Hot springs and Humperdinck: dirt roads to Idyllwild, CA

The journey west continues to unfold…

Our perfect, Celluloid-blue Californian sky takes a turn for the worse in Joshua Tree. With 80mph gusts of wind to contend with, we find ourselves seeking refuge in a motel whose clientele has included Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris and John Wayne.

Then, local knowhow discloses information on a dirt road linking Yucca Valley to Desert Hot Springs. This is particularly exciting news for Nancy – less the dirt, more the springs – as she’s been yearning for a proper soak for some time.

Scrubbed clean, briefly, Google Maps hooks us up with more dusty backroads to Banning. Our oh-so-clever little guide, the iPhone, does a stellar job at navigating us through a vast ocean of wind turbines, and linking us up with a service road that runs parallel to the Interstate 10 – safe passage through the eighteen wheelers that thunder past en route to San Diego.

Our plans to take a backroad to Hemit aren’t met with as much success – hopes are dashed by a locked gate and conflicting reports of a way through. As consolation, we detour up towards Idyllwild, an evocative-sounding settlement of timeworn wooden houses, hidden between the giant boulders and craggy peaks of the San Jancinto Mountains. From a lowly thousand feet, we’re back amongst the pine needles again…


My parents visited this area in the 1972. Some 40 years later, the Joshua Tree Inn, where they stayed, is still open for business. It's well known amongst country rock aficionados as the motel in which Gram Parsons passed away, and is popular with visiting musicians.




Gram's room, no 8, available to sleep in - for those don't believe in spirits... It's complete with some of the original furniture from 1973, the year of his death.


Built in the '50s, the Joshua Tree Inn is a quiet, beautifully kept motel. We treat ourselves to a room for a night, after its kind, chilled-out manager Marcu - sporting impressive, waist-length dreadlocks - offers us a mid-week special. In fact, we're even upgraded, ending up in the timewarped John Barrymore suite, so named for its popularity with the 30s actor - grandfather of Drew Barrymore. Even cooler, it's the room in which John Wayne always stayed when he was in the area.


Sadly, the highway must have bloated in size over the ensuing years - there's no shoulder for cyclists and it's thick with traffic. Backroads offer far more enticing riding and camping opportunities. Once the storm has past and the Californian sun is shining once more, we detour up to Pioneer Town.


This characterful place began its life as a Wild West film set, back in the 1940s. Now it's just as known now for Patty and Harriet's bar, a small venue that draws top musicians, who are often recording in nearby studios.


Good to know: wheelmen will find chocolate tablets very beneficial.


Then it's back on the road again, ever searching for ways to avoid the 29 Palms Highway. Little Morongo Canyon Road soon becomes sand, as we enter a valley shared with a last few, lingering Joshua Trees.


Cyclists take note. This whole desert traverse has been something of a goathead medley - a particularly tenacious, vindictive thorn that preys on inner tubes. Tyre sealant is a must - you can see where two puncture wounds have been successfully plugged, keeping us rolling.


The Powerline Road descends for several miles, looping through the steep-sided Morongo Canyon. A lengthy push through sand slows our progress to tortoise-pace, so we opt to camp for the night.


Deep in the canyon, the winds are gusting up again, throwing tumbleweeds in our path. After struggling to get the tarp up, we pillage the canyon for every available rock in the hope of keeping it down, and stop it sailing back off into the desert.


Finally, we're ejected out of our sandy wash into well-to-do suburbia. Tucked away amongst the luxury complexes in Desert Hot Springs, our budget noses sniff out a retro spa, where the rich, swooning voice of Engelbert Humperdinck pipes out of the loudspeaker. $7 gets us the use of a series of hot springs, an icy-cold plunge pool, a massive outdoor swimming pool, as much mineral water as we can drink, and some truly surreal conversation. 'You can live to 130 these days, as long as keep on swapping out body parts,' says one, prune-like old timer we share a soak with.


How many? It's no wonder our campspot was a little windy. This area is well known for its gusty conditions, thanks to cool coastal and hot desert airs mixing. Stork-like wind turbines are everywhere.


Google Maps guides us on a dirt road that wends its way right between the blades of this enormous wind farm.

Finally, we pop us out parallel to the monstrous Interstate 10, linking San Diego with Florida. Pushing on past sunset, we camp out for the night on high ground, mesmerised by the endless stream of headlights that flicker by throughout the night.


Come morning, our alternative route is a little scraggly round the edges, but a whole lot quieter.

In fact, sometimes it feels like real backcountry riding - even though we're just a few hundred feet from such a seething mass of cars and trucks.


We stop for a snack under a diplodocus - it's not often you can say that. In fact, this dinosaur-themed cafe was one of the locations for 'Pee-wee's Big Adventure', a zany film that recounts Pee-wee Herman's search for his stolen bicycle.


We make our way through Banning to Hemit, a low lying valley that's bountiful with produce. Sold by the roadside, buckwheat honey, dates, sweet potatoes and persimmons - sweet fruit masquerading as rotting tomatoes - all take our fancy.


The grapefruits here are particularly tasty and remind me of my time riding through the Copper Canyon, North Mexico. That night we stay with Sue and Keith, our Warm Showers hosts, two teachers who battle daily against the car-centric tide on their bicycles.


A few miles out of town we turn off onto the Old Control Road. It snakes its way up into the San Jancinto Mountains, climbing steeply for 10 miles to Idyllwild, almost 4000 feet above Hemet.


There, we arrive in a world of giant boulders, mangrove-like manzanitas and towering sugar pines - known to grow to a couple of hundred feet - and their babyhead-sized cones.


It's a beautiful, often overlooked swathe of forest home to the Pacific Crest Trail - one of the US' long distance hiking routes - that abounds in folksy wooden cottages and cabins, tucked away amongst the pines. In fact, our first night is spent with Karen, a PCT hiker herself, who puts us up, feeds us, and sends us packing with all manner of tasty, lightweight hiking food.

Idyllwild: the place where the pine needles gather.


Most known for its climbing, Idyllwild also boasts great mountain biking trails. We head over to the local framebuilder, Siren Cycles, to check out his wares. Amongst a collection of racey aluminium softtails, this steel, long-distance 29er catches my eye.


It features an elegant, curved top tube and internal framerouting.


Brendan, Siren's framebuilder and ownver of the Hub Cyclery - a goodies-packed bike shop with a roaring log fire - recommends enough local singletrack to keep us busy for a couple of afternoons.

The trails around May Valley Road weave their way between pines and manzanitas, squeezing between boulders, twisting and turning every which way.


There's no finer manner to round off a ride in Idyllwild than a trip to the arty, eclectic Honey Bunns and Joe cafe. Should you be passing by, we can heartily recommend the toasty-warm, generously-proportioned cinnamon roles...

Quick links:

Joshua Tree Inn – beautiful, timewarped motel rich in musical and movie history.

Patty and Harriets, Pioneer Town – small venue with big names.

The Pacific Crest Trail – a 4 month, cross country hiking route.

Siren Cycles – purveyors of fine, aluminium soft tails mountain bikes.

The Hub Cyclery, Idyllwild – bikepacking gear and a roaring log fire. What more could you want?

Engelbert Humperdinck – let yourself be serenaded by one of the best swooners around…

17 thoughts on “Hot springs and Humperdinck: dirt roads to Idyllwild, CA

  1. Susie Moberly

    Your images have me drooling for buckwheat honey, dates, sweet potatoes and persimmons… especially the walnuts and loved the look of Karen’s forest home . It all looks so peaceful… ALL your photos mind boggling as usual and love Nancy with the huge pine kernals… keep em coming.

    Happy Christmas and hope you’re feeling much better? You both look great! Hugs X

  2. Casey OD

    If you’re interested in a bit of trivia, those are among the first wind turbines put up in the US in the early ’80s, from when wind power seemed like a hippie’s dream. They are small guys, <1MW each unit, but that wind farm could power over 300,000 households.

    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Thanks for that Casey. I did do a little research on them, but I couldn’t find out the farm’s name, or details of who it powered. I heard someone mentioning how it went to LA, rather than staying local.

  3. Alex Lockhart

    Fantastic pictures, as always. Why so small (or, why no click-to-embiggen)? At least half of these I want to see in a size twice as big, the better to drool over.

    I was driving one of those trucks on I-10 in the windstorm you found shelter from last week. I always imagine cycling through the places I’m driving through, so it’s great to see that you were actually doing that!

    You have a great story to tell, and your words and pictures do an excellent job of telling it. I’ve done a lot of adventuring and storytelling, but I keep coming back to yours for inspiration and guidance. Keep riding!

    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Thanks Alex. I’m working on getting some pictures up on Flickr, or a nice way of ’embiggening’ the ones on the blog. I’m probably a bit fussy, but not too keen on them just sitting in the corner of the screen on white.
      Looks like you did some great riding in Mexico. I love that area, especially Zacatecas.

      1. Alex Lockhart

        Awesome. Flickr should be an easy solution – with a desktop app to manage your pics there and a wordpress plugin to embed them here, it should be almost as quick and easy as having them natively on wordpress.

        Yeah, Mexico was great. The riding, and people, were fantastic. I got too caught up in telling the story in excessive detail, and trying to “do it right” sometimes. That’s what I mean by saying I look to your blog for guidance – I realize that your style, which leaves most details to the imagination, works as well or better than mine. And it’s faster – which is super valuable on the road.

        Next summer I’m hoping to do the GDMBR. The all-but perfect bicycle tour, right?

        1. While Out Riding Post author

          I’d like to get them to come up on black, or at least, within some kind of Flickr-like frame.

          Thanks for your comments about the blog. I used to be more wordy and expressive, but it was always a struggle to keep up to date. It felt like a never ending task.

          It’s still a challenge setting out pictures into a cohesive story, and captioning them in such a way that they convey the essence of being on the road. And I still spend way too much time in front of the computer… But overall, it’s quicker I think.

          The more I try and weave my own dirt road rides in the US, the more I appreciate how much research has gone into the GDMBR… It’s well worth leaving time for sidetrips though.

  4. gyatsola

    The Siren bike looks really interesting. I bet Scott is already thinking about what sort of bag he could make to fit inside that double top-tube 😉 Maybe a specialist Haribu holder?

    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Thanks for the correction. I thought the picture I saw of the Sugar pines looked longer and skinnier when I was trying to research what kind it was. I’ll have to track those down one day.

  5. Nyingpo

    Gearing up for the continental divide. Enjoy
    Your travelogue, and glean useful tips with
    Every installment. Keep the spokes turning.


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