Visit This Quirky SoCal Mountain Town That Elected a Golden Retriever as Mayor

From hikes and rock climbing to local brews, natural wines, and coffee flights, Idyllwild has it all.

Just a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, the pine-sweet town of Idyllwild sits at over 5,000-feet elevation in the San Jacinto Mountains. There are no ski resorts, which has allowed the small, unincorporated town in Riverside County to avoid getting overdeveloped or overly crowded during the more popular winter months. The quaint little town center is filled with locally-owned restaurants and kitschy shops, plus gorgeous views and outdoor activities just a stone’s throw away. For your next Southern California weekend getaway, here are 12 reasons to consider a road trip up to Idyllwild:

It’s a hiking destination

With the Pacific Crest Trail running right by the town and cooler air at 5,400-feet elevation, there’s no shortage of hiking trails in Idyllwild. There are easier, shorter trails like Ernie Maxwell, a 2.6-mile hike that begins at 6,400-feet of elevation and descends 700 feet while crossing streams and offering an array of tree species. For a more ambitious option, try hiking Devil’s Slide Trail to Saddle Junction, a just over eight-mile out-and-back trail that acts as the only dog-friendly trail in Idyllwild in the winter. Watch for ice as you approach Saddle Junction and note that a wilderness permit is required for some of the trails.

Rock climbers love it too

In addition to all of the prime hiking around Idyllwild, some of the trails will take you to granite rocks that are great for rock climbing and bouldering—or merely gazing upon in awe for those who prefer both feet on the ground. Climbers in Southern California started going to Idyllwild back in the 1930s to scale the iconic 8,846-foot tall Tahquitz Rock (also called Lily Rock), which can be seen from town. Or visit the Suicide Rock outcrop that’s over 7,500-feet-tall to take advantage of more than 300 climbing routes. In the summer and fall, Vertical Adventures holds rock climbing classes and guided climbs in the area.

mayor Max
Photo courtesy of Phyllis Mueller

We’re not kidding when we said Idyllwild has the most handsome mayor, but how can anyone compete with Max, the golden retriever? Mayor Max was voted into office in 2012 after winning a full two-thirds of the vote. The current mayor is actually Mayor Max II (Maximus Mighty-Dog Mueller, II) as Mayor Max I unfortunately passed away in 2013. The Mayor is downtown everyday with occasional exceptions. To arrange a visit, email Max at Chief of Staff Phyllis will let you know the Mayor’s downtown visiting schedule with the public and can also arrange a private visit for special events at the location where you are staying or at the Mayor’s home.

Get cozy in unique cabins

Idyllwild is home to quite a few vacation rentals and cabins, and some of them are certainly unique enough as to be worthwhile destinations on their own. Take, for example, the Hicksville Pines Bud & Breakfast, a mountain motel with themed cabins that range from Dita Von Teese to Christmas to Haunted Mansion, Dolly Parton, and even 420 (with a Guitar Hero video game and glow-in-the-dark posters adorning the wall to maximize your high), plus a rec room and communal hot tub to complete the cozy vibes. Prefer something more low key? Opt for a mid-century modern geodesic dome or an A-frame cabin tucked in the woods. Find a rental with a fireplace to snuggle up with a cup of hot cocoa on a snowy day, or take advantage of the low light pollution in Idyllwild and stargaze in a hot tub on warmer nights.

Photo courtesy of Brewpub

Idyllwild Brewpub is the only brewpub in town, but it’s a good one with plenty to choose from with more than a dozen beers on tap, all brewed sustainably in-house, from IPAs to Belgian Quads. The bar here is also slinging some solid cocktails and the pub food always hits the spot—don’t miss the fried buffalo chicken sandwich on a Hawaiian brioche bun or IPA-battered fish and chips. The covered patio is dog-friendly, but weekends can get pretty busy. Indoor and outdoor seating reservations can be made on OpenTable, but walk-ins are also accepted.

Sip California (and beyond) wines

Idyllwild also has a couple of surprising spots to sip wines, including its own local winery and a hip new natural wine bar. Middle Ridge Winery produces their wines in Temecula, but the winery started in Idyllwild and that location still remains the headquarters and tasting room, complete with an art gallery. More recently, a wine bar called The Wine Finch opened up in town to serve biodynamic and natural wines from around the globe. They also hold vinyl nights on Thursdays, when locals are invited to bring in their own records to play.

Black Mountain Coffee Roasting
Black Mountain Coffee Roasting

Do a coffee tasting

Black Mountain Coffee Roasting approaches coffee roasting like wine making, roasting their own small-batch, single-origin coffees sourced from around the world and endeavoring to find the perfect roast that highlights each coffee’s unique characteristics. They don’t have latte drinks and only serve pour-overs and cold brews, but they do offer a coffee tasting flight, where you can sample three curated pour-overs and a cold brew for just $10. Tastings are offered in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings on Friday through Sunday, and must be booked in advance online. For those looking for specialty coffee drinks, head to Alpaca Coffee & Tea for a honey lavender latte and strawberry matcha milk tea with boba.

Peruse kitschy one-of-a-kind stores

The little town of Idyllwild may not be a shopping destination, but there are enough cute or quirky shops to peruse for a day in town. The vintage candy store Candy Cupboard is always a favorite, and a charming purple cottage houses the loose leaf tea store, Merkaba. Around the corner, find a great little record store called Hunky Dory Records, which also sells a collection of vintage concert T-shirts. For Idyllwild souvenirs and personalized gifts, head to A Piece of Idyllwild and 88 Far East International gift shop.

Photo courtesy of Tommy's Kitchen

Explore local eateries

We don’t blame you if you want to stay cozy in your cabin rental, but for those looking for a bite outside, there’s plenty to choose from, including homemade rosti at the Swiss breakfast spot, Tommy’s Kitchen. Ferro is a popular choice for a more upscale Italian dinner, complete with a fireplace for the winter. Further from the center of town is the Korean-owned Mile High Cafe. They typically serve American diner food, but when winter comes, keep an eye out for their oxtail soup special.

El Buen Cacao sources single-origin cacao beans from Central and South America to make dark chocolates right in the heart of Idyllwild. There are also truffles and chocolate-dipped Turkish figs that would also make great souvenirs for the folks back home. While you’re there, though, we recommend sipping on some hot (or frozen blended, depending on the weather) chocolates or mocha.

Photo courtesy of Amelia's Donuts & More

Check out these unique local bakeries

If you’re going on one of the eight-mile hikes, treat yourself with some of the baked goods around town, particularly the fluffy buttermilk donuts at Amelia’s Donuts & More (they also have keto and vegan options). For a savory alternative, grab some bacon cheddar scones and gravy for breakfast at Stevie’s Hungry Habit.

Check out local art

The Idyllwild Arts Foundation was founded in 1946, offering a respite for artists all over the world and helping to solidify the town as a burgeoning destination for creatives. There are a number of galleries in town where you can peruse the works of local artists, such as Artspresso and Mountain Pottery, as well as galleries attached to the local winery and cafes. One of the busiest weekends in Idyllwild is the annual Art & Wine Walk, which typically showcases more than a dozen wineries and two dozen local artists.

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Fiona Chandra is an Indonesian-born freelance food and travel writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Instagram.