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This Summer I set off on the adventure of a lifetime, and spent three months hiking through the high desert and mountains of Central California, from the border of Mexico to the boundaries of the iconic Yosemite National Park wilderness. My trip drew to a close short of its overall goal, however in the time that I spent in the golden state, I’d seen and experienced places that I could never have imagined. None so greater than in many of the mountain towns discovered along the way; places laying in such proximity to the state’s most popular routes, and yet destinations that I came to realise are rarely explored by first and second time visitors.
Here’s just a few of my favourite off the beaten track suggestions for visitors, adventures and road trips in Southern California!
Just one hour east of San Diego, and nestled within this year’s spectacular super bloom of the southern California high desert, lies a captivating pocket of American history frozen in time; a world apart from the bright lights and bustle of the west coast’s metropoleis just a stones throw away.
In the 1870’s the town of Julian found its roots at the centre of the Californian Gold Rush, flocked to by some of the hundreds of thousands who travelled across land and sea to seek their fortune. Today, as you step onto the town’s Main Street, after a stunning drive along climbing desert highways, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d lost your way, instead venturing into a real life film set which can’t help but ooze charm; not to mention an indescribable nostalgia for a time that you’ve never known.
Check in to one of the period properties such as the Julian Gold Rush Hotel, many of which have barely changed since the late 1800’s, and spend a few days taking in all that the town and its surroundings have to offer. History and an adventure into a real life gold mine aside, Julian’s food, drink and festival calendar will certainly not disappoint. Head to the famous Mom’s for a mouth watering slice of pie à la mode, paired with a cider or apple juice produced from one of the town’s orchards. Watch horse drawn carriages rumble along the main street from the veranda of one of the many family owned local restaurants, such as Carmen’s Garden; then spend a day exploring the stunning hiking routes of the surrounding high desert and the nearby Anza Borrego State Park, to complete your visit to this unique mountain getaway.
Drive here from: San Diego - 1 hour.
Undoubtedly one of California’s best kept secrets for international visitors to the golden state, and favoured as a peaceful getaway for LA residents in the know, Idyllwild is a mile-high, vibrant mountain retreat nestled high above the surrounding desert floors and tucked just underneath the shadow of Mount San Jacinto; a goliath boasting a peak with a view once described by the legendary naturalist John Muir as being “the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth”.
While Idyllwild may on first glance appear to be a log cabin lined, second home hotbed of a holiday haven, with little to set it apart from many others like it throughout California, you’ll quickly realise otherwise; it’s a town with astounding heart and soul, proud of its celebration of the arts, theatre and cinema - a magnet for creatives ranging from emerging independant film makers to Hollywood A-Listers.
If any one thing encompasses the spirit of Idyllwild, perhaps it’s the election of Mayor Max and his deputies - a team of Golden Retrievers currently serving a second term in office. Far from a just a novelty, a fully democratic process saw Max campaign and gain election over many other local candidates. On a visit to the town you’re more than likely to see him, his deputies and human campaign managers making official visits in a motorcade of banner adorned vehicles. If not, never fear, as visits to his office are open to all by appointment.
You’ll be in no rush to leave the pine and cedar lined streets of resident owned shops, bars, restaurants and bakeries - however the visit wouldn’t be complete without taking advantage of the town’s location as the entry to the most spectacular mountain scenery that sub-Sierra Nevada California has to offer. Register for a wilderness permit in advance of your arrival and tackle one of challenging hiking trails, such as the Devils Slide trail, and climb up into a world that few visitors get to see. Criss-cross the world famous Pacific Crest Trail, and in Spring hear the stories of hikers from all corners of the globe, in the early stages of their attempts to walk thousands of miles from Mexico to Canada. Then retreat back to one of many beautiful cabins and guest houses that Idyllwild has to offer.
Drive here from: Los Angeles or San Diego - 2 hours.
Big Bear Lake
Nestled within a valley in the San Bernardino Mountains, Big Bear Lake has gone through an incredible transformation over its history. From a home once shared solely by indigenous Serrano Indians and a population of Grizzly Bears (from which its name was born), as early as two thousand years ago, to a modern day year round mountain resort.
While the town and surroundings of Big Bear Lake are undoubtedly stunning, the story of how it captivated the creators of what became one of California’s first recreation destinations is fascinating in its own right. From its famous lake, which at the time of its 1800’s creation was the biggest man made body of water in the world, to the installation of only the world’s second bus line in the early 20th century. Its accessibility lead the way in the discovery, for many, of the beauty of the mountains of central California; over the last 100 years it’s played host to the backdrops of Hollywood classics from The Last of the Mohicans to Gone with the Wind, to the home of resorts hosting world champion ski jumpers, to the training grounds of world champion boxers such as Mike Tyson.
Spend a few days in Big Bear Lake to enjoy sublime relaxation and some of the best bars and restaurants that the region has to offer, alongside everyone from pit-stopping LA weekenders to visiting hikers, rock climbers and adrenaline junkies. From authentic Nepalese and Indian cuisine, through to trendy Bistros and local craft breweries. For a more intimate experience, hire one of the town’s many personal gourmet chefs to prepare a feast in your mountain cabin.
Drive here from: Los Angeles - 2 hours.
A gateway to what is indisputably some of the most spectacular scenery that the US has to offer, Lone Pine lies in the middle of the dramatic Owens Valley, basking in the unreal beauty of the mountain ranges which form its corridor. To the west is the iconic Sierra Nevada, and on the eastern side the equally imposing, but far less explored, White and Inyo mountains. The county that Lone Pine sits within, Inyo, is one of the largest in California geographically, however holds the lowest population; a refreshing hold on development partly an inadvertent result of 100 years of controversy, disputes and at times conflict over the harnessing of the valley’s water to supply the city of Los Angeles, hundreds of miles away. The result is the most spectacular, wild valley from which snow capped giants emerge at every angle.
Lone Pine has a charm all of its own, not more so than in the Summer months as the retro neon signs of the main street’s bars, restaurants and hotels shine brightly beneath the Sierra sunsets of literary legend. However it’s the role of the town as the portal into other worlds which draws people from across the globe; none more so than its portal to Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states of the US. Adventurous souls can rent gear at one of the town’s mountaineering suppliers, which may include crampons and ice axes at certain times of year, and tackle the breathtaking 14,000ft summit. Others embark on multi-day adventures into the trail systems of the inner High Sierra, which although not be a million miles from civilisation a few thousand feet below, offer a peaceful, devastating beauty and solitude that may as well be.
Much closer and more easily accessible from the town of Lone Pine, yet equally unmissable, are the strikingly eery hills and rock formations of the Alabama Hills. Take a trip to hike amongst them, or camp overnight in one of thousands of natural alcoves within the rocks, and a landscape that’s so inherently alien may start to feel familiar; that’s because it probably is. Hundreds of films have been shot in those very formations over the last hundred years, from the Westerns of the early 20th century to modern day blockbusters such as Gladiator, Iron Man and Django Unchained.
A window into worlds boasting fascinating history and grandeur both natural and cinematic, Lone Pine is certainly unforgettable.
Drive here from: Los Angeles - 2 hours.