Mountaintop Arts Mecca 2 Hours from LA: A Weekend Escape in Idyllwild

Finding my inner zen in Idyllwild, California

It has been such a crazy July — so when it came time to plan a weekend escape from Los Angeles I knew exactly where  to go. Idyllwild, located just 2 hours East of Los Angeles, is a quiet mountaintop community known for its vibrant art scene. Oh, and its mayor who happens to be a golden retriever! Seriously.

The official mayor of Idyllwild – Mayor Max, a Golden Retriever. I love his tie!

I had no idea this tiny artist enclave even existed until a few years ago. Like most LA folks, I’d pass the exit along the way to Palm Springs and not even notice.

Full disclosure, there isn’t a ton of things to do in Idyllwild — but that’s part of its charm. What you will find is plenty of hiking, cooler temperatures and a surprisingly good food scene. Below you’ll find our top picks for a weekend escape. Unplug your iPhone and pretend you aren’t reachable. You’re in the mountains after all (but at least you don’t have to rough it!). We’re all about comfort here!


We’ve stayed at a several places in Idyllwild over the years, and all have been wonderful. But we really enjoyed our last stay at the Strawberry Creek Inn. It recently changed owners who are giving the place a nice facelift. The manager on site personally got a kick out of my special request via email of “any room except the one with the grandma lace canopy bed.” I saw an old photo of the place and the grandma motif is long gone (thank god!). We stayed in a Fireplace Premium Suite located in the main house on the first floor (rates start at $190 a night, typically with a 2 night minimum on the weekend). You’ll feel one with nature snoozing in the outdoor hammocks or feeding the chickens in the nearby coop. They also serve a full breakfast every morning, where we got to bond with other overworked LA natives hiding out for the weekend!

The chicken coop next to the Strawberry Creek Inn


Live music at Cafe Aroma

By far, my favorite place to eat in Idyllwild is Cafe Aroma. This is the spot to be on a Friday night. Well, technically nearly everything is closed in town so you don’t have much of a choice! Still, it’s a really cool place. My favorite spot is the outdoor patio where they often have live music. We grabbed a high top table under the heat lamp since Idyllwild is pretty much always chilly at night even in the summer. Everything on the menu is delicious but every time I visit I order the same thing – Osso Bucco. I’m such a creature of habit! Entrees run about $14-$30 each.

Osso Bucco at Cafe Aroma

We spent two nights in Idyllwild this trip and ventured off our usual path (of just eating at Cafe Aroma) and tried out another place called Restaurant Gastronome. Known simply as “The Gnome” to the locals, it’s another great dinner spot. Kevin and I got a table on the front porch (once again under heat lamp) and pretty much had the place to ourselves.

Our second night dinner at Gastronome, located right in the middle of downtown Idyllwild

It’s open late – and chatted awhile with most of the waitstaff who told us about the local cat Hemingway who showed up pretty much on cue (and wandered around looking for some snacks!). It’s a little pricier than Cafe Aroma with entrees running around $15-$40 each. But you can’t miss out on the lava cake (one of our personal faves).


Rustic Theater in Idyllwild

You won’t have many choices to make at the Rustic Theater. They have one screen. And if you’re planning to see a movie at night, there is just one time to do it (7 PM on Friday and the weekends!). Kevin and I went to see Despicable Me 3 and were surprised at how large the theater was inside.  From the street, it literally looks like it would be the size of our living room. The theater has a concession stand and full bar. Movies are $10 per adult.

Another fun and relaxing activity we love doing in Idyllwild is just hanging out at Higher Grounds Coffee Shop. They not only offer fair trade coffee, but a variety of vegan friendly snacks. There are board games and even live music some nights. But Kevin’s favorite thing to do is curl up on the couch and just read a book (while I likely plan our next trip on the free wifi)!

Kevin makes himself at home on the couch inside Higher Grounds Coffee Shop

And of course, no trip to Idyllwild would be complete without perusing some art galleries. There are at least a dozen galleries in town — and even a new art gallery/wine tasting room that is lovely called Middle Ridge Winery. Many of the galleries feature local Idyllwild artists (as well as some from the nearby desert communities). There is also a fair share of Southwestern artwork on display and Native American work. Some of our recommended stops include Artspresso Art Gallery and Everitt’s Minerals and Fine Art.

I always admire the gorgeous ceramics inside Everitt’s Minerals & Gallery


Of course, the ultimate activity in Idyllwild are all the hiking trails in the area. You are in the thick of the wilderness here and cooler temps mean you can really get in a workout before even breaking a sweat. We’ve done several in Idyllwild but this past trip we really found a perfect hike along the Ernie Maxwell Trail. This 4.6 mile hike features beautiful wild flowers and mountain top overlooks. We really enjoy hiking but honestly don’t want to spend our entire day on the trail.  It just took us 2 hours – the perfect length for us. A secret insiders tip: stop by the ranger station in town and ask about the entrance near the Mile High Cafe turnoff.  They literally drew us a map with detailed instructions on how to access (and avoid the parking fee in Humber Park, which is where Yelp refers you to go). The rangers were so friendly, and helped save us a few bucks, which we loved!

Such a peaceful hike, along the Ernie Maxwell Trail


Feeling all Top Gun at the March Air Force Museum in Perris, CA

It’s easy to stay in Idyllwild all weekend — after all, the twisty road alone makes it tempting to stay up there! However, we felt the need on our final day to get off the mountain and explore a little further afield.  Of course, there are the nearby Cabazon Outlets (where I scored some great purchases).  And nearby Palm Springs, is just a 1 hour drive away. But a truly unique stop, located just 1 hour West of Idyllwild, is the March Air Force Museum in Perris, CA.  This makes a very easy stop on your return back to LA. We spent several hours here exploring — and loved how interactive the museum was. One of the most moving parts was a first-person account about the realities of combat told through letters of a young recruit (and died in combat off the coast of Japan).

Kevin listens to the reading of the letters of one of the Air Force fighters

And another must-visit section of the museum is the outdoor collection of airplanes. There are fighter jets, B52 Bombers and even full-size passenger airplanes. I’ve never seen anything like it.

I can’t help but act out my action hero dreams by pretending to outrun the passenger airplane!

Admission is $10 for adults and there is plenty of parking. Hours are 10 AM – 5 PM (except Mondays they’re closed).  It’s well worth the stop before heading back to LA and returning back to the craziness. Though, I’m still going to pretend I’m on the mountaintop and unreachable!

Mountaintop Arts Mecca 2 Hours from LA: A Weekend Escape in Idyllwild
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Mountaintop Arts Mecca 2 Hours from LA: A Weekend Escape in Idyllwild
Looking for an easy road trip from Los Angeles? Idyllwild, just 2 hours from LA, is the ultimate escape - with fine art galleries, hikes and plenty of wine and culture. Check out our recommendations on how to truly disconnect for the weekend.

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