Take Your Time In Idyllwild and Get To Know This Special Place. (9 minute read.)
A firetruck siren jolts us out of our Sunday morning chill session at the coffee shop and everyone freezes in their tracks., We all cautiously turn our heads towards the alarm and stare in anticipation. The folks here have every reason to be jittery after living through the Cranston Fire just one year ago. In fact, July 25th was the anniversary of the fire, and at this moment you can hear a pin drop. The fire was started by an arsonist and had they not caught him when they did, Idyllwild would have been engulfed in flames. As it was, the first responders set a control line to save this community and except for losing a dozen structures (six of them homes), they accomplished their mission and protected this charming town and it’s residents. As you drive through the new growth on the way here from Palm Desert its an eerie reminder of how how fortunate this community was.
After a few moments, the musician at the corner table starts strumming his guitar again and the coffee chatter resumes. The town is waking up now and I’m seeing folks starting to wander the streets to check out the local shops. This community is focused around the arts and you aren’t able walk a few steps without seeing a reflection of that. Pottery, paintings, sculptures, music, wine tastings, artisan chocolate, ice-cream, wool hats, hand crafted jewelry, clothing, stones and crystals. Idyllwild has something to offer everyone. My observation was that nothing was overpriced and everything seemed high quality. There’s even a small farmer’s market on Sunday mornings with local crafts and fresh vegetables.
There is ample parking in town and many places are dog friendly.
I played tourist the first day I arrived here and tooled around this little nook in the wilderness to get a lay of the land. I have two weeks to enjoy and explore and wanted to settle in and relax. Local coffee shops are one of my anchors while traveling as I can usually pick up on what’s happening locally from the barista, the flyers on the community bulletin board, or the guy sitting next to me who’s had one too many lattes. I learned of the road closure on the 243, just a few miles north of town due the collapse of several lanes from catastrophic rains, found out the town mayor is actually a sweet golden retriever named Maximus, and they also have a local billionaire that lives here.
As a Health Coach with Celiac Disease, I also need to investigate the restaurants available and make a list of prospects so I can go back to my teardrop and google the menus. Idyllwild is full of gastronomical delights and everything is within walking distance of the town center. I found the options in this town plentiful and downright delicious. Many catered to food allergies and there is even a plant-based restaurant to check out.
See my recommendations below.
I was pretty disappointed that the only two yoga studios in town were closed the days that I went. No website updates or facebook notice reflecting the closed dates, just a note on the door when I arrived. (I guess I better get used to that in small communities.) Since I couldn’t do yoga, I went for a hike. Idyllwild is a hikers paradise. Right at the north edge of town you’ll find the San Jacinto State Park Headquarters and the US Forest Service Ranger Station. You are also inside the San Bernardino National Forest. There are miles upon miles of trails to explore including Suicide Rock and Devil’s Slide. Make sure you check in with the ranger ahead of time if you’re going to go for a hike, especially if you’re solo. The PCT also crosses just north of here which makes Idyllwild a great stop-off place for a well-needed break.
I spent a day hiking at the Idyllwild Nature Center which is just a minute up the 243. There’s about 4.5 miles of well-marked trails, a picnic area, bathrooms, and a nature store. Great place to take the kiddos. Hopefully Al will be there when you arrive so he can explain to you why you can be directionally challenged when you hike here, like I was. I mentioned after my hike that I needed to buy a compass because I couldn’t figure out which way was north and therefore couldn’t really understand the trail map. He explained to me it’s common and many folks have the same problem. Turns out it’s because the mountain range goes east/west and not north/south (which all other ranges apparently do?) and so our brains get all discombobulated.
Make sure you hike up to the the Viewpoint and see the town nestled in the woods below. The views are amazing here. $4 entrance fee and the park closes at 4PM.
After my hike I walked up to the Middle Ridge Winery Tasting Gallery and had a wine tasting. Chris, the winemaker, couldn’t have been nicer and we sat and chatted about the fire last year, the evacuation, and of course his award-winning wines. His philosophy is to have a conversation with everyone who comes in contact with the winery, and after chatting with him for some time—and watching him interact with others—it is indeed true. One of the nicest guys you could ever have the pleasure of meeting. Middle Ridge (located in Temecula) is an urban winery— which means they don’t grow their own grapes but rather attains them from other grape-growers; sourcing from several vineyards in the Temecula valley just a short drive down the mountain.
For my wine tasting I had settled on the NV Grenache. That was, until I tried the 2014 Malbec. I’m just a novice but I am impressed. But I found myself returning several more times for the Devil’s Slide (named after the trail.) If you like bold wines, than for God’s sake, don’t leave without a bottle. 36 months in oak barrels and totally worth the wait. Chris also said a glass would help me take the curves back up the mountain to my campground a bit easier.
As it turns out, he would be correct about that.
In the center of the space at Middle Ridge there’s a 10 foot wooden hightop table which seems to be the perfect gathering place for those of us looking for some social interaction. I struck up a conversation with the couple next to me and when I asked them why they chose to come to Idyllwild, they answered by saying it—and the folks who live here—checked all the boxes; smart, kind and nice. I would have to agree. Middle Ridge Winery is also an art gallery showcasing local talent curated by the winemakers sister, Tamara. They have live music several nights per week and if you are a fan of James Taylor like I am, you are in for a special treat if Taylor Made Tapestry happens to be playing. If you close your eyes you’d swear JT was in the house. Check out the music and art schedule online or just pop in and enjoy this casual and friendly place. You will leave with some great memories, and, I’m certain, many new friends.
On my last Friday in town, I had the pleasure of meeting two inspirational women who had taken the Palm Springs Aerial Tram up the mountain, hiked to Mount San Jacinto peak and then back down—past the tram to Devil’s Slide—and on to Idyllwild. They were spending the weekend here and I just happened to meet them one evening when I was invited by Gary—the town ambassador as I like to call him—to Idyology to listen to some music. Gary has had quite a colorful career and is an all around interesting guy. If you want to know anything about the folks here, the town itself, or it’s history, Gary is your guy. I first saw him at Higher Grounds Coffee Shop on Sunday morning with a group of friends talking—not of politics and disasters—but of movies, actors, music and art. Typical Idyllwild coffeehouse chatter. And then I ran into him again a few days later at Idyll Awhile Bistro and Wine Bar, which is just a few steps away (and also a place where you have to have a cool and unusual name to be able to bartend there.) I listened to his interesting stories, he introduced me to a few locals, including Ruby of Bad Moon Glamping, and then mentioned the live music up at Idyology later that night. I decided to walk up and join him and was glad I went. Not only was the music and venue fantastic (they have an alluring bed right in front of the fireplace), but it led to the meeting of my two new girlfriends. We hit it off immediately and chatted the night away finding we had so much in common. This is how it works here.
It’s impossible to spend time in Idyllwild and not make new friends.
Since I work remotely, I spent several mornings at The Idyllwild Bake Shop and Brew where it seems a lot off the locals hang out. The front of the business is the coffee and bake shop in the morning but the intimate space in the back of the shop—appropriately named The Backroom—collects the locals again in the evening with live music and some of the best food in Idyllwild. On Saturday night I met my new hiking friends at Middle Ridge and bonded over conversations of tragedies and triumphs and then walked to The Backroom for some dinner and music. Gary and a few of the locals I had met the night before showed up and we had some great conversations and laughs. (I’ve concluded that if you haven’t met Gary at your stay in Idyllwild, then you haven’t really been to Idyllwild.) At The Backroom, order the bacon wrapped scallops with spinach mashed potatoes and you may notice after the first bite that you just died and went to heaven.
The next morning I drove my new friends up to the trail head for their hike back up to the tram. We hugged and said goodbye, of course planning to meet again in the near future. I was lucky to meet several other amazing women during my stay and feel I have made some new and lifelong friends.
Come to Idyllwild. They’d love to have you. Feel the mountains under your feet. Hear the music and laughter from the local pubs as you walk the streets at dusk. Slow down, shift your gears, let serindipity take the lead and learn to Idyll Awhile.
- Mile High Cafe: About 6 blocks before town (arriving from the south) you’ll find this gem. Asian/American fusion, they serve up Udon, Bibimbap, and Beef Bulgogi along with good ol’ soups and sandwiches. I also liked that they use natural and grass fed beef. I went for breakfast and had the most amazing eggs Benedict; three perfectly poached eggs—the kind where you cut into them they are still silky-smooth yet hold their shape—sautéed spinach, thick sliced ham and homemade hollandaise sauce, all beautifully arranged like a trillium flower. A large portion and definitely satiating (sub spinach for the English muffin to make gluten free).. The appetizer special for the day was Tempura Avocado with jalapeño aioli. Yum.
I sat at the bar, which faced the open kitchen, and watched the food being cooked and plated. Everything that passed by me was gorgeously styled with intention; a large deep bowl of mouth watering Bibimbap, a generous mimosa. Not something you see often in a small cafe. Delicious food starts with our eyes first and this place seems to get that. I hummed along to their 70’s soft pop music selection, watching the young busboy dance in the kitchen to ABBA, and enjoyed my meal.
Sit at the bar if you’re eating solo. Outside seating as well.
- Plant Food Supper Club: Idyllwild’s first vegan cafe. Right in the center of town (Ridgeview Drive), serving up casual gourmet plant-based fare, fresh juices and smoothies, craft beer, organic wines, and live music. A pleasant and calming interior and friendly staff. There’s a large outdoor outdoor seating area which was built around three large pine trees that keep the space mostly shaded. Otherwise there are several umbrellas for the warm sunny days and also a few tables with propane heaters for the cool mountain nights. If you sit outside and face north you will have a beautiful view of the mountains and Lily Rock.
Their menu serves up items such as Buckwheat Banana Pancakes, Black Bean & Brown Rice Burrito, Tomato Basil Portobello Burger, Vegan Crab Cakes (made with Jackfruit!), and Sweet Potato Enchiladas Verde. I noshed on the Mediterranean Salad; quinoa tabbouleh, seasoned chickpeas, artichoke hearts, sun dried tomatoes, olives, red bell pepper & basil cashew cream “cheeze” over fresh greens and served with a side of freshly made hummus & balsamic vinaigrette dressing. Many items are gluten free as well. Honestly delicious and of course you don’t have to be vegan to eat here.
I was there around 2:00 on a Friday and it was pretty quiet having missed the lunch rush. A mellow vibe. Even my server was calm and soft-spoken, as if she had just finished up on a post-lunch meditation session. If your looking for a zen place with some healthy options, Plant Food Supper Club is your place. Also note that Om Sweet Aum Yoga is directly across the street. Live music on the weekends.
- Idyllwild Brewpub: A short walk (or drive) up Village Center Drive will bring you to a parking lot with a small strip mall on one side and another building adjacent.The Brewpub is below. Walk to the side/back of the strip mall and there are stairs that will bring you down to the pub. When you turn the corner the first thing you will notice is the enormous and beautifully designed deck overlooking the woods and small creek. Large doors separating the bar from the deck open wide to allow the inside to have an outside feel. Enjoy the view of the mountains while you nosh and sip and don’t forget to bring along Fido. Because of the name, I thought they were just a craft beer joint but they also offer cocktails and wine so don’t let the name Brewpub fool you. I didn’t eat here because it wasn’t Celiac-friendly, but the menu looked like your standard pub fare; burgers, nachos and such. Live music on the weekends and great atmosphere. If you drive, parking for the Brewpub is one driveway past (and below) and the signage is well-placed. If you continue down past the parking lot you will end up at the outdoor amphitheater where there are free live concerts every Thursday night. Bring a chair, a beverage and your dancing shoes and listen to some great local bands singing songs with titles such as, “I don’t care what shitty kind of day you had, don’t cut your bangs.”
- Palm Springs Aerial Tram: This is a must see if coming to the area. Leaving out of Palm Springs, the Aerial Tram is the worlds largest rotating tram car and travels 2 1/2 miles along the cliffs of the canyon, up to Mt. San Jacinto State Park. It’s an exhilarating journey up to the top and once you’re there there’s plenty to do and see. I went on a Friday from 2-6 and it wasn’t overly crowded. If you want to hike while you’re there, bring a small daypack and water bottle. I hiked the Desert View Trail which is a 1.5 mile loop trail that leads to a number of scenic overlooks and forest views. (Short climbs, moderately strenuous.) The trek down to the trail was around a 10% grade so just remember—what goes down must come up. I noticed more than a handful of disgruntled and obviously tired kiddos dragging their bodies up the steep walkway—and plenty of parents doing their best to coach them on.
If you take Desert View Trail make sure you stop at Notch #4 and yodel a spell. I happened to be sitting there enjoying the view when a group of young adults arrived with their leader. He brought them down (about 4 feet) to a flat area that jets out a bit from the rocks to find this perfect yodeling spot he knew of. Each one took a turn at hollering and we all laughed when the echo came back. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, I joined in and yelled my name from the mountaintops.
The tram is $26.95 and it’s $8.00 to park. The experience is well worth the price. The view is incredible as you ascend the mountain and once you’re on top you can dine, shop, drink and hike to your hearts content. My two new friends (mentioned above), took the tram up on Friday and back down on Sunday so if you’d like to do some overnight camping you have that opportunity as well.
The tram ascents up the side of the mountain to 8500 feet. Idyllwild is at 6500 feet so not far away. Because of the 243 road closure, I drove 90 minutes down the mountain, to take a 10.38 minute tram back up the mountain, then back down again… to drive my truck back up. Crazy, I know, but worth the trip. When the road is fixed (rumor has it fall 2019) there is a much quicker route to Palm Springs.
Before you go to Idyllwild, sign up for the Idyllwild Town Crier (emailed weekly) and learn about what’s happening around town before you go. Also pick up an Idyllwild Directory & Guide —located just about everywhere— which has just all the information you’ll need to make your time here special.