After many years of patiently waiting, winter has finally decided to grace us with her presence in Southern California. The recent rainstorms have brought fresh snow throughout our local mountain ranges…just in time for everyone to go back to work. For those of you suffering from Mountain Fever and looking for a quick and easy weekend getaway, we’ve got just the thing for you. But here’s the catch: you have to promise to keep this between us, okay? Purposely kept extremely hush-hush within the mountaining crowd, Idyllwild is a quaint and charming artists’ colony located just two hours east of LA in the San Jacinto Mountains above Palm Springs. It’s such a hidden gem that we debated even writing about it. But since we are sworn to provide you with the inside scoop on all things off-the-beaten-path-awesome in California, our sense of duty won out in the end. So without further ado, may we present: Idyllwild, the place to make all your mountain dreams come true.
The first thing you should know is Idyllwild is a not a place for those looking to shred. If you want downhill skiing or snowboarding, head over to Big Bear. This little community is for people who literally just love mountains—camping in them, hiking them, rock climbing on them, cross-country skiing over them, or just sitting on them and enjoying their stunning views from a cozy woodsy cabin.
Adorable alpine cabins are aplenty on Airbnb, VRBO and Home Away at a fraction of the cost of Big Bear, Mammoth, or Yosemite. We stayed in a gorgeous multi-level Swiss Family Robinson-style wooden treehouse, appropriately named “The Treehouse” that we would recommend to anyone. The owners were sweet and beyond accommodating and clearly put a lot of thought and care into their lovely little property, right down to the elk mugs and endless supply of firewood. Here in Idyllwild, cabining is its own art form. A true place to just relax, unwind and reconnect to nature and the ones you love.
We recommend setting aside time for a quiet weekend with friends up here. Most houses have beautiful decks to inspire both introspection and good conversation. Make a no-TV rule and bring your board games, puzzles, playing cards, books, journals and anything else that strikes your fancy—after a good old-fashioned snowball fight, Siren Christina gave tarot readings in front of the fireplace to our group, using the beautiful new cards that Siren Sarah bought in town from one of the many spiritual shops. Stock up on food for your kitchen and cook up some delicious and hearty family-style meals together. We’ll be sharing a couple of our favorite recipes from our cabin adventures with you this week on the site, so keep an eye out for our Breakfast Baked Potatoes and Campfire Cider—two deeply soul-satisfying essentials for any winter cabin excursion.
A big perk about Idyllwild is that it’s a dog-friendly vacation spot, with plenty of stores in town catering just to your furry family members. Mountain Paws offers everything you could possibly need, from homemade doggie treats to plush robes. For our canine companion, Banksy, we purchased a beige and white squirrel shawl-collar sweater from Mountain Paws that became the hit of the entire weekend. Just try to resist the photos of this dashing winter gentleman lounging in front of the fire and romping around in the snow.
As you pull into town, the sign outside pretty much says it all: “Welcome to Idyllwild. Home of Adventure, Music, Art & Harmony.” A perfect summation of this small artists’ community that somehow feels both nostalgically frozen-in-time and subversively progressive all at once. The town center has no stop lights, but has a health food store to rival any you’ll find in LA and a plethora of spiritual shops filled with new age books, crystals and clothing. The resident artists show and sell their work in the many small art galleries, while local musicians can be heard playing live music almost every night of the week. But don’t mistake it for a hippie town. Hard-core mountain climbers fill the streets and shops, right alongside the veteran mountain cowboys who settled up here decades ago. And all of it coexists harmoniously under the faces of the towering mountainscapes that will outlast us all.
Park your car on either end of the tiny town center and hoof it on foot to take in all the many sights, sounds and tastes that Idyllwild has to tempt you with. We started our trek off with fresh-pressed organic juices from the local health food store, Sky Island Natural Foods—just what the doctor ordered to get our blood flowing up in those higher elevations. We stocked up on some beautiful southwestern-style wraps at Forest Whispers gift shop located in The Fort (the big dark wooden two-story structure in the center of town that looks like a fort). Jim here is a total delight to stop and have a chat with and can fill you in on Idyllwild’s history if you’re curious. Upstairs, the books at metaphysical shop Lady of the Lake offered us lots of food for thought before we made our way across the street to Merkaba for some gourmet tea, mukluk and tarot card provisions. Ice cream shops, candy stores, homemade jerky, gift shops, antiques—all the quintessential small-town necessities you could possibly hope for abound side-by-side as you walk along the quaint little main street.
In one particular cluster that resembles a little wood-shingled Santa’s Village, yumminess waits around every corner. Coffee, tea and baked treats can be found at the street-front Idyllwild Bake Shop & Brew. But the real gem is hidden way in the back, if you wind your way past all the shops and up the little staircase to El Buen Cacao, an artisanal “bean-to-bar” chocolate shop. Specializing in non-GMO organic dark chocolate, the sweet husband and wife duo make all their own chocolates in-house—taking it from cacao bean to that ultimate rich chocolate bar in your mouth. We ordered some Mexican hot chocolate that was creamy, smooth, smoky and delicious—the perfect not-too-sweet combo that almost tasted like a cacao coffee brew, sans coffee. It got “all thumbs up” from our taste testers.
But our favorite shop by far has to be Mountain Mike’s. A tiny wooden shack tucked away in a little corner off the main strip, Mountain Mike’s Custom Leather feels like stepping into Geppetto’s workshop—if Geppetto was a bad-ass mountain man who made leather chaps, vests, belts and holsters for almost four decades. A true artisan, Mountain Mike still makes everything in his shop by hand, specializing in beautiful custom-made leather moccasins, each a stunning work of art in their own right. We spent some time chatting with Mike in his shop and he is a fascinating fellow with one hell of a life story. We won’t give away all his secrets, but do yourself a favor and stop in sometime for a visit with a true original who made his own path in life his own way. And while you’re there, be sure to pick up some of his beautiful handcrafts for one-of-a-kind treasures you won’t find anywhere else.
No trip to Idyllwild would be complete without the obligatory photo at the giant wooden wilderness carving in the town center. Take advantage of this photo op with wolves and eagles and bears, oh my! You can grab a bite at one of the many cute mom & pop restaurants (thankfully not a chain in sight here) if you wanna skip out on cooking for the day. On your way back out, stop by Quilt Town on the side of the road for beautiful hand-made quilts that are all Etsy-ready and very affordable. If you’re up for a hike, the Idyllwild Nature Center has endless trails available. Park entrance fee is $4. Whatever you do, just get yourself up to Idyllwild and turn all of your mountain dreams into a reality already! Just remember to keep it our little secret.
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>>For your journey, enjoy some of our favorite mountain music.<<
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