Winter on Tahquitz
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The weather map on the national news this time of year is a pretty bleak picture. Ribbons of cold, foreboding colors such as ice-trey blue and cardigan gray trace the descending temperatures and wind chills in frigid layers across the majority of the map. Purple blobs the color of frostbitten skin pop up and show where it’s especially cold, sometimes tinted with shades of snowdrift white to isolate the coldest of colds. Always down in the southwest corner of the map however, sunrays of orange, yellow, and sometimes even red timidly scream out in a muffled roar, their own blob seemingly suppressed by the enormous weight of the ice-laden colors above them. The colors on the weather map don’t lie. The majority of the time in winter, while the rest of the country collectively pulls on another turtleneck, places such as Palm Springs, Phoenix, and Southern California bask in the midwinter sun.
This is no secret though. 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 sell a lot of records. Along with the year round sunshine, it has brought millions of people relocating there to sprawl along its golden shores. While there is no denying the existence of the stereotypical image, past the beaches and date palms and sun drenched boulevards, there exists another Southern California that only a handful of people ever take the time to experience. To get there, you have to shun the warm beach image that is home to millions, and drive right back up into those icy colors where the population can easily drop to only 1.
Climbing off of the Interstate and onto the back roads that lead up 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 rolling dry pastureland and rows of solitary fence posts. Southern California is mountainous country, and the multitude of ranges that ring the southwest corner of this great state and nation offer a transcendental respite from the every day chaos that is the urban world left back below the tree line.
Seeing as Southern California boasts an impressive array of backcountry terrain and formidable peaks and mountain passes that would take years to properly explore, the destination today is 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 idyllic mountain town of Idyllwild, situated just above 5000 feet elevation with a population hovering around 3500 residents. Although it is a brilliantly sunny day, patches of icy snow still dot the shaded patches of the downtown streets, with a definitive ring of fresh snowmelt lining the parking lot of the National Forest office where any hikers or campers in the park must acquire their permits. The town simply screams mountain charm, and it is refreshingly about as far from Newport Beach as you can hope to get around here.
The true beauty of these mountains, however, cannot really be felt until out on the trail and into the surrounding wilderness. When climbing Tahquitz from Idyllwild, the trailhead climbs steadily at the base of Tahquitz Rock (aka Lily Rock), a stoic monolith that is a haven for area climbers, with ice climbing even a distinct possibility after a strong winter storm. That’s right, ice climbing in Southern California. Not quite your sun, sand, and surf California nearly all seem to picture.
Meandering its way up icy switchbacks solemnly covered in patchworks of shaded snow, the trail ascends steeply towards the saddle between the mountains and offers up incomparable views of the surrounding area and valley floor below. On this particular day I encounter only one other person on the trail—a ranger on his first night of a three night overnight for trail maintenance. Talking with him I learn that mountain lion are more of a problem in the area than the black bear that dominate the San Bernardino mountains to the north, although actually encountering one is incredibly rare. Rare or not, fresh tracks soon become apparent in the snow alongside the trail; a simple reminder that this is in fact true wilderness and we are but a meager part of a larger domain. On long, clear days when the trail is in good condition and not 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. The panorama stretches from the desert climes of Anza-Borrego park and the Salton Sea in the east all the way to the shimmering Pacific blue ocean towards the west. In between, nothing seems to exist except you and the sound of the wind. While here, stand atop the piles of boulders and go ahead and scream your head off. Yodel the frustrations and pent up stress of those dwelling in the rat race below the tree line and sing from the depths of your inner child where all your dreams lay without anyone standing in your way. According to Japhy Ryder, not all those living in that chaotic, superficial world down below deserve to hear the screams of infinite freedom, and it has never seemed more apropos than in this spot right here. It is solitude, wilderness, breathing easy, isolation, seclusion, freedom, and a sense of being alive. This, here, is Southern California. This is winter on Tahquitz