Art meets nature in Idyllwild

Find mountain-town charm just two hours north of S.D.

Clockwise from top: view on the hike near Idyllwild; the town's historic Rustic Theatre; Restaurant Gastrognome patio.
  • Clockwise from top: view on the hike near Idyllwild; the town's historic Rustic Theatre; Restaurant Gastrognome patio.

Just two hours north of San Diego, nature and art commingle: Idyllwild is a quick mountain getaway for those of us in low-lying Southern California cities, but also a haven for artisans who want to be immersed in the mountain village vibe.

In this sleepy little town of cabins and camps there's a range of country-to-eclectic shops and restaurants. The Idyllwild Art Alliance hosts several events throughout the year and sponsors the Idyllwild Deer Sightings with creatively painted deer hidden throughout the village. I escape to Idyllwild a few times a year, either for an event like the Idyllwild International Cinema Fest in January, the summer Jazz in the Pines festival, or just to get in some hiking and solitude.

People here are warm and welcoming. The shops and galleries are fun to explore; it’s not uncommon to find fine art and rustic crafts side by side.

Idyllwild's main drag

My short list of not-to-be missed places to visit on the main drag, North Circle Drive: the Rustic Theatre to watch a current-release movie. The town's anchor, this place is rooted in Idyllwild history. Don't pass on the popcorn for only $1.

Get your nostalgic candy fix at the Candy Cupboard (Neccos, taffy, homemade chocolates and truffles); stop by Idyll Awhile Wine Shoppe Bistro for wine or craft beer. A unique, tiny shop is Mountain Mike's Custom Leather, where you might get to meet Mountain Mike. He'll hand-shape and decorate a Palma Blanca sombrero for you on the spot.

On the trail near Idyllwild.

On the trail near Idyllwild.

Nearby hiking trails

Recently in 100-degree weather, I was hiking the Deep Springs Trail and stopped to talk to a group of guys who were hiking back down after a three-day trek on the Pacific Crest Trail.

I asked what they wanted most when they got to their car, and was surprised it was a cool shower over the answer I expected: cold beer. It does get cold in the winter, but also hot in the summer, so be prepared before you go.

There are many great hikes in the area. Note that for 20 of the most popular trails, a National Forest Adventure Pass is required for parking at the trailhead and wilderness permits (free) are required for both the National Forest and State Park Wildernesses. Get these permits for free at the San Jacinto State Park headquarters on Highway 243 or Idyllwild Ranger Station, also on 243.

Gastrognome's namesake.

Gastrognome's namesake.

Where to eat

The Red Kettle serves up all-American breakfast and lunch plates, while Gastrognome does fine dining dinners in a wood-paneled – and gnome-decorated – steak house. Top-rated Café Aroma boasts unique dishes like Dog-zilla and Live Sprouted Almonds.

IDYology, a newly opened establishment, is popular for its mac and cheese, chili and mulled wine. This place reminds me of what a gypsy tavern must look like.

“IDYology is an evolving collaboration, restaurant, entertainment venue, and sweet gathering spot,” describes owner Windean Dahlean. Windean’s inspirations come from growing up in the mountains and traveling through Europe the past six years.

Where to stay: rooms, cottages and cabins

Cottages/rooms at the Fireside Inn are within walking distance to most shops and restaurants in the heart of the village. Larger cabins are just on the edge of town. Rates range from $100-200 a night. Creekstone Inn is a romantic inn at the edge of town, across the street from the IDYology restaurant. Rates from $100-200 a night.

Built in 1923, Silver Pines Lodge(where the Rustic Theater used to be located) has been an inn since 1952. This wooded 1½-acre property overlooks the Strawberry Creek and is in the center of town off a side street. Rates start at $80, on up to $230 for a cabin that sleeps 2-10 people.

Or if luxury's more your style, the Grand Idyllwild Lodge is a romantic bed-and-breakfast with a spa, sauna and gym. Rates are $255-300 a night, including gourmet breakfast.

Tips before you go

  • • Like any other mountain village, cell service is hit or miss, so don’t count on it.
  • • Same goes for internet. The Java Lounge coffee shop (next door to Idyll Awhile Wine Shoppe) advertises free WiFi.
  • • There are a few gas stations in town, and gas just up the hill in the small town of Pine Cove.
  • • Buy firewood when you get here; don't bring your own (they don’t allow it).

Idyllwild, CA

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The Pine Cove gas station is cheaper than most stations down below. I arrive empty and fill up there.

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