If the Inland Empire sounds like a grand name for the region east of Los Angeles that extends south toward San Diego County, then consider everything it encompasses. This area includes both growing suburbs and cities such as Riverside and San Bernardino. The Inland Empire’s diverse terrain ranges from citrus groves and the Temecula wine country up into the rugged San Bernardino Mountains around such towns as Idyllwild, Big Bear Lake, and Lake Arrowhead. What’s more, it also extends all the way out to the Mojave Desert. There’s much to discover here, including these under-the-radar attractions and experiences.
Big Bear Wild Burro Territory, San Bernardino County
In addition to its abundant native wildlife (yes, there are some big bears in these parts), the area near Big Bear Lake is also home to a herd of 60 wild burros. These denizens of the San Bernardino National Forest’s Big Bear Wild Burro Territory are the descendants of burros brought to the mountains by miners and movie crews in the first half of the 20th century, as well as escaped and released animals used in annual races during the 1950s.
Rose Haven Heritage Garden, Temecula
Since 1991, the 3.4-acre Rose Haven Heritage Garden in Temecula has been an irresistible destination for anyone who loves these gorgeous flowers. A rose, by any name, certainly does smell sweet, and when you bring together 1,600 of these plants—hybrid teas, floribundas, climbers, and mini-roses—the fragrance is positively heavenly. So too is the garden’s range of colors, from deep reds to pale yellows and whites. The garden is owned and maintained by the Temecula Valley Rose Society and the peak bloom begins in April and May.
Sugarplum Farm, Temecula
Sugarplum Farm brings together two things everyone loves—cute animals and chocolate—to create the perfect family-friendly destination. Come to this small therapy and petting zoo in Temecula for close-up looks at such animals as a camel, zebra, and a dwarf horse. There’s even a tour guide pig and a zonkey (a zebra-donkey mix). You’ll also find a shop with the premium, artisanal chocolates that Sugarplum makes for leading hotels, as well as honeys and jams produced on the farm.
Baldwin Lake Ecological Reserve, Big Bear Lake
Baldwin Lake is that “other” lake—the often overlooked and smaller of the two bodies of water at the town of Big Bear Lake. If Big Bear Lake itself is celebrated for its boating and outdoor recreation, the 156-acre Baldwin Lake Ecological Reserve is a more secluded, natural escape. Its unique vernal wet meadow and pebble plain habitats bloom in spring with rare wildflowers, and the reserve is a great place for wildlife viewing—from rare butterflies to wintering bald eagles.
Mitla Café, San Bernardino
The Mitla Café is no secret to generations of San Bernardino residents. After all, it opened in 1937, and you don’t stay in business for more than 80 years without having a loyal clientele. But for many others in the Inland Empire, this little homestyle restaurant on Route 66 with its old-school favorites, including a celebrated chile relleno and beloved menudo soup, remains an undiscovered gem. If you have trouble deciding what to order, then go with the #6 combination, which comes with a chile relleno, taco, and enchilada.
Lincoln Memorial Shrine, Redlands
Though far more modest than Washington D.C.’s iconic Lincoln Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial Shrine in Redlands is a surprising and impressive tribute to the man often considered the greatest of all American presidents. The original limestone-clad octagonal building opened in 1932, and its dome features murals of allegorical figures painted by noted artist Dean Cornwell that portray aspects of Lincoln’s character, including wisdom, strength, and tolerance. Among the shrine’s treasures are Civil War artifacts and original Lincoln sculptures crafted from life masks created during his presidency.
Route 66, Victorville
Head out to Victorville in the high desert to discover the history of Route 66 and experience a survivor of this fabled highway’s heyday. The California Route 66 Museum preserves artifacts of the highway’s past, including old gas pumps and vintage vehicles, as it tells the story of this road that passed through Victorville and the Inland Empire on its 2,448-mile run between Chicago and Santa Monica. Then cruise on over to nearby Emma Jean’s Holland Burger Cafe and bite into history at a diner that has served Route 66 travelers since 1947.
The Olive Plantation, Temecula
As acclaimed as the Temecula Valley has become for its wines, the area also has a reputation for producing outstanding olive oils. After modest beginnings in 2010, The Olive Plantation earned numerous awards at the California State Fair, including one for best microproducer. The plantation does all of its own milling on-site and ensures the highest of quality by adhering to the “first cold press” method to produce its premium extra virgin olive oil. And it only uses hand-harvested young olives that have yet to fully ripen.
Joseph Filippi Winery & Vineyards, Cucamonga Valley
Long before the first vines were planted in the Temecula Valley Wine Country, the Cucamonga Valley was Southern California’s leading wine region. Even as the valley has become more urbanized, the winemaking tradition endures here, most notably at the Joseph Filippi Winery & Vineyards. Now operated by the fourth generation of the Filippi family, the winery opened in 1922 and continues to produce the celebrated Zinfandels that the Cucamonga Valley has long been known for. Winery tours and tastings are available.