Idyllwild, California, USA
Kevin B Beggs/

Is the drive to Idyllwild Scary?

By Pat Dorri | Published on 7 March 2023

Idyllwild sits nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains in Southern California. It is the gateway to Mount San Jacinto State Park and is located just over an hour's drive away from Palm Springs. Los Angeles lies 110 miles to the west of Idyllwild and it's a similar distance south to San Diego, making it an ever-popular destination for day-trippers and those looking for an idyllic weekend retreat.

A drive through the California desert up into the beautiful mountain setting of Idyllwild is a memorable drive but you might be wondering whether it is scary. The ascent is twisty and steep in places and can be overwhelming for nervous drivers.

Idyllwild is the perfect place for a getaway, a picturesque mountain town surrounded by stunning wilderness with excellent hiking, biking, and other opportunities to explore the outdoors. Read on to discover more about the safest route options and useful tips to make the trip as enjoyable as possible.

Which route should I take to Idyllwild?

Comparison of the route options between Palm Desert and Idyllwild
RouteDistanceDriving Time
The Scenic Route40 miles1 hour
The Banning Route65 miles1 hour 40 minutes

The trip is located in southern California, starting in Palm Desert, close to the stunning Joshua Tree National Park, Palm Springs, and Coachella Valley.

Both of our route options start in the heat of the desert before heading through the beautiful pine forests and alpine towns and villages that are situated all around Mt San Jacinto, the highest peak in the area.

The route up to Idyllwild from whichever direction twists and winds as you make your way up the mountain and although there are guard rails in place along parts of the route, there will be sections without barriers and there are some steep drop-offs on the mountain.

Both routes encounter several switchbacks and steep ascents, but the Scenic route is a little less twisty and is also the shorter of the two options. Couple this with the fantastic views on offer and this makes it the preferred route up the mountain to Idyllwild.

Welcome sign in Idyllwild California, United States
Idyllwild is the perfect getaway for outdoor entertainment and adventure.
Virrage Images/

Driving on the safest route to Idyllwild

The Scenic Route takes you on CA-74 from Palm Desert to Idyllwild and forms part of the route of the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway.

Leaving Palm Desert, you'll head past the National Monument Visitor Center heading south on CA -74 before ascending via a series of switchbacks to the Coachella Valley Vista Point.

From there, continue past Santa Rosa and Pinyon Pines to Paradise Valley before continuing past Lake Hemet and Mountain Center before reaching Idyllwild.

The route passes many small towns so restrooms, food, and refreshments are all readily available. There will be gas stations at many of the towns along the way such as Pinyon Pines and Santa Rosa Pit Stop, but as with any road trip, it is sensible to fill your tank before setting off.

There will be times on the drive when there will be no cell phone coverage as you head from desert to mountain wilderness.

The speed limit on the route is 55 mph but with so much to see along the way, and a twisty mountain road to navigate, take the journey at your own pace.

There are various viewpoints and pullouts along the way where you can pull over and admire the spectacular views, and let any traffic building up behind pass safely.

Winding Road to Coachella Valley Vista Point Palm Desert, CA
Make sure to take extra care as you weave along towards Coachella Valley Vista Point.
Sneaky Buddy/

Driving on the alternative route to Idyllwild

The Banning Route takes you from Palm Desert heading north on CA-111 N passing Rancho Mirage before arriving at Palm Springs. Continue onwards before joining I-10 W passing Cabazon, home to the world's biggest dinosaurs and Desert Hills Premium Outlets before reaching Banning.

Take the CA-243 S where you'll head through a series of sharp switchbacks before ascending to the Indian Vista Scenic Overlook. The road continues to twist and wind its way past Marion Mountain and Fern Basin Campgrounds before it reaches Idyllwild.

The route is longer and more dangerous than the Scenic alternative and if you are uncomfortable at the thought of driving on windy mountain roads, the shorter route will be the better option.

Things to know that can impact the drive on the safest route to Idyllwild

As it is located at altitude, in a mountain setting, the risk of snow in Idyllwild is real, and this could cause dangerous driving conditions and even road closures in the winter months.

There are road closure gates along the route, and these may be closed in winter if the road is impassable due to the wintry conditions.

It can be slow going on this route as drivers can be overly cautious and wary of the steep drop-offs. Commuters use the route heading from the desert to the coast, and the route is also popular with motorcyclists, especially in peak season when the weather is at its best.

There have been occasions in recent years where CA-74, and 243, have both been closed during the summer months as wildfires have spread throughout the region during spells of high heat and particularly windy conditions.

Always be sure to check the forecast before making the trip whatever time of year you are traveling.

Tips to drive to Idyllwild in the safest way

A trip to Idyllwild can be made all year round, weather permitting, and we have a few tips to help make the journey as safe and stress-free as possible.

Make the trip early in the day and make the journey at your own pace, stopping at many of the vantage points along the way before arriving in Idyllwild for lunch, before spending the afternoon exploring the town and surrounding area.

Avoid traveling at weekends if you want to avoid the busiest traffic and also avoid rush hour as the route is popular with commuters.

Whilst road conditions in the area are usually good, winter conditions on mountain roads require extra consideration and if you aren't keen on driving in snow, then plan your trip outside of the winter months.
A baby deer in the forest of Idyllwild, California
Winter scenes at Idyllwild are picture perfect, however it can make travelling there need extra planning.

If you are making the journey in winter, then ensure your vehicle is fitted with winter tires and always carry snow chains with you, even if they are not required. It is possible you will be stopped and asked for proof of having chains in the car.

If you're planning on hiring a car to make the trip, make sure you get a vehicle with winter tires, chains, etc. as they may not allow you to fit them on your own. Do not drive in full winter conditions where the roads will be dangerous and possibly closed.

Do always check the weather forecast in advance of making the trip to determine the conditions. You can check the local conditions here.

Traffic can be busy as it is popular with tourists and commuters alike, and it is single lane in places making overtaking difficult at times.

It is better to make the drive during daylight hours, and if possible, try and avoid the switchback sections at night. Making the trip when there is good visibility will make driving conditions much safer, especially if you are unfamiliar with the area, and will also allow you to make the most of the incredible vistas.

Idyllwild is generally a safe place, and crime is not a consideration when thinking of making the trip. Crime is higher during the day, corresponding with the time most visitors are in the area, and it is targeted around the retail areas.

Due to its popularity, heavy traffic usage means there is always a chance of road repairs taking place so do check ahead for any local road repairs in the area that could lead to possible delays or even road closures.

Alternatives to driving yourself to Idyllwild

The drive to Idyllwild should be a safe and enjoyable experience but if you don't fancy driving yourself, there are several other alternatives available.

The Forest Folk community shuttle bus serves Idyllwild and surrounding communities including Palm Desert and Banning, or you can take a taxi with a trip from Palm Springs costing around $200 (calculated at the time of writing).

Whilst you can't fly directly to Idyllwild, the nearest airport is only 35 miles away, Palm Springs International, and from there a taxi will take you to Idyllwild in a little over an hour.

Idyllwild Trail Sign, California, USA
Whichever way you decide to travel to Idyllwild, you can be sure of first-class outdoor adventure and hiking trails once you arrive.
Matthew John Photography/

Best time to drive to Idyllwild

In the summer months, Idyllwild temperatures during the day are usually between 75-85 degrees Fahrenheit. The evenings can be much cooler with the temperature dropping down to mid-50 degrees Fahrenheit.

The daytime temperatures make it a popular summer retreat for those looking to escape the heat in the Valleys down below.

Winter in Idyllwild can be cold, as to be expected at over 5,000 feet up a mountain. Daily temperatures average around 50 degrees Fahrenheit but it will often drop below freezing at night. You can expect to see heavy snowfall in the winter months, which makes the town even more beautiful, but also more difficult to reach.