I came to Idyllwild knowing very little about it. The promise of cooler temps in a mountain village setting only a two and half hour drive from Los Angeles was enough to tempt me. What we discovered there was a town brimming with creative life, good food and affordable (and charming) lodgings.
Idyllwild is approximately 120 miles southeast of Los Angeles, but shy of Palm Springs. As you wind upward, you leave the desert brush and find yourself among the towering pine trees. With an elevation of nearly 5,500 feet, its position in the San Jacinto Mountains gives visitors a sense of being far from the bustling SoCal cities they have left behind, even though the distance is a pretty easy drive. Though Highway 243 is in good condition, heavy fogs can roll in quickly, and there are sharp curves that can make winter driving challenging.
While we knew little about the town, we did do a bit of web research on the inns within the town. I was looking for something that would allow us to walk into town not only for meals, but for exploration. I also wanted to avoid big chain hotels on this trip – little did I know when I started that there are no chain hotels in the area. In fact, the town is dotted with delightful inns, lodges, cabins and cottages. Some are very upscale and modern, while others trade on comfort and a more rustic feel. We landed on the Idyllwild Inn.
The Idyllwild Inn has a combination of theme rooms and cabins that are scattered over their five-acre property. For this first trip, we went with one of the Inn’s theme rooms: Camp. Cozy, clean and inviting, the Camp room has a gorgeous stone, wood-burning fireplace that easily takes the chill out of an encroaching winter night. The first night’s firewood is free. Additional wood is $7 per bundle. The mantles boast deeply detailed carvings that are specific to each room. Also, unlike some of the cabins, the theme rooms have forced heat, so you really can control exactly how much “roughing it” you want to do when the temperatures dip below 40. The other advantage of the theme rooms is strong Wi-Fi given their proximity to the main office building.
The Idyllwild Inn is right in town, and we were concerned that this would make the theme rooms noisy (as compared to the more out of the way cabins on the property). In fact, they were very quiet, and being able to just pop over to restaurants and shops was a blessing. We were even quite close to the local wine bar – alas, it was closed for a special event the night we were there. Mid-week prices can get you a room that is well-suited for two for under $100, including tax.
I’ve learned that the locals will give you the scoop on restaurants that tourist ratings on websites don’t always capture. It was no different in Idyllwild. Our hosts at the Idyllwild Inn gave us a number of different food options depending on our mood – and they did not lead us astray.
Just a quick hop out the front of the Inn is Restaurant Gastrognome. Known locally as “the Gnome” this wonderful restaurant not only has terrific food, but the atmosphere somehow lends itself not only to family gatherings, but also romantic dinners. The intimate feel of the place may be due to the huge, main room fireplace, the dark wood interior or the inspiring view of Tahquitz Peak. We splurged a bit here. Between the two of us, we had the rack of lamb, a pork chop, rosemary garlic potatoes, chocolate mousse for dessert and a glass of wine a piece. I’d happily go back for more right now!
The staff was terrific. They answered our questions about the town, and let us enjoy a leisurely meal without pressure to vacate the table. An important thing to note – the kitchen, like Idyllwild, closes early. Don’t expect to make a reservation for a 9:00pm seating. In fact, we decided on an early dinner, and it was quite busy even at 5:15pm. I’m not sure if that’s a reflection of the town, or the fact that people have been out all day and are hungry and ready to get out of the cold early, but it’s something to keep in mind when planning your trip.
For breakfast, we headed over to the Red Kettle. Currently, it’s open for coffee at 6:30am and food at 7:00am, making it one of the earlier spots (though during the season, it may actually be even earlier). Again, it was an easy walk from the Inn, although we stopped to take photos of the town monument and to marvel at how heavy the rising fog seemed to be. Food was home-style and plentiful. Judging by the early crowd, it’s also a local favorite.
The town has everything from locally-made garments and crafts to jewelry. We stumbled across a number of pet boutiques and there are plenty of opportunities to pick up winter-wear if you accidentally thought that because you left 85 degree weather in Los Angeles, it would be only slightly cooler up the mountain (it was a high of 55 and a low of 40 when we were there, and it’s headed lower).
Idyllwild is a picturesque small town nestled in the mountains. Hikers, cyclists, rock climbers and those hoping to get out of city life for a while gravitate toward it. It’s off-season now, so it was fairly quiet, but it’s a much-visited spot for SoCal residents trying to escape the heat of June/July/August. And according to our hosts at the Inn, it’s also a Halloween “must.” But no matter what time of year it is, if you are looking for a scenic escape that won’t break your credit card, give Idyllwild a try.
(This article was originally posted on Examiner.com. Due to that site’s closure, it has been republished here).