The Dubious Magic of Idyllwild

The Dubious Magic of Idyllwild
by Jim Crandall

The first time I heard the name, “Idyllwild,” was from my fiancé. And not in a good way. We were discussing plans for our future together. At the time, I was happily living two blocks from the beach in a coastal town about halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles. She was in school, finishing her Master’s Degree in psychology.

She said she had visited this magical place called Idyllwild with a friend from school, and had found it to be the most wonderful place in the world. When she said this, she got a faraway, starry look in her eyes. And then she said, “I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but someday I’m going to live there.” Now, when you’re discussing your future together, and someone brings up the prospect of living in another area of the world, an area you haven’t even been to, red flags fly. At least from my turrets.

So I began to try and figure out a way to keep my castle where it was, firmly planted in a sandy beach. After all, I’ve lived in a lot of beautiful places. I was raised in San Francisco, where sailboats bobbed on the bay. I lived at Lake Tahoe, which Mark Twain called, “The fairest picture the whole earth affords.” I lived in Virginia City, Nevada, the site of the largest silver and gold strike in the history of the world. So, by comparison, what magic could this Idyllwild have?

So, I asked….

    “What’s so special about Idyllwild?”
    “Oh, it’s just a beautiful place in the tall pines in the mountains.”
    “Is there a big lake?” I asked.
    “Is there a ski resort?”
    “Is there a historic gold mine?”
    “Is there a big red bridge?”
    “Sounds fascinating.”
    “We just have to go up there for a weekend. Then you’ll see.”

So I was put in charge of arranging the trip to “No” where. I dug out a map of southern California and located the tiny dot in the San Jacinto Mountains above Palm Springs. Idyllwild is 100 miles east of Los Angeles, 114 miles northeast of San Diego, and 47 miles west of Palm Springs via Hwy 74, the “Palms to Pines Highway.”

Further study revealed that the town has about 2,200 permanent residents and sits at 5,200 feet above sea level. Mountain peaks rise to 10,000 feet above and to the east, with San Jacinto Peak the highest. Tahquitz Peak is the second highest, and Tahquitz Rock, or Lily Rock, is a monolithic spur below Tahquitz Peak, that overlooks the town. It is a world famous challenge for serious climbers.

The Idyllwild area has been a resort destination since early in the 1900s, when nearby Mountain Center had a lodge and cabins for escapees. Idyllwild is landlocked by miles and miles of state, national, and county parks and forestland. This has kept the historic town small, which has regulated the growth of the little burg.

I went online to the Idyllwild Chamber of Commerce at and booked a room for the weekend at the Woodland Park Manor. I chose the WPM because the rates were middle of the road for Idyllwild, (under $100 per night) and I liked the slogan, “Cottages nestled in the pines.” It was March, so we figured it would be a bit chilly on the mountain, and that it might even snow, so we packed some heavy clothes. We set off east from the coast, turned north when we hit I-15, then the I-215, then took Hwy 74 east through Hemet.

Hemet is a big flat town, popular with retirees (most exits from parking lots carry the sign, “Right Turn Only” to discourage the senior citizens from making mad Cadillac dashes across lanes of oncoming traffic). There are two movie theaters, a Wal Mart, a Target, a Pennys, a Sears and a Gottschalks. All the fast and slow food chains are represented.

Once through Hemet, you begin to ascend the windy mountain road. Fortunately there are plenty of turnouts and passing lanes on the way up, so you can get out of the way as the locals scream by in their Jeeps and all-wheel-drive Subarus. About 15 miles up the road you come to the tiny town of Mountain Center, elevation 4,444, population 350 if you count the coyotes. If you stay on 74 east, you would wind up in Palm Desert. If you veer left at Mountain Center onto Hwy 243, you begin the last five miles of windy ascent into Idyllwild.

We rounded one final bend and coasted down a pine-lined straightaway into the Strawberry Valley and the beginnings of Idyllwild. My fiancé began to get that gleam in her eye, but I was too busy trying to navigate the confusing mountain roads to notice anything special about the place.

Besides, it was the end of the day, so I wanted to get us to the motel before nightfall. We finally located South Circle Drive and followed it for about two miles, past rustic cabins and ornate custom homes tucked away in the woods, and pulled into the WPM. Our cabin was one end of a duplex, clean and neat, with beautiful views of the forest. We settled in for the night.

The next morning we ventured down to the Idyllwild County Park, 200 acres of campsites, hiking trails, and a beautiful mountain meadow. We parked, got out of the car, and walked into the meadow. In the middle of the meadow, the view of the forest and the surrounding mountains was breathtaking. We wandered down to the foot of the meadow where a sign pointed to a trail that fell away slightly to the right.

We went that way. The trail went through some creek willows and brush down to a verdant stream. A flat log bridged the stream. As I set foot on the log and smelled the musky perfume of the mulchy streambed, I was flooded by forgotten childhood memories. Those times when I was a kid and things weren’t just good, they were magical and spectacular and summer would never end.

I was vaulted back to a small resort in the Santa Cruz Mountains. My family had a cabin there in the 1950s. There was a river where you could fish for creepy crawdads with string and a piece of bacon. There was a train trestle over the river where you could test your courage against a steaming locomotive. There were fat, juicy, wild blackberries that tasted like fruit from heaven when drowned in cream and sugar.

The memory was so strong that when I got to the other side of the little creek I had to sit down. I hadn’t remembered that stuff in such vivid detail and feeling for years. I could almost taste those blackberries. This may sound corny, but as I sat there, I could just hear childish laughter from the past, and it was my childhood laughter. I listened intently. The muses were just there, in the steam bed. No, over there, in the trees. Wait a minute, just behind me! Yes!

My fiancé looked at me as I swiveled about and said, “What the hell are you doing?”

“It’s just like you said! I’m having a mystical experience!” I said.

Okay. There. I said it. I discovered the whole magical thing about Idyllwild. I know, it’s embarrassing. But if and when you hear the music of the spheres like I did you’ll probably wind up humming a similar tune as well.

So, basically, that’s it. We continued to make weekend trips to Idyllwild and when we were married, we had our honeymoon there. After she graduated, she got a job in Palm Desert and we moved to Idyllwild. As luck would have it in a magical place, the local newspaper, the Idyllwild Town Crier, which boasts, “Almost all the news, part of the time,” was hiring, and I landed a job there. We bought a little fixer upper, found a little red dog, and settled in.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve had a lot of time to ponder the power of the magical quality of the place. I’ve noticed that it doesn’t affect everyone the same. For me, I was whisked away to the blissful times of my youth. For others, the magic seems to awaken a creative energy, as evidenced by the sheer numbers of artists on the Hill. Indeed, there are 14 galleries in the Art Alliance of Idyllwild, with a plethora of fine arts and crafts bulging from the walls, counters and floors of the many shops in downtown Idyllwild.

For others, there is a culinary epiphany. For its size, Idyllwild has a great selection of fine restaurants. The Gastrognome heads the list, where you don’t need magic to savor the filet mignon or lobster. Also in town are the Bread Basket, two Mexican Restaurants, Arriba’s and La Casita, German fare at the Mozart Haus, and Chinese cuisine at Hidden Village.

I’ve also noticed that not everyone who comes to Idyllwild feels the psychic undertow. A lot of couples come up here on weekend getaways. Oftimes I’ll see the magic spark in one of the couple’s eyes, while the other person just wanders around kind of stupefied.

So nowadays I tell my friends from other places that if they really want to go somewhere, go “No” where. Come to Idyllwild.

And take your chances.