Rustic traditions in Southern California’s mountain resorts

Daniella Thompson

Boulder Bay, on the southern shore of Big Bear Lake (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

6 June 2009

Each September, the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, New York, holds a rustic furniture fair featuring “unique interpretations of rustic found in handcrafted furniture, furnishings, and fine art.” The Adirondacks are widely considered to be the fount of rustic style, which found expression across North America, including the San Jacinto and San Bernardino Mountains of Southern California.

Playhouse, Great Camp Sagamore, Adirondacks (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

The first European inhabitants of most scenic mountain areas on either coast were those who sought to exploit their timber and mining resources. Later came land promoters who lured vacationers by providing ready access via trains and roads. Unlike the Adirondack Park—the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States, created in 1892 by the State of New York to remain “forever wild”—Southern California’s scenic mountains are administered by a patchwork of federal and state agencies, Indian reservations, and private entities.

The resort communities in the San Jacinto and San Bernardino Mountains had their beginnings in the late 19th century. An 1890s promotional brochure for the Bear Valley Resort in Pine Lake (now Big Bear Lake) was illustrated with rustic log cabins nestling at the foot of towering pine trees. In 1912, the resort became known as Pine Knot Lodge. Was the name derived from the first Adirondack Great Camp, William West Durant’s Camp Pine Knot on Raquette Lake?

Recreation Hall, Camp Pine Knot, Adirondacks (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

Begun in 1877 and completed 13 years later, Camp Pine Knot set the tone for the Adirondack Rustic style: log construction, native stone work, and decorative work in twigs, branches, and bark.

Once owned by the likes of Collis P. Huntington, J. Pierpont Morgan, and Margaret Emerson Vanderbilt, the Adirondack Great Camps are multi-building complexes. Their counterparts in Southern California are far more modest, usually consisting of a single house. Nevertheless, the chief elements are all there: logs (often with the bark left on) or shingle exteriors; river rock chimneys; twigs and branches in balcony railings and fences.

Gray squirrel, Idyllwild (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

Not many of the old Southern California log houses are still standing. Some of the best examples are to be found in Idyllwild, in the San Jacinto Mountains. Reached via the Panoramic State Route 243 from Banning, this quiet village of 3,500 bills itself as “an oasis of sanity in Southern California.” Less than an hour away from Palm Springs, Idyllwild is a hiking and cultural center. From Humber Park at the northeastern edge of the village, many hikers climb the Devil’s Slide Trail to Tahquitz Peak, enjoying spectacular views of granite boulders, distant valleys and mountains, all softened by the abundant native flowers that make a showing in late May and June. Another native denizen, displaced in Berkeley by the Eastern Fox Squirrel, is the beautiful Western Gray Squirrel (Sciurus griseus).

Eloc Lodge, Idyllwild (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

Idyllwild’s first resort camp opened in 1890. In 1901, a sanatorium was built here for tuberculosis patients. Remodeled into a hotel and burnt down, it was rebuilt in 1905 as a resort. In 1917, the land was subdivided and sold as vacation lots. Some of the early homes built at that time may still be found on the banks of Strawberry Creek. One of those is the Eloc Lodge on River Drive. The former vacation home of the Cole family from Long Beach, it is constructed of unpeeled pine logs, its central feature being a sturdy chimney of smooth river rocks. The attic room in the front gable opens onto a balcony of rough sticks, buttressed by two branches. In front of the house, attached to an old Black Oak tree, a wooden sign bears the first stanza of Arthur Chapman’s famous poem, “Out Where The West Begins”: Out where the handclasp’s a little stronger, Out where the smile dwells a little longer, That’s where the West begins. Out where the sun is a little brighter, Where the snows that fall are a trifle whiter, Where the bonds of home are a wee bit tighter, That’s where the West begins.

Log & stone house, Idyllwild (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

Behind Eloc Lodge is a more elaborate timber-and-stone house flanked by several accessory buildings, all built of logs or local rock. Houses such as these are often filled with local handcrafted furniture. The Silver Pines Lodge and Creekside Cabins across the driveway began its life in 1923 as a furniture workshop. In 1934, Charles “Selden” Belden, a photographer from Oberlin, Ohio, moved to the San Jacinto Mountains and began producing handmade furniture under the Pinecraft label. Pinecraft furniture is now deemed collectible, and examples of it may be seen in the Idyllwild Area Historical Society Museum, 54470 North Circle Drive. Built in the 1920s, this shingled cabin was the summer home of one family for nearly 80 years. Open on weekends, the museum provides an introduction to the varied history of the region from the early days of the Cahuilla Indians to the era of organized summer camps.

Idyllwild Area Historical Society Museum (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

A couple of blocks east of the museum one comes upon Idyllwild’s most popular hangout, Café Aroma. A bistro, pub, espresso bar, art gallery, music venue, lending library, and social center rolled into one, Café Aroma exudes a relaxed bonhomie that recalls Big Sur. Open from 7 am to 9 pm, the cafe serves excellent food and drink in a quaint milieu. Live music accompanies dinner almost nightly, while the dining rooms and outdoor decks feature rotating art exhibits. Each Wednesday morning, a hiking club leaves the café for an excursion to the Tahquitz Wilderness. Locals drop in for early coffee and conversation. It’s tempting to take all your meals here. We did.

Café Aroma, Idyllwild’s favorite gathering place (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

A drive of less than two hours connects Idyllwild with Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains. The very scenic route down CA-243 abounds with mountain vistas and fire-following spring flowers. From Redlands, CA-38 meanders northeast through an impressive rocky landscape that modulates into conifer territory as one climbs toward Big Bear.

Log cabin at Windy Point, on the north shore of Big Bear Lake (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

Dubbed “Southern California’s only four-season resort,” Big Bear Lake nevertheless has an off-season in spring. After the skiers have departed and before the summer crowd has arrived, accommodations are plentiful and cheaper than at other times, although both weather and sightseeing are at their best in spring. The lake is a reservoir, like Lake Arrowhead. But unlike Arrowhead, which is densely developed around its entire rim, Big Bear Lake offers several points of public access. One of the most scenic is Boulder Bay, on the southwestern side.

Fawn Lodge, Fawnskin (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

Directly across from Boulder Bay on the lake’s northern shore lies the historic village of Fawnskin. At its center stands the red-and-white Fawn Lodge, a hotel built in 1917 and vacant since the late 1970s. Also on the main street is a log cabin that served as Fawnskin’s first Post Office and is now a picturesquely funky private residence. The tradition of building in bark-on logs continues here, as observed in at least two newer houses on North Shore Drive.

Now a private residence, this log cabin was Fawnskin's first post office. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

The Big Bear Discovery Center at 40971 North Shore Drive is the place to go for hiking and biking maps, camping information, Forest Service permits, and naturalist-led interpretive walks. From May through October, the center is open seven days a week from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm.

Contemporary log house, Fawnskin (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

This article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 11 June 2009.

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