Vagabond Tales: Winter on California’s Mt. Tahquitz

Some people are not aware of the fact there are mountains in Southern California. Not just brown looking hills with Hollywood signs sprinkled across them, but real mountains which feature real fresh snow. You can even ski in Southern California.

If you aren’t one of the 22 million people who currently reside in Southern California, there’s a decent chance this is the first time you are hearing this. Why? Because the image of the “California Dream” of sun, sand, and surf has been marketed across the country since well before the Beach Boys decided it would start selling records.

Due to the year-round sunshine, many of the those 22 million residents have relocated from elsewhere to sprawl along its trademark golden shores. During the winter months, while most of the country collectively pulls on another turtleneck, Southern California frequently basks in midwinter warmth. This is the Southern California most people know.

While there is no denying the existence of the stereotypical image, beyond the beaches, date palms, and sun drenched boulevards, there exists this other Southern California that only a handful of people take the time to experience. In order to get there, you have to shun the warm beach image and drive into the icy hinterlands where the population can easily drop to only 1.

Climbing off of I-10 and onto the back roads which lead into Southern California’s inland mountains can be a relaxing, near meditative experience. The number of lanes gradually funnels from 6 down to 1, and the scenery slowly morphs from that of aggressive billboards, off ramps, and car dealerships to dry rolling pastureland and rows of solitary fence posts.

The multitude of peaks which populate the southwest corner of the state can refreshingly offer a transcendental respite from the chaos of the urban world left back below the tree line.It’s for this exact reason, this sobering calm amidst a sea of modern turmoil, that I have chosen to climb Mt. Tahquitz, an 8,720 ft slab of rock in the heart of the San Jacinto mountain range. At the base of Tahquitz sits the secluded mountain hamlet of Idyllwild, a town with a higher elevation (5,000 ft.) than resident population (about 3,500).

Although it’s a brilliantly sunny day, patches of snow still dot the shaded patches of the downtown streets. Residents linger in a cafe across from the National Forest Service office as a pair of flannel-clad men in trucks wave to each other while passing on the two-lane road.

For as “small-town” as Idyllwild can be (and the antithesis of the Southern California stereotype), the true beauty of these mountains cannot really be felt until out on the trail and into the surrounding wilderness. When climbing Tahquitz from Idyllwild, the trailhead begins at the base of Tahquitz Rock (aka Lily Rock), a stoic monolith which is a haven for ice climbers after a strong winter storm.

That’s right, ice climbing in Southern California.

Meandering its way up shaded switchbacks, the trail ascends steeply towards a mountain saddle and offers up incomparable views of the valley floor below. On the walk I encounter only one other person on the trail-a ranger on his first night of a three night overnight for trail maintenance.

“Beautiful day”, we nonchalantly exchange with each other.

“Seen many bears?” I inquire, knowing full well that it’s too early in the season for any substantial amount of sightings.

“Not today, but there are some fresh mountain lion tracks just up the way.”

Though actual mountain lion sightings are rare in the area, fresh tracks soon become apparent in the snow alongside the trail. It’s a simple reminder this is still true wilderness and we are but a part of a larger domain.

On long, clear days when the trail isn’t covered in snow, the hardiest of hikers can make it all the way to the fire lookout on the summit of Tahquitz, a rustic throwback to the days of lonely fire spotters perched high atop prominent mountains of the American west.

Today, however, lacking proper crampons and with insufficient daylight, the bluff overlooking the ridge forming the saddle will have to do. If ever there was a spot where Kerouac’s Japhy Ryder were to manifest himself and scream in all his carpe diem glory, you are standing in that spot whilst at the overlook on Tahquitz.

Go ahead. Yodel your head off. There’s nobody here to hear you. If a man screams into the wind on Tahquitz, does anybody care?

The panorama from the saddle stretches from the desert of Anza-Borrego park and the Salton Sea in the east all the way to the shimmering Pacific blue ocean way out west. In between, nothing seems to exist except you and the sound of the wind.

This here, this remote perch in the breeze, this is the Southern California nobody ever tells you about. It is solitude, wilderness, breathing easy, isolation, seclusion, freedom, and a sense of being alive.

This is winter on Tahquitz.