California is filled with landscapes that feel almost mystical. These logic-defying environments stir the imagination and emit a vibe that can be felt nowhere else. One of these unlikely locales is Idyllwild, the sleepy mountain town just 100 miles east of Los Angeles.
Even into the warmer months, when Palm Springs and Joshua Tree attract modernist maniacs and psychedelic sun-seekers, the peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains still sport a cap of snow. Many have ventured from the desert to these mountains via Palm Springs' Aerial Skyway, embarking from modernist architect Albert Frey's tram stop in the arid Sonoran expanses, then traveling 4,000 feet in a quick 12 minutes to the pine tree–topped forest.
But for weekend warriors who are looking for more than an afternoon in the clouds, an excursion farther into the wild yields even greater rewards, and perhaps an encounter with something more mysterious.
Positioned in the shadow of the towering 8,846-foot-tall Tahquitz Peak — named for an evil demon who, according to Cahuilla legend, resides in a glass cave in the mountain, stealing local residents and emprisoning them inside the rock — the town of Idyllwild is a laid-back antidote to the high-octane ski and resort towns of Big Bear or Mammoth. With no lakes or slopes, Idyllwild is a town of small cabins, a handful of cozy bars — like the craft brew–slinging Idyology, or the Lumber Mill Bar & Grill, where cowboy hat–wearing veterans can be found singing along to Garth Brooks songs — and winding hiking trails that follow cool creeks and reveal secluded picnic spots.
In the winter, intrepid hikers can crunch through snowy trails, which are well worth the journey as each vista unveils ethereal mist and low-flying fog brushing the treetops. Those interested in warmth during the winter can hide out in El Buen Cacao, the small bean-to-bar sweet shop that serves hot chocolate in the Mexican style originated by the Mayans.
In the summer, the few blocks of downtown Idyllwild bustle with vacationers stopping by the local art galleries, a new age/fantasy bookstore — Lady of the Lake — or the rustic shop of custom leather outfitter Mountain Mike, who can fashion anything from a belt to saddlebags for your Harley.
Idyllwild is the kind of place that elected a dog for mayor, Max II, a hound who shows up for petting sessions in the town square. For most, it's a place to enjoy some quiet time away from the city — somewhere to hole up and write a screenplay or drink beers around a campfire — but for a select few, there's another draw to this mountain town: the Idyll-Beast.
Your first glimpse of this creature may occur on the sharp curves of State Route 243, your headlights piercing the darkness, occasionally flashing on yellow road signs featuring a strange form. It's a human, only hairier. A lot hairier. This is the Idyll-Beast, the Bigfoot of Idyllwild, who has been photographed in the wild, skulking between the pines, like Chewbacca with a hangover.
The Idyll-Beast Research Center, located inside Bubba's Books — which owner Steve Moulton lovingly calls a "junk shop" — catalogs images of the Beast in the wild and sometimes at a local party or two, holding a gin and tonic in his furry paws.
Unlike other cryptozoological stars, the Idyll-Beast can be summoned for a bachelorette or New Year's Party via a sighting request form from the Idyll-Beast blog. The less hirsute human behind the beast is David Jerome, a classically trained guitar teacher by day and Idyll-Beast documentarian by night. He has been keeping the myth alive since he and Moulton hatched the idea almost 10 years ago.
"We noticed that there were Bigfoot sightings wherever towns were dependent on tourism for their livelihood," Jerome says. "They'd make a Bigfoot museum or whatever. Saskatchewan had the Sasquatch, Loch Ness had their monster. So we thought Idyllwild should have an Idyll-Beast."
Jerome says the idea was far better than their runners-up, Squirrelzilla or the Chuparealator. He's been documenting the Beast sightings for years, and occasionally pens Beast fan fiction, which he publishes on the Idyll-Beast Blog. He even creates the warning signs you'll see around town. "When a sign goes up, they get stolen right away," Jerome says, "but you can still get them at Steve's shop."
While the Idyll-Beast is a friendly creature, Jerome has one warning for those who encounter him in town: "Never give the Idyll-Beast liquor and karaoke."
Getting there: Take the I-10 East, then before you get to Palm Springs, take State Route 243 into the San Jacinto Mountains. The road is very curvy and gets foggy and snowy in the winter. In the summer, it's a beautiful drive.
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What to do: Check out the craftwork by local artisans, especially Mountain Mike's shop, which makes apparel and locally sourced colognes. 54360½ N. Circle Drive, Idyllwild; mountainmikecustomleather.com. Take a hike on the many trails throughout the area, including the Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail, which is an easy stroll with great views of the valley. And don't forget to visit the Idyll-Beast Research Center in Bubba's Books. 54821 N Circle Dr. Idyllwild-Pine Cove. (951) 659-4925
Where to eat: Fratello's Ristorante & Pizzeria and Cafe Aroma are popular Italian spots where the locals go for red sauce and vino. Red Kettle offers big breakfasts, while Tommy's Kitchen has a killer patio and brunch, too. Idyology hosts a younger crowd, gastropub eats and live music.
Where to stay: If you're not camping, the best bet is to Airbnb a cabin. But if you're feeling fancy, the Creekstone Inn has a cozy Craftsman vibe and an epic fireplace. 54950 Pine Crest Ave, Idyllwild; (951) 659-3342, creekstoneinn.com.
Wild card: Stop by the Yokoji-Zen Mountain Center, just a few miles from Idyllwild on State Route 243. It's a 160-acre Zen Buddhist training center featuring gardens, temples and meditation classes. 58900 Apple Canyon Road, Mountain Center; (951) 659-5272, zmc.org.