We earned our sticker – “I SURVIVED THE TOP OF THE WORLD HIGHWAY.” For those of you who haven’t driven to the Land of the Midnight Sun via the inland route, that road is a “high-way” only in its elevation. It’s perhaps the worst well-traveled road in North America.
We made the washboard, narrow, rocky, undulating, scary, precipitous, dusty, slippery trek from Dawson City, Yukon Territory, to Chicken, Alaska, a year ago pulling our 28-foot travel trailer.
This past Saturday, we encountered the San Jacinto Mountains version of the TWH.
Streets, roadways, lanes, anything that a car can traverse to get from Point A to Point B can be as fascinating as the ant farm you had when you were a kid. About once a week, we find ourselves exploring a roadway to see what surprises it may hold. We have yet to be disappointed.
After participating in “Butterfly Daze” at the Idyllwild Nature Center, which included a scenic hike along the Loop Trail, I turned left out of the park heading toward Pine Cove. Monique didn’t bother to ask – she knew we were out for another journey into the unknown. I turned onto Overlook Drive and then Ridge Drive before taking a left at Pine Cove Road. We were fascinated by the variety of residences, from early mountaineering cabins to modern homes. When we saw the marker that told us we would join Hwy. 74, we guessed that we would come out somewhere around Mountain Center. “Okay, we can do that!”
Our 4-wheel-drive diesel ¾-ton GMC urged us to keep going when we passed the sign that said “Paved Road Ends.” I was eager to go on … Monique knew that it wouldn’t do much good to balk at my wanderlust. So we drove onward. And upward. And downward. And around hairpin curves. And through narrows that had Manzanita bushes scraping one side of the truck and then the other. And just as the sign had promised, it was all on dirt, dry, thank goodness.
At first, we had a mission. You know those giant blond pinecones you see every now and then around town? We began collecting a few – just the best ones lying in the
road – to decorate the exterior of our cabin. It slowed our progress, but at least we had a purpose other than exploring a remote road. We quit collecting when the back of the truck was filling up.
The trail kept going – we didn’t know where – but we knew we weren’t going anywhere near Mountain Center. The views were magnificent, which, as you know, is typical of this area. We plodded along, 5 miles per hour, speeding up to 15 but braking when a sudden rise appeared immediately ahead of us. Oh, I hit a couple faster than I wanted, but that’s the benefit of a high-clearance vehicle on this type of road.
At this point we began likening the drive on the Top of the World Highway. And, by the way, we made it across that terrifying path a day before a river washed out a section of the road carrying with it a car with driver inside. We never heard more about him, but we did learn that 28 RVs and cars had been trapped on the road for several days.
Back to last Saturday’s trek. After about an hour and a half of winding, dodging and bobbing, I noticed what appeared to be a frog in the road. It was probably a leaf, and Monique reminded me there was no water anywhere around … until we turned the next corner and saw a stream alongside the road. Lo and behold, we soon came upon a pond nourished by clear running water that emptied into a classic rocky creek below. We crossed the shallow wetland in the truck stopping to talk to a group of folks from Banning, who had come up from the hot desert to lounge around in the coolness of this widening in San Jacinto River’s North Fork.
We learned from them that the shortest distance back to Idyllwild was the way we came. Rather than turn around, I succumbed to the adventure that beckoned me onward. We complimented the picnickers on being there to enjoy this oasis, petted their dogs and once again tackled the dirt, rocks and bouncing in search of the end of the road.
Along the entire 15.9-mile route, we had met up with only three vehicles coming in the opposite direction. In two cases, we lucked out by being at one of the few places where the road widens enough for cars to pass, although one had to go on the roadside berm so side-view mirrors didn’t touch (we stood our ground). In the third incident, I backed up to a spot where the oncoming truck could pass.
For the next hour, during which time we drove only 10 miles, it was pretty much more of the same: dirt, loose rocks, bumps and dips, switchbacks, branches scrapping, beauty all around. At the fork in the road (not to be confused with the “frog in the road”), we chose “to Hwy. 74” rather than “Hemet,” as indicated on U.S. Forest Service markers.
We rejoined the real world when we came out by the water plant at the beginning of the ascension of 74 up the mountain toward Idyllwild. Fourteen miles later, we were slowing for the “Speed Limit 30” signs of Idyllwild.
If you’re looking for, let’s say, a change of scenery going down The Hill, and maybe you’re wondering what’s the worst way to get from Pine Cove/Idyllwild to Hemet, I’d certainly recommend this route, with the following caveats: have bottled water with you, 4-wheel-drive and/or a high-clearance vehicle, plenty of time, don’t go following rain or when rain is impending, have a sense of beauty and a sense of humor. If you have all of the above, GO, but you won’t see us along the way, I promise.
ADDITIONAL NOTES: Thanks to Mario Fraser, supervisor with the U.S. Forest Service in Idyllwild, and our neighbor Hill Champion for filling in details about a mostly unmarked road. The official name is 5S09, joining 5S07 to Hwy. 74 or 5S10 to Hemet. You locals know it as Bee Canyon Road.
Have you survived Bee Canyon Road? Our readers welcome your comments below about your experiences.
Happy RVers, but At Home on The Hill
Barry & Monique
© All photos by Barry Zander. All rights reserved