If you're headed to Big Bear Lake, you might want to plan a couple of hours to visit Big Bear's secret zoo. It really was not intended to be a secret but the zoo has been so low profile the past few years that visitors might easily have missed an experience that is quite unique.
The Moonridge Animal Park is tucked into 2.5 wooded acres near the Big Bear Ski Resort and is one of only two alpine zoos in the country. Animals housed at the park — which is gradually becoming better known as the Big Bear Zoo — are primarily native to the San Bernardino Mountains or would normally live in an alpine setting. That means that zoo visitors will get an up-close and personal look at such endangered species as grizzly bears, timber wolves, fishers and bald eagles — 80 species of animals altogether.
"It's a very personal experience," explains Cathleen Calkins, zoo spokeswoman. "You're up close to the animals. You stroll along dirt paths under a canopy of trees. It's kind of your down home experience."
The park has been primarily a wildlife rehabilitation center for injured, orphaned and endangered alpine species since 1959. Today, visitors are encouraged to visit the park between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., although the best time to visit Moonridge Animal Park may be for the 3 p.m. feeding that occurs each Saturday and Sunday (the animals are fed weekdays, too — you're just not invited to watch). Visitors can follow the keepers around as they make the rounds feeding the various animals.
During feeding, the keepers take time to offer visitors interesting facts about the various animals. There is also a daily presentation at noon in which various animals will be brought out onto the grass where visitors will be given a presentation about that particular animal.
Perhaps the biggest draw at the park is the grizzly exhibit. The grizzly population has been reduced to as few as 1,000 in the lower 48 states and none in California where they are the official state mammal. Moonridge's mother grizzly bear was captured near Yellowstone National Park after venturing into human habitation three times and was scheduled to be euthanized. Through a fundraising campaign, the Moonstone Animal Park was able to construct permanent housing for the grizzlies in the late 90s. The grizzly family unit at Moonridge is quite unique and has been studied by researchers from around the country. Adapting to their new habitat, the bears don't go into a true hibernation, but instead sleep intermittently.
Moonridge also has a couple of black bears — including one that had to have his foot amputated — as well as mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes and lots of owls an other birds including bald eagles. An aviary on the property allows visitors to walk through an area populated by several types of birds.
The bald eagles are one of the most spectacular and popular species at Moonridge Animal Park. The bald eagle is the only eagle unique to North America, but the entire species was nearly wiped out in the lower 48 states by the pesticide DDT, which caused birth defects and weakened eggshells. Three bald eagles reside at Moonridge Animal Park where they have been rescued from nearly fatal brushes with man. All three have broken or fractured wings, and cannot be re-released into the wild.
In the next few years, Big Bear's secret zoo is expected to undergo some major changes and a big boost in its public profile. The lease will expire on the present site in 2009 and plans now call for the zoo to be moved to and expanded on a 50-acre parcel adjacent to the Discovery Center on Big Bear Lake's North Shore. The result will be the Living Forest Wildlife Center, which is expected to draw 150,000 visitors each year.
Meanwhile, the Moonridge Animal Park will continue to be a fascinating side-excursion for Big Bear visitors that is priced to attract even the most frugal of travelers: just $5 for adults, $4 for children 3 to 11 and free for kids under 3.
Big Bear Lake has long been considered a vacation gem for Southern Californians — a taste of the mountains that is just an hour's drive from the desert of Palm Springs. The area has thick forests making it feel like areas near Lake Tahoe. But Southern California weather keeps the skies over Big Bear blue most of the year — one reason that the film and television industry has used this resort area as a location backdrop for many famous productions.
The activities in and near Big Bear are limitless — if it has to do with outdoor recreation, you probably can do it at Big Bear. Hiking trails are located in different locations around the lake, and bicycling is big — although, remember, you're at almost 7,000 feet of altitude. Boat rentals and water activities are available in summer; in winter Big Bear turns into a winter wonderland ski resort. Skiing and snowboarding are offered at Snow Summit and at Bear Mountain. Other winter sports include sledding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
The area has an unusually large selection of visitor lodgings ranging from motel-style units to million-dollar vacation homes. There are many restaurants to choose from, as well.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Big Bear Lake is about a two-hour drive east from Los Angeles and is located at about 7,000 feet elevation northeast of San Bernardino.
WHAT: Big Bear Lake is a year-round playground that in summer attracts hiking and water enthusiasts and, in winter, draws skiers and winter sportsmen to its downhill and cross country ski facilities.
WHEN: Any time of year.
WHY: While located in Southern California, the Big Bear area is high enough elevation that it's forested, but still a beneficiary of the area's considerable sunshine. The visitor infrastructure has been built out to offer a host of lodging and dining opportunities in the area.
HOW: For more information on the Moonridge Animal Park, phone (909) 584-1171 or visit www.bigbearzoo.com.
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