Idyllwild: Art and Nature in Perfect Harmony

Idyllwild Feature

“The mountains are calling and I must go” quoted John Muir, renowned American naturalist. And very fortunate are those who harken the tranquil call of Idyllwild.

Set among tall fragment pines and sweet smelling cedars of the San Jacinto Mountains in Southern California, the idyllic mountain village so aptly named Idyllwild beckons all who want to escape the hustle and bustle of busy life. Voted one of the “100 Best Art Towns in America”, this charming, picturesque mountain hamlet has maintained its small town, rustic atmosphere in a very distinctive way. And because it’s off most people’s travel grid, a visit to Idyllwild is soothing respite from the chaos of modern living.

San Jacinto Mountain Views
San Jacinto Mountain Views

Stunning views, towering trees, gentle rolling alpine meadows all painted with the colors of nature make this two hour journey from LA or San Diego, or one hour trek from Palm Springs, a perfect weekend destination. Upon entering the downtown, we quickly noticed Idyllwild has no stoplights, fast food restaurants, chain merchants or franchises- a throwback to simpler times.

But, Idyllwild offers far more than just quaintness. This is no sleepy hollow, for this mountain village has a rich vibe of its own. Artistic creativity abounds here in all forms- original artwork, crafts, music and even theater. Idyllwild is home to a host of talented artists, musicians and actors, all desiring the peace and anonymity of small town life. And according to the manager at whimsical Café Aroma, it’s not unusual for some of its more famous local musicians to pop in and strum a few bars for locals.

One of Idyllwild's Art Galleries
One of Idyllwild’s Art Galleries

Part of this spectacular area’s charm is that Idyllwild really does live up to its name, whether you escape there to be “idle”-relax, refresh and rejuvenate, or explore its “wild” side -hike, rock climb, or mountain bike in the surrounding hills and peaks.

Located at the “top of the town” at an elevation of 5,600 feet, The Grand Idyllwild Lodge is a spectacular, yet relaxing Zen-like boutique mountain bed and breakfast. Painstakingly designed and built by its owners, Brad & Jacki Rechtfertig, the stunning mountain masterpiece captures the perfect blend of luxury and nature in true Craftsman style.

Interior of Grand Idyllwild Lodge
Interior of Grand Idyllwild Lodge

Strategically constructed on two acres of wooded land, Grand Idyllwild Lodge features panoramic views of the pristine, idyllic, pine covered San Jacinto Mountains. Deer can often be seen, grazing contentedly on the hillsides of the property. Lively bushy-tailed squirrels scamper about the grounds.

Exterior of Grand Idyllwild Lodge
Exterior of Grand Idyllwild Lodge

One of our first stops was a visit to the Idyllwild Historical Society, appropriately housed in a vintage mountain log cabin. Dedicated to preserving and sharing the rich heritage of the San Jacinto Mountains, the Historical Society chronicles the establishment of the San Jacinto Forest Reserve. Prior to leaving office, President Grover Cleveland signed legislation creating this national treasure, forever preserving the stunning natural beauty of the surrounding mountains, and thus securing Idyllwild’s future. The museum’s displays also feature the early history of logging, mining and cattle ranching, presenting a fascinating view of the area’s diversity.

Successful Hollywood producer Cecil B. DeMille discovered Idyllwild in 1914. Elvis Presley, Dean Martin, Walter Matthau and Darryl Hannah all starred in movies here. As a result, Idyllwild has remained a retreat for many Hollywood personalities. Village life still gets rearranged periodically by the activity of film crews. But, it doesn’t take long for the town to revert to its “back to normal” unassuming self.

The rustic, artsy walkable village of Idyllwild is host to numerous art galleries and shops featuring the work of its talented local artisans. Art walks, wine tastings, and live music events sponsored several times a year by the Art Alliance of Idyllwild, bring thousands to this quaint hamlet for a weekend of true-blue artistic immersion.

Per Shanna Robb, the exuberant President of the Art Alliance, a fascinating permanent art exhibition was launched in 2013 known as the Painted Deer Project. This creative undertaking features recyclable aluminum deer placed in ten strategic outdoor locations throughout the town. Designed to expand Idyllwild’s growing reputation as an art community, twenty four local artists, given free creative reign, captured the history, wildlife, nature and beauty of the lakes and mountains of Idyllwild on the deer themselves.

Painted Deer Project
Painted Deer Project

Proudly touted as having the cleanest forests in America, the surrounding San Bernardino National Forest boasts hundreds of miles of hiking and mountain biking trails leading to the meadows and peaks that tower above the village. The pristine waters of Lake Fulmor and Lake Hemet are a mere twenty minute drive from town, perfect for fishing enthusiasts. As a camping destination, the area has been popular with outdoor enthusiasts for ages. One elderly gentleman visiting the town proclaimed “I’ve been coming to Idyllwild since I was a kid. We used to come here every year for summer camp. Those were some fun days”. And the fun continues, as the Idyllwild area still attracts hundreds of kids coming for the experience of a summer sleepaway.

Beauty of Lake Fulmor
Beauty of Lake Fulmor

For more challenging adventures, rock climbing is an immensely popular activity. The sport took hold here in these mountains, and today climbers can be seen scaling up and down the statuesque granite rock surfaces of legendary Tahquitz and Suicide Rocks.

Café Aroma calls itself a “mountain eatery with a touch of soul”. This artsy, hip and funky bistro is warmly decorated with artwork from students attending the famous Idyllwild School of the Arts and other local artists. Freshly prepared menu selections support the local farming community with such inventive and inspiring dishes, that it’s difficult to make an entrée choice. My lunch, a Blue Pine Salad, served with fresh greens, bleu cheese, pine nuts, tomatoes, onion and their own aromatic garlic infused olive oil was delectable. Of course, we had to return on another day for dinner, where live music, performed by some “Kool Kat” jazz musicians is one of the café’s cornerstones.

Cafe Aroma
Cafe Aroma

Idyllwild’s newest culinary adventure, Ferro, a blending of old Italy and more modern creative dishes has become such a hit in Idyllwild; reservations have to be made well in advance. Ferro is raising the bar on the foodie scene. Frank Ferro’s restaurant features an outdoor patio with a wood-burning pizza oven. Inspired by his Italian upbringing surrounded by “the family” as he calls it, the rustic, authentic, and tasteful Italian cuisine tantalizes the palate with every bite.

The Linguini con Vongole e Cozze with clams, mussels and white wine sauce transported me back to the years we lived in southern Italy. My husband’s entrée, Branzino con Limone, a pan-roasted bone-in sea bass prepared with fresh herbs, lemon and vegetables practically melted in his mouth. Ferro’s plans for 2016 include the addition of a micro-brewery.

Though this was our maiden voyage to this idyllic town, we asked ourselves countless times “why haven’t we done this sooner”? No doubt, we’ll be back- but it will be sooner than later.


Noreen L. Kompanik is a registered nurse and freelance writer and photographer based in San Diego, California. Fortunate to have lived overseas as a Naval Officer’s wife, she has traveled extensively and her many Italian and other European adventures have sparked her passion for cooking and wine tasting. A member of the International Travel Writers and Photographers Association, Noreen is a frequent contributor to several online and print publications. She shares her latest adventures, photos, and published stories on more

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