent trip we stayed in a friend's family home, but, on a previous trip to Idyllwild, we stayed in a private cabin at the Strawberry Creek Bunkhouse. We enjoyed our stay there and would highly recommend the "boutique motel" to anyone visiting the area.
Our next line of duty was to grab a few supplies, so we headed into town in search of vittles and spirits. Before going to the local supermarket, we decided to take a quick tour of the town center to see what had changed since our last visit.
To our delight, all the little shops and stores were bustling. Seeing local businesses benefiting from tourism is always nice, especially businesses like these.
One of my favorite stops in Idyllwild is the Candy Cupboard, a cute little candy shop that features old-fashioned treats, handmade chocolates, and hand-dipped desserts. Just one look inside and your mouth will be watering.
It was tough to choose between the candied apples and the frozen banana, but the banana eventually won. Watching other patrons make their selection with child-like glee may have been better than my banana, but only slighty so.
Getting the Lay of the Land
Because we knew we would hike later in the weekend, we prioritized a stop at the Idyllwild Visitor's Center. There we picked up a National Adventure Day Pass.
Many of the parks and hikes in the area require patrons to display a valid day pass. Passes can be purchased at the Visitor Center, also known as the Town Crier, for $5. While there we also picked up a trusty map of the area, just in case.
We finally made it to the local supermarket to scoop up our supplies before heading back to our weekend retreat. Once we unpacked the car, we settled into our books for a few chapters before being lulled to sleep by the quiet mountain lifestyle.
Our bodies and minds woke in a rested state, a great start to what was sure to be a great weekend. A quick shower and change and we were out the door in search of dinner and a drink.
Dinner and Drinks
For our first night we knew we wanted something low-key, so we opted for beers and burgers at the Lumber Mill Bar & Grill. The beer selection was a little limited, but I was still able to find an IPA for me and a red ale for him.
Excited, we clinked our bottles in celebration of the weekend to come. The burger selection more than made up for the limited beer choices. With over 20 burgers to choose from, there is surely something for everyone on the Lumber Mill's menu.
I opted to go all out and chose the Bacon Lovers Burger, which features an all-beef patty stuffed with bacon bits and topped with more bacon! My excellent (but messy) burger perfectly complimented the crisp, well-seasoned fries.
Between the nap, the burger and the beer, I was completely chill. After another brew and some great conversation, we decided to head back to the cabin to spend some quality one-on-one time.
The next day would prove to be long, so we decided to turn in early. We woke to birds chirping and sunlight pouring in through the windows of our temporary abode.
Homemade breakfast is one of the perks of staying in a vacation rental equipped with a kitchenette. And making our breakfast not only saved us money, but it also saved some time. Within an hour after waking, we were out the door and on our way to Palm Springs.
From Idyllwild, you can make a couple of day trips to neighboring cities: Temecula and Palm Springs. On our first trip to Idyllwild, we decided to explore Temecula where we enjoyed local wines and winery tours.
Palm Springs, Baby
This time we chose to head to Palm Springs to scout out the city for possible future adventures. We'd been wanting to visit Palm Springs but simply hadn't gotten around to it. For years we'd heard that Palm Springs was one of the best places to see Mid-Century Modern architecture, something we both love.
We'd been wanting to visit Palm Springs but simply hadn't gotten around to it. For years we'd heard that Palm Springs was one of the best places to see Mid-Century Modern architecture, something we both truly love.
On the Road Again
The drive from Idyllwild to Palm Springs by way of CA State Route 74, also known as the Pines to Palms Highway, was nothing short of spectacular. This scenic route was by far the best part of our trip to Palm Springs.
Not only was the weather perfect to put the top down on The Professor's car, but the highway was also ideally suited for sports cars, with plenty of tight twists and turns. The landscape at times looked like something out of a movie.
The most breathtaking spot was the Coachella Valley Vista Point. It boasts unparalleled views of the Coachella Valley below.
Fun in the Desert Sun
We spent the day exploring Palm Springs, or Hollywood's Playground. Top-down, we spent hours driving past the former homes of stars like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and more.
Our lunch at The Sandwich Spot on N Palm Canyon Dr was simply fantastic, an experience I highly recommend for any sandwich lover. I'm still dreaming about that homemade bread!
When we finally got enough of the desert temperatures, we headed for refuge in the mountains, watching the temperature drop over 20 degrees as we got closer to Idyllwild.
A disappointing dinner
Back in Idyllwild, we spent the rest of the day relaxing and reading before dinner. We'd heard from our hosts that the Gastronome Restaurant was THE spot for dinner, so we decided to give it a try.
Nestled in what could almost be called a back alley, The Gastronome was full of patrons giving us the impression that our hosts had been right. The ambiance was perfect for date night, dimly lit quiet and cozy. Unfortunately, the popularity and praise we'd heard didn't quite match our experience.
While our meal was good, the general disorganization of the restaurant clouded our experience. It was clear the restaurant was understaffed as several servers had far too many tables. We watched our poor waiter tried the best he could to meet the demands of some very disapproving patrons.
Our hopes were buoyed when we witnessed the manager take him aside to reassure and encourage him after he was brutally reprimanded by a particularly nasty man who'd waited "too long" for his after-dinner drink. This gave us some hope that the restaurant isn't always so poorly staffed and maybe we happened to be there on an off night.
A Walk in the Woods
We started Saturday much the same as Friday, preparing a light breakfast and quickly readying ourselves for a long day of exploring. We'd heard that we needed to get an early start in order to get a parking spot at the trail-head of the popular Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail. The rumors turned out to be true. It was clear that this trail was a favorite of both locals and visitors.
After a nearly 2 hour hike we found ourselves back in the center of town and in need of vittles. We decided to check out the Red Kettle, another spot highly recommended by our hosts. The cozy diner was bustling even 30 minutes before closing, a good sign we thought. To our delight, the Red Kettle's home-style cooking was the perfect compliment to our hike.
After getting our fill at the Red Kettle, we decided to do some shopping before leaving town. Idyllwild is known for its artistic culture, and the shops and store-fronts are a great reflection of that culture. You can find local arts and crafts like handmade knits, pottery and mountain-inspired souvenirs at shops like Everitt's Minerals & Gallery, Idyllwild Knits and The Spruce Moose.
Several boutiques, like the Prairie Dove Boutique, feature comfortable, California-style clothing. But others specialize in the active wear essential for the outdoorsy lifestyle enthusiast.
Another fun attraction is Remember When, an old-school soda shop filled with retro toys and candies. You can literally find just about anything, from jerky stores, cigar shops, natural shoe stores and more. With my wallet lighter, we left town to explore more of what Idyllwild has to offer.
Our next stop was the Lake Fulmor Picnic Area, a quiet little lake located just a few miles outside of town on CA State Route 243. Thankfully our day pass was still valid, so we could park in the lot across from the lake without fear of ticketing. We watched Park Rangers ticket several patrons who'd failed to display a valid pass, so be sure to purchase your pass at the Visitor Center in town.
Saturday night we decided to return to a spot we'd been to before, Cafe Aroma. We'd been impressed by our first experience at Cafe Aroma, so we returned hopeful that we'd find good food, good wine, and good atmosphere.
Thankfully, we weren't disappointed in our decision. I devoured my perfectly roasted duck breast and acorn squash, while The Professor enjoyed his penne arrabbiata. After a few glasses of vino and relaxed conversation, we turned in for our last night in our mountain retreat.
We took our time getting up on Sunday, in no hurry to sit in traffic on the way back to Los Angeles. For our last morning in Idyllwild, we returned to the Red Kettle for breakfast, having salivated over the breakfast menu the day before. One perfect omelet later, we knew it was time.
With one last look at Idyllwild, we returned to collect our belongings and clean up after ourselves like house guests should. We put the top down and set off on CA State Route 243, twisting and turning our way back home to Los Angeles. Idyllwild looked even better over my shoulder, beckoning me to return again when I needed some fresh air and space to breath.
More Idyllwild Fun
Be sure to check out my Idyllwild series to find out more about our time in this beautiful mountain retreat. I highly recommend this nature lovers paradise for anyone in need of a little escape from Los Angeles!
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