The folks from Colorado or the Sierra Nevada may chuckle just a bit when you say there is good skiing near Los Angeles, but our eye-opening trip to Big Bear in Januaryproved that, for us, it definitely was worth the trip. Wide-open cruising, sunny skies, high-speed quads, no lift lines and lots of fresh snow — could you ask for anything more?
Okay, maybe you could ask to play golf in the same vacation -- in which case you can drive down the mountain to Palm Springs, just an hour away.
The snow at Big Bear, we should add, is man-made, but the operators of Big Bear Mountain Resorts are quick to point out that snow is snow, and man-made snow is, indeed, real snow. It just was shot from a gun, not sprinkled from the heavens.
We've skied most of the great ski areas in the Northwest, from Whistler to Sun Valley to Mt. Bachelor, all the way down to California's Squaw Valley so we do have some basis for comparison. Sure, Big Bear skiing is not as elaborate or varied in terrain as the mega ski resorts and, without Mother Nature's help, it's not likely to have the giant moguls or four inches of fresh powder you might encounter where there is naturally more snow.
But the mountains that offer skiing and snowboarding at Big Bear Lake do offer plenty to keep you busy. We focused entirely on just one of two areas ' Snow Summit — and it had our worn-out thighs begging for mercy after just a few hours. With no lines, it's basically ride-and-go — hop on one of the high-speed chairlifts to the top of the mountain, then ski or snowboard down about 1200 feet of vertical and do it all over again.
One important note here: Our skiing was Thursday and Friday, not during the weekend. Big Bear skiing draws visitors from such a huge metropolis — all of the L.A. Basin is within a couple of hours' drive — that the ski areas actually turn away customers on weekends in order to keep the lifts and runs from overflowing. The limit we're told is 7,000 visitors on any given Saturday or Sunday.
Limiting the number of visitors to a ski area speaks volumes about the management of the area — especially when you consider that the Big Bear ski areas have invested $6 million recently in upgrading their snowmaking to the point that they can cover 100 percent of the runswith man-made snow. We liked the idea that Big Bear is concerned about their visitors' experience when the reality is they could just open the flood gates and probably never run out of customers from the huge L.A. market.
The snowmaking is possible as long as there are cold temperatures — in the 20's — and the Big Bear areas have their snowmaking down to a science. Early in the year they adjust the snow to be a little wetter and thus icier when it freezes, which becomes a good solid base on which to add more layers of snow. The top layer is applied as needed and is a drier snow giving visitors the feeling of a light dusting of powder. During our visit, daytime temperatures were in the low 30's so we thought the runs might be icy — not so, however. The snow's texture allowed for excellent control.
The type and amount of snow are just part of the skiing experience and, for many, the scenery becomes another important consideration. Here, Big Bear skiing does not disappoint — most of the runs have wide, expansive vistas looking down to Big Bear Lake, making the scenery reminiscent of some of the skiing around Lake Tahoe.
With 300 days of sunshine each year, Big Bear — even in winter — offers better weather than most West Coast ski resorts. On our second day, temperatures reached about 40 degrees and the skies were clear blue, so that put it pretty close to spring skiing conditions at most other resorts.
If you're into quality skiing, it's well worth taking a couple of vacation days and experiencing mid-week at Big Bear. We're long past those days when we used to get up at dawn, drive hours through snow, sleet and ice and then spend a few frost-bitten, shivering hours braving icy wind or worse, fog. The catch phrase we used to ask ourselves: "Are we having fun yet?"
On our Big Bear trip, we drove two and a half hours from the San Diego area on Thursday with plenty of time for skiing once we arrived. Later, we relaxed at a great hotel, went out for some apr's-ski pizza and slept like babies. The next day we chowed down on a huge throw-cholesterol-to-the-wind breakfast and still had several hours of quality skiing before it was time to head home.
We stayed at the Northwoods Resort and Conference Center, one of the larger facilities at Big Bear Lake with a variety of accommodations. These units are mountain lodge style with lots of special touches to make you feel like you're not staying in an everyday hotel. D'cor is Adirondack style and rooms feature hand-crafted furnishings. Suites feature gas-burning fireplaces, in-room spa tubs and a wet bar. We found the service friendly and the whole facility quite convenient — only a mile or so from the ski area.
The Big Bear area has, in fact, one of the best selections of getaway-style lodgings anywhere in the state. The "cabin in the woods" experience is alive and well, whether it's staying in a resort or renting your own Big Bear cabin by the week or month. There are some of the best bed-and-breakfast inns available anywhere in California. Or you can stay in simpler motel-style units — this area has it all.
Big Bear Lake is popular with visitors both in winter and in summer, so there is a resort infrastructure that has built up over the years. The downtown shopping area is small and funky with its art and gift shops and no shortage of places to enjoy a good meal. Barbecue or steak restaurants are popular in Big Bear, but there is a variety of other choices including Mexican, Chinese and other selections.
For breakfast, there has to be no better place than the Grizzly Manor Café, where the owner's opinions are dished out pretty much in proportion to the food. This is one of those hole-in-the-wall places where there are so few tables that, on a busy weekend morning, you'll have to stand in line to get in. Once inside you'll be treated to cheery waitresses and the middle-aged, owner-cook who makes a point of visiting with the patrons and offering up some humor in the process. The food, we discovered, is everything your doctor told you not to eat: pancakes bigger than the plates, tasty sausage, eggs and potatoes fried in flavorful grease. Portions are about twice what anyone should be eating, so order light and you'll come out about right. Prices are quit reasonable.
If there is a down side to Big Bear, it's that the last 45 minutes of your drive to Big Bear will be on winding roads. This isn't much of a problem in good weather but, if storms are present, the drive can be slow — especially on weekends. When the main highways to Big Bear (330/18) are congested, the ski areas advise that visitors consider using Highway 38, which approaches the resort from the southeast side. While a little bit longer, it is much faster than getting delayed in traffic on the other routes.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Big Bear skiing is about a two-hour drive east from Los Angeles. The two areas operated by Big Bear Mountain Resorts are Snow Summit, the best choice for intermediate skiers, and Bear Mountain, the best choice for hotdog skiers and snowboarders.
WHAT: Big Bear Lake is a popular year-round resort area. In summer, the water activities draw visitors while, in winter, it's the skiing, snowshoeing and other winter activities.
WHEN: Year-round. Bi Bear skiing lasts from about December through April, sometimes longer.
WHY: The area is relatively close to the 20 million people living from San Diego to Santa Barbara and, at a 6,000-foot base level, offers a climate unlike anyplace else in Southern California.
HOW: For more information on lodging at Big Bear, visit Big Bear lodging.
Photos by Cary Ordway. From top: Spectacular views from top of Snow Summit chairlifts; a family finds enjoys some snow play along the scenic Big Bear shoreline; Grizzly Manor Cafe is known for good breakfasts and good humor; runs at Snow Summit are wide open on most weekdays; serving up burgers at the Snow Summit base area.
(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If Big Bear is your idea of a California vacation, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Lake Tahoe, Mammoth Mountain, California Coast and Luxurious Guest Ranches.
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