For some folks, the journey through the forest is the destination.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY FREDRIK BRODÉN AND LANCE GERBER
“It’s been a struggle. We say things come in sets of three. I hope [the pandemic] was the last one,” says Raj Panchal, owner of Idyllwild Bunkhouse, a 74-year-old fixture in the San Jacinto Mountains. Panchal bought the inn in 2018, just in time for the 13,000-acre Cranston fire, and then, a year later, the floods that washed out and forced an extended closure of Highway 243, the main route into the mountains. About the time the road was finally repaired, the pandemic hit.
“But the community has beautiful energy,” he says. “God sent ways, and I survived. We say that if you want to stay up on the mountain, it will [find a way] to make you stay on the mountain.”
The mountain has since been good to Panchal. These days, with a steady stream of Pacific Crest Trail trekkies and Angelenos, San Diegans, and Coachella Valley residents escaping the heat, congestion, and claustrophobia, he’s fully booked.
We take our mountains for granted. Those unacquainted with our alpine communities sometimes seem puzzled by their very existence. Unlike SoCal beach towns, which have long been celebrated in song and film, the mountains are L.A.’s red-headed stepchild — a place to go skiing when there’s no time to drive to Mammoth. The mountains aren’t known for golf or tennis, restaurants, or nightlife. They don’t have the international celebrity, abundance of midcentury architecture, or the hopping social scene of Greater Palm Springs. They certainly do not possess the sun-kissed cachet of La Jolla, Laguna Beach, or Malibu.
The mountains have log cabins and lots of pine trees and thin air and porches with rocking chairs and bait shops and waterskiing lessons and roadhouses serving highballs and slabs of beef. It’s different up there. Not Deliverance different, but in some mountain villages, visitors may feel conspicuously un-local. In fact, our mountain communities sometimes seem to have been misplaced by some other state, occasionally enjoyed, often neglected, tolerated, moribund.
Until the pandemic.
“In 2020, all of Los Angeles and San Diego were coming up here to get away from quarantine,” says Jonathan Viero, a real estate agent with Corcoran Global Living in Lake Arrowhead. “We had about … 500 listings. By the end of the summer, they were all gone. We usually have 400 to 500 listings this time of year. Right now, we have between 60 and 80. Everything sells right away; nothing sits.”
However, it isn’t the mountains’ red-hot market that’s interesting, but its emergence as Southern California’s untapped refuge. It’s the realization that within an hour or two lies hundreds of thousands of acres of mostly pristine, mostly undeveloped and underpopulated land where you can hike, swim, fish, but mostly just relax in a multitude of space and clean air without some asshole throwing down a blanket in the sand next to you, saturating the air with aerosol sunblock, littering the beach with Whole Foods takeout containers, and blasting K-pop from their retro boombox.
It’s fantastic that the mountains are having their moment in the sun and that, after every kind of biblical catastrophe, these communities are getting their rightful 30 seconds of celebrity. However, as every Angeleno knows, if you linger too long in your place in the sun, you’ll get burned. Joshua Tree was once the way-under-the-radar destination of artists and musicians and rock climbers; now it’s inundated with hipsters in their Melrosian versions of Southwestern boho chic. The last four years have been like a desert Klondike where the gold lay in short-term rentals. A recent New York Times article was titled, “Are 1,818 Airbnbs Too Many in Joshua Tree?” Joshua Tree has become crowded and unwelcoming. I’d no more go to Joshua Tree to relax than park on the 110 freeway in downtown L.A. to meditate.
God help us if the zombie hipster horde swarms the mountains.
Those unacquainted with our alpine communities sometimes seem perplexed by their very existence.
In Idyllwild, the real estate market is tighter than a snare drum. Jack Clark, the co-owner and publisher of The Town Crier, Idyllwild’s town newspaper, says that his son-in-law was once president of the local real estate association. “He got out of real estate and is doing something completely different. There just isn’t anything to sell.”
Clark, a retired lawyer, came out of retirement in 2013 when he and his wife, Becky, decided to buy the newspaper, which was founded in 1946 as a two-page, typewritten broadsheet. He says that all the real estate advertising his paper gets these days is from agents urging people to take advantage of the seller’s market. The biggest political issue the Crier covers in the community these days is over STRs like Airbnb pitting owners looking to monetize their properties against residents who feel the tranquility of their neighborhoods being shattered by a revolving door of hard-partying visitors.
However, despite some typical tourist annoyances, Idyllwild retains the character and feel of a close-knit community. Maybe it’s due to the adversities of the past few years, but there’s a Mayberry-of-the-mountains vibe throughout the town.
Peace and love aside, my trusty road trip companion — the Viking — and I wanted to know about the thrills and chills of summer mountain living: freeclimbing Tahquitz Peak, hooking 20-pound bass at Lake Hemet, throwing hatchets in local brewpub contests, indulging in full-moon nudist bonfires …
“The arts,” Clark says, dousing my daydreams of mayhem and high-altitude bacchanalia. “Right outside of town, we have Idyllwild Arts Academy. It was founded in 1946, and they get students from all over the world.”
We take a quick drive to the academy and barge our way in, feeling like we’re everyone’s least-favorite cousin who shows up Christmas morning with nothing but a half-empty bottle of Colt 45. We are further shamed by the graciousness of Tara Sechrest, the academy’s vice president of enrollment, when she offers us a tour of the campus.
The campus sprawls over 205 acres and would dwarf a lot of small-to-medium liberal arts colleges. But the imposing stone buildings often meant to emphasize the gravity of centers of higher learning are absent here. The façades of the dormitories, auditoriums, practice halls, art laboratories, and classrooms scattered throughout the pine forest are a uniform reddish-brown. They’re so simple and unadorned as to look temporary.
Sechrest explains that many of the original founders, faculty, and architects were associated with the University of Southern California, and that the original idea in 1950 was to create a destination for summer classes and workshops. However, the school grew and in 1983 became an independent nonprofit institution.
At unprepossessing Lowman Concert Hall, we find ourselves in a raked auditorium with an intricate acoustic baffle system. On the stage, three student musicians practice a modern, atonal piece under the direction of a teacher seated in the first row. Sechrest tells us that the bassoonist is Preston Atkins. He has placed highly in a number of national competitions and was recently selected as one of 109 musicians for the Carnegie Hall NYO-USA program happening this summer. Since 1986, when the school evolved from its summer program origins to a year-round boarding high school for the arts — one of only three in the United States and the only one west of the Mississippi — the school has produced noteworthy talents, including dancer Neal Beasley, actor Neal Bledsoe, American Idol finalist Casey Abrams, and New York Philharmonic principal oboist Liang Wang. Faculty members have included dancer and choreographer Bella Lewitzky, painter Lisa Adams, photographer Ansel Adams, musician Pete Seeger, and cellist Eleonore Schoenfeld.
Our mouths are hanging open by the time we reach one of the student art workshops. One young painter’s work is so impressive that the Viking promises to mail me a blank check to buy it when the school’s top artists exhibit their work in a group show this summer at Melissa Morgan Fine Art in Palm Desert.
There is definitely more to this bit of mountain than meets the eye.
LIKE PALM SPRINGS, the ’20s and ’30s were an exclusive, golden age for Lake Arrowhead. Mansions were built along the north shore, and several hotels housed adventurous visitors who braved the precarious drive up from San Bernardino. A quaint Bavarian-style village — still known as Arrowhead Village — was built, and a nine-hole golf course was laid out. Arrowhead Woods was designated as a mile-wide swath around the lake where prospective homeowners would have exclusive access to the lake and docks. This is still true today. The lake is private; there are no public beaches here.
Still, for much of its existence, Lake Arrowhead retained its quaintness and charm. That changed in 1979 when a group of conmen — sorry, investors — bought the village and lodge and convinced county fire agencies to participate in a “burn to learn” exercise. One by one, each building in the faux Bavarian village was ignited, and then participating fire departments would demonstrate their skill by putting out the blaze. It took a month for these exercises to reduce the village to ashes.
And in its place, they built a bigger, newer village. It’s multilevel. It has parking for hundreds of cars. It has souvenir stores and ice cream shops and restaurants. It has an outdoor concert series for all those folks with sleeveless leather vests who were tossed out of Idyllwild. It has excursion boats to take you around the lake and show you a shoreline that you will never, ever step foot on and Lollipop Park, a cheesy collection of carny rides that will leave you broke and your kids with ADD. Oh, and there’s even a Stater Bros.
Don’t get me wrong. I have a tremendous nostalgia and love for Arrowhead, but these days it seems like an odd choice for escaping quarantine or hunkering down in case Putin drops the bomb. It’s crowded. There are people everywhere, cars clog state Route 73 around the lake, abuzz with boats, and even Deep Creek Hot Springs Trail, which intersects with the PCT, is often a human traffic jam of day hikers and long-distance backpackers.
“I think people realized there is more to being outside than just skiing; there is an experience of being here in the mountains.”
Arrowhead seems less like a respite and more of an extension of L.A. I can’t imagine the $800,000 cabins of Arrowhead Woods — built shoulder to shoulder — provide even a whiff of the Elysian idyll of Arden Forest. Maybe it’s the cash pouring in, but tourists and locals alike seem stressed. It’s claustrophobic. If I had to live in Arrowhead, I’d go to Fontana on the weekends.
We meet Francisco Behena, whose family has been working at the Malt Shop outside of Cedar Glen for 18 years and eventually bought it six years ago. Since the shop opened in 1946, a room and some booths were added, but, he says, “We’re trying to keep it original. I think back then it was just the counter, and then came the booths. Little by little, we’re trying to keep it up.” He says that most of their customers are locals who’ve been coming for lunch for years, along with part-timers who bring their kids and grandkids for malts. I order a mint chocolate chip malted shake for the Viking. He looks at it like it’s a contagious rash. I explain that, in America, we haven’t yet perfected the gin-and-tonic flavored shake. He is neither amused nor mollified.
The Malt Shop, however, is not the only vestige left of the bygone era of the mountains. There are a couple reasons for optimism. Skyforest at Santa’s Village used to be plain old Santa’s Village, a Christmas fantasyland that opened a month before Disneyland in 1955. It had kiddie rides and giant multicolored toadstools and a chance to see Mr. and Mrs. Claus and eat freshly baked gingerbread cookies. It fell on hard times, surviving fire, bankruptcy, and a couple attempts at reinvention before Bill and Michelle Johnson relaunched it a few years ago as an adventure park with mountain biking, fishing, hiking, and other activities. Santa, the gingerbread, and even some of the old concrete toadstools are still around, but now there’s a ton of fun stuff for kids to do. Up the road in Running Springs is Snow Valley, where three or four generations of SoCalers have hit the slopes for the first time.
“It started out as Fish Camp,” vice president and general manager Kevin Somes says as we sit on the deck at Snow Valley Mountain Resort looking up at the slopes where only a couple months earlier, skiers were carving up snow dumped by a couple decent storms. It wasn’t a record year of snow, but it was good enough to welcome back hundreds of skiers and snowboarders who’d hung up their Marmot mittens during the pandemic. “In 1937, the name was changed to Snow Valley … and in 1941, John Alberan took [it] over.” Alberan developed the ski slopes and then sold the operation to a group of investors that included W.A. Sauey. Sauey died in 2020, but the resort remains his family’s operation.
When the pandemic hit, Snow Valley was ordered to immediately cease operations. “We got a call,” he remembers. “It was a Monday afternoon. We had a lot of snow … and it snowed 6 more feet that season. We could have skied into May. It could have been one of our best seasons ever … and not even [the staff] could ski it.”
However, in 2021, as the restrictions began to lift, Somes says that Snow Valley saw one of its best seasons. In fact, over the last two years, he’s seen a significant increase in both winter and summer visitors. As Somes and I talk, Snow Valley is still weeks away from its May 31 summer opening date, and yet he’s been fielding calls all morning from people who want to know when they can come mountain bike, hike, and ride the lift to the top of the mountain. “Disneyland was closed … amusement parks, bars, bowling alleys, everything. So, people refocused. People want to be outdoors. I think people realized there is more to being outside than just skiing; there is an experience of being here in the mountains. It’s relaxing, and there’s fresh air. Where else can you do this? It’s so close to home.”
“THE FIRST NIGHT I closed the restaurant by myself, I heard footsteps over my head,” bartender Tyler Babin tells us. “And another time I was standing right here, and a glass just moved down the counter by itself. I checked to see if it was wet on the rim because that can make them move. Nope. It was dry.”
He glances from me to the Viking to see which of us shows signs of curdled blood.
I check the Viking for an eye twitch.
“Gin and tonic, please,” he says.
I am not too spooked by tales of ghosts at Captains Anchorage in Big Bear Lake. It’s not just the martini I sloshed back that forestalls hairs rising on the back of the neck. I once owned a converted church in New Mexico that was supposedly packed to the rafters with ghosts. One allegedly ascended the stairs every afternoon to the choir loft that I’d converted to an office. You get used to it, like having a pet you can’t see. And no litter box.
Originally known as the Sportsman’s Tavern, the two-story log building went up in 1946 and was later owned by the scratchy-voiced character actor Andy Devine, best known for his comic relief bits in Westerns such as Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. We hang out in the darkened bar area with backlit bottles and a copper-sheathed bar. We both feel that we’ve come across a bit of authenticity, a remnant of the bygone mountain days when people came to the mountains to fully retreat from the city. Babin advises us to wait and talk to Lorraine Little, the Anchorage’s semiretired bartender who comes in late.
After we devour a couple steaks the size of manhole covers, Little arrives. She’s diminutive but moves around the restaurant with an ease and familiarity that comes from having started working here in 1974. She sits down and regales us with stories. The best ones are about ghosts. George was an accountant back in the gambling era and was evidently skimming. No one knows whether it was suicide or a hit, but George was found upstairs with a bullet in his brain. Now, George wanders the restaurant, no doubt looking for missing receipts. Little tells us a particularly spooky story about a coworker who came downstairs once when the restaurant was closed. There was a woman sitting alone at a table. The waitress tried to talk to her but got no response. She went upstairs to tell her coworkers. When they came down, the woman was gone. All the doors were locked. Little co-produced a film about the hauntings, full of orbs and strange whisperings, the creepiest of which is a woman’s voice that keeps repeating, “I am dead.”
That does it. We order another round.
Contrary to expectations, we love Big Bear. We love the funky little cabin compounds, the hiking trails, and the little neighborhoods of Big Bear City with their little log cabins. We even develop a thin tolerance for bear kitsch. Big bears, carved bears, bear cubs, bear cups, bear furniture, bear art … it’s almost unbearable. It was laid-back, but we were not experiencing high-season Big Bear.
Simeon Prophet is a real estate agent and 30-year resident of Big Bear who also owns a place in Palm Springs “to play a little golf and get away.” Prophet echoes the figures and anecdotes of his colleagues in Arrowhead and Idyllwild. He says that some of his buyers “are people who realize they can work from home up here and don’t have to be stuck in Orange County,” but also says that a lot of his sales go to investors who are looking to derive income from turning their homes into STRs. Like in other mountain communities, the problem has become so acute that residents are organizing a ballot initiative to limit the practice.
Still, it hasn’t spoiled life for Prophet’s family. He says there is still tranquility to be found “biking and hiking on all the trails in the mountains and being on the lake. You learn when to do your errands, when to go to the market, and when to stay home.”
The morning after fending off spirits with spirits at Captains Anchorage, we drive down state Route 38, back to the flats, our multiday exploration of the mountains at an end. I am reminded of one of the last things Raj Panchal of Idyllwild Bunkhouse said: “There are countless gems here. They are just no longer hidden gems.”
if you go
Call Raj Panchal well in advance to reserve one of the knotty pine-paneled rooms. 951-659-2201,
Idy Sushi Rolls
Order a bowl of spicy ramen.
Jazz in the Pines
The festival returns in July with performances by faculty and students of the world-renowned Idyllwild Arts Academy. jazzinthepines.com
Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail
Try the 8-mile hike toward Tahquitz Peak via Devils Slide Trail. Tahquitz, the legendary good shaman gone bad, murdered his bride and was banished to Tahquitz Peak, where he occasionally rumbles.
Find some of the best mountain biking in Southern California around Idyllwild Arts Academy. idyllwildcycling.com
RUNNING SPRINGS/SKY FOREST
With its high-speed six-person lift, 12 trails, and 3,331 feet of descent, Snow Valley offers some of the best downhill mountain biking in the San Bernardinos. There is also great hiking. General manager Kevin Somes leads kids on nature hikes. snow-valley.com
Skypark at Santa’s Village
This interactive park for kids offers mountain biking, fly-fishing, hiking, ziplining, and a ton of other great activities. skyparksantasvillage.com
There are newer hotels with superior amenities around the lake (such as Lake Arrowhead Lodge), but Saddleback is the OG of mountain hotels. Built in 1917, it has a great bar and restaurant and cottages on the hillside — and it’s a five-minute walk to the village. saddlebackinn.com
The Malt Shop
When my family had a cabin down the road, my parents sent us every Saturday morning to this little red shack that has been located just outside Cedar Glen since 1949. It wasn’t until I became a father that I realized why my parents gave us enough quarters to keep us busy for two hours. 29125 Hook Creek Road, 909-485-1926
McKenzie Water Ski School
The staff has been teaching waterskiing on the lake for more than 70 years. They now offer wakeboarding and kneeboarding as well. mckenziewaterskischool.com
BIG BEAR LAKE
The Club at Big Bear Village
The suites come with full kitchens, separate bedrooms (accommodating up to 10 people), and washers and dryers. The Club, only a few steps from the village center, has a billiards room and a seasonal outdoor pool. 909-878-2700
Once owned by actor Andy Devine, this rustic relic has witnessed bad behavior in every decade. But the cocktails are strong, and the steaks are great. No wonder ghosts still hang around. 909-866-3997, captainsanchorage.com
Visit Big Bear Discovery Center for maps and conditions. 40971 North Shore Drive/State Route 38, Fawnskin