Memories of Idyllwild

Steller's Jay - Cyanocitta stelleriWhether your interests are hiking, exploring, shopping for art, camping, mountaineering, relaxing, summer jazz, or just escaping from the hustle of the southern California cities below, the mile-high region around Idyllwild has many attractions. My explorations of this area usually go beyond the town limits. I think of the town as a starting point for the region. I associate Pine Cove, Fulmor Lake and west to Vista Grande as “Idyllwild”.

If you stay in town, the presence of local birds and squirrels will be inescapable. Town birds include robins, Steller’s Jays, flickers, nuthatches (especially White-Breasted and Pygmy), Acorn Woodpeckers, ravens, raptors, Band-Tailed Pigeons, warblers, sparrows, finches, towhees and others. Idyllwild has plenty of cabins for rent and bed-and-breakfast hosting, but if camping is your preference, there are options for this as well, including a nice site in town next to the shops and restaurants in the main village.

The Idyllwild Nature Center is only a half mile away as the crow flies, and 1.2 miles by car. It is a great place to meet the birds of the pine-chaparral mixed habitat found here, as they come to the seeds and water provided for them.

Fern Valley Road leads up-slope from town following Strawberry Creek, the town’s primary water source. There are several trailheads at the upper end of the drive, but parking is limited. The Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail Parking lot is 2.5 miles by car from the town center and good place to launch an adventure.

Route 243 is the called the Banning-Idyllwild Panoramic Highway. It traverses the mountain as it passes through town and connects the lowlands of Hemet, southwest of the mountain, to Banning, at the foot of the mountain’s north face, which is directly over the San Andreas Fault. Along this road 10 miles from Idyllwild by car is Fulmor Lake, where you can find options for fishing, picnicking, hiking and birding. 

A little further up the road is the area called Vista Grande. It is 13.3 miles from town center by road, and 9 miles northwest as the crow flies. Here on the chaparral covered ridgeline, the bird community differs from that which occupies the large pines around town. The jays you will meet here will likely be scrub-jays, not Steller’s. Instead of nuthatches there are wrens, titmice and Bushtits. There is a wildness and serenity here that I miss when I’m in town. 

There are spectacular vistas to the south towards Hemet and beyond. To the north, looking down the steep north face of the mountain into the Coachella Valley below, the San Andreas has split the mountain ranges, separating the Transverse Ranges to the north from the Peninsular Ranges on which you stand. Gaze across the valley below and you will see San Gorgonio Mountain, or Old Greyback. At 11,503 feet it is the highest peak in Southern California. Nearby San Jacinto peak, is 10,834 feet and the tallest point in the Peninsular Ranges. The elevation of the Coachella Valley below is about 2000 feet, but descends eastward, reaching hundreds of feet below sea level at the Salton Sea. The ridges at Vista Grande are about 5000 feet. Just 21 miles separate the two ~11,000 foot giants, with the deep valley separating them. When I witness these views, I cannot help but marvel at the tectonic forces that forged these features.

Western Bluebird - Sialia mexicana
Fulmor Lake area. Images from the SDNHM study of the Santa Rosa, San Jacinto Mountains. Riverside County, California.

I was already an aficionado of the attractions provided by this region in 2010. However my understanding and appreciation was elevated when I joined San Diego Natural History Museum’s team on a project to restudy the biology of the area. A hundred years earlier Joseph Grinnell, Harry Swarth and friends spent several years documenting the regional biology here. Working with copious notes left by these early scientists, the SDNHM team found all the sites that were used a century earlier, and retraced their steps, bringing up to date the current state of the ecosystems. I wasn’t able to participate on every site survey, nor all of the re-visits, but I learned much about the land during my time with the science team. The restudy lasted several years, with many sites scattered over miles of mountains, hills, valleys and desert. These sites included camps on Santa Rosa Mountain, San Jacinto Mountain and the surrounding areas.

This region has much to offer nature loving folks like me. The gallery below should provide a hint of what you might expect to encounter if visit here.

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