In the afternoon, when the sun is shining above the canyon that is now Fulmor Lake, you can see through the water until your vision trails off some five or six feet down. If you look long enough you will see shadows move, chasing insects to the surface of the water until they break that surface and their forms are revealed, long and sinewy, fins and gills glistening.
Most often you’ll just make out a splash out of the corner of your eye and by the time you’ve turned your head to see, there’s nothing but circles within circles on the water’s surface. Staring at the lake is a meditative experience. The winds come and swoop down the canyon, causing the surface of the lake to ripple simultaneously its entire length. Clouds move and gather at the speed of a freeway-traveling car, amassing suddenly and opening their flood gates for an intermittent period, then moving on and shedding their rain elsewhere.
The lake is alive with fish: Rainbow trout leap for insects, largemouth bass keep cool in the deep center of the lake and blue gill scurry around in the shallows. On the banks of the lake, long-tailed blue squirrels run around chasing each other up the trees that woodpeckers burrow into looking for insects. Dragonflies and ladybugs skim the very faintest edges of the surface sneaking drinks quickly before darting away to safety. This time of year, ladybugs gather in swarms. Prepare yourself for a faint prickle then the realization that five or more ladybugs have landed on your arm. It’s a small piece of paradise hidden away past the concrete and asphalt that is Southern California’s metropolitan areas.
Outside the beach cities of Orange County, heading up the 55 highway until it becomes the dreaded 91, through the city of Riverside and on the way toward a seemingly endless desert, there is a highway that climbs in elevation some 6,000 feet in less than 30 miles. Highway 243 is the road to escape; as it winds up the hill you can look back over your shoulder and see the cities of Banning and Beaumont laid out like matrix grids, a testament to the ingenuity of man. The road leads higher and the landscape on the hills begin to change.
From red-brown earth and cacti, escarpments of granite rock begin to break through the ground and chaparrals of green oaks and red Manzanita start dotting the landscape. Higher still and the oaks turn to sweet, beautiful pine trees. The sun is hidden behind them; it can’t break through, the pines proliferate the landscape densely. At 6,000 feet, the climate has fully transformed. Gone are the palm trees, Starbuck’s Drive-thrus, Petcos, Targets and Home Owner Associations. You have risen above it all and are now in the San Bernardino National Forest.
Past the vista point that marks the last time you can look down the mountainsides and see cities off in the distance, Lake Fulmor sneaks up on the left-hand side invisible from the road until you’ve passed it. There are signs pointing the way, marking a parking lot designated for the lake, but the actual body of water is hidden behind a row of pine trees. It’s a jewel hidden away and travelers passing through could easily not notice the turn-off and just keep driving.
It’s this need for a thoroughfare to the mountain city of Idyllwild to which the lake owes its existence. It was formed in 1948 when Hall Creek, which ran through Hall Canyon, was dammed to form a bridge for the then new highway. Alex C. Fulmor conducted the survey for the road and fought a protracted battle with the city of Riverside to begin construction. The highway took 15 years to complete. Alex C. Fulmor was honored by having his name lent to the lake. Later, Highway 243 was honored with a National Scenic Byway status.
Lake Fulmor is more like a pond than its name might imply. It’s small and quaint. There are picnic tables cast in concrete and made out of wood that dot the left side of the water. In some picnic locations there are cast iron grills for barbequing. Locals from nearby Idyllwild and Banning come to walk a trail that winds around the perimeter. Some bring books to read and find some shady spot along the shore to sit with legs crossed. The trail follows the heavily used picnic areas and continues through the pine and oak trees around a pier that’s been constructed toward the middle of the body of water.
The pier loops out in a half hexagon and at its furthest reach juts out some 10 to 15 feet toward the deepest part of the lake. Fishermen frequent the pier and catch bass and trout that hide under it during midday. Following the trail toward the far side of the lake, the landscape becomes wilder. The embankment increases in steepness and the trail winds around Manzanita bushes and pine trees. For fishermen, the far side of the lake presents a different challenge: how to cast between forest growth without getting their lines caught in overhanging trees and bushes. Every so often you can see fishing line dangling from some tree branch where a fisherman was foiled and had to cut their line.
Fulmor Lake is a great destination outside of the city. It’s a worthwhile trip for anyone seeking a natural refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city. So get out of Irvine and check it out.