No question that Southern Californians look to Big Bear in the winter as that place they can find skiing, winter sports and a fair degree of winter weather, all about two hours east from Los Angeles. It's so convenient – go curl up in a cabin with snow on the ground, spend a few hours at the ski hill and drive back down to Southern California palm trees and beaches all in one weekend.
What many don't realize is that the summers at Big Bear can offer the same kind of respite – cooler weather, lots more trees and trails and a host of recreational activities that seems to grow every year. Ever thought about racing across the water in a New Zealand style jetboat, doing dips and turns at speeds you don't even want to think about? Or how about dangling from a zipline and gliding through the forest canopy on a thrill ride every bit as cool as the best at Disneyland?
These are just a couple of the latest additions to the menu at Big Bear Lake, which prides itself on being a family resort area with plenty of activities for all ages. You can be as busy or as laid-back as you want to be at Big Bear. And therein lies one of the main attractions of a weekend or vacation at Big Bear.
On our most recent trip, we stayed in an impressive new log vacation home called the S.S. Getaway that would be the envy of any family with its huge game room with pool table and foosball game. But that's just for starters because this cabin-style house has 3½ bedrooms, modern kitchen and dining area and a huge living room with a hi-def television and stone fireplace. Up there in the game room, you can look out on spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and Big Bear Lake itself.
To make a long story short, this vacation home would have been a great place to hole up no matter where it was located – but it just happens to be a couple miles from all the action at Big Bear Lake. For those who haven't a clue where Big Bear Lake is, just think Los Angeles and the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles. By the time you get to the Riverside area, you start seeing the signs for Big Bear Mountain Resorts that will get you onto one of three routes up to the mountains where Big Bear Lake sits at an elevation of close to 7,000 feet.
Yes, the drive up will involve several miles of windy mountain roads, often two-lane highways that will take you close to an hour to reach Big Bear from the time you leave the valley floor. But if you plan plenty of time for your journey, you can enjoy the scenery and not worry so much about getting there on time. One big hint: Don't go up late Friday afternoon or come back late Sunday afternoon unless your schedule absolutely demands it. Better to schedule a longer weekend and avoid traffic going up, coming down or both ways.
About 6,000 residents live at Big Bear full time, but the area swells with visitors on weekends and prime vacation times. There is a good selection of restaurants – not too many Zagat type establishments, but nonetheless a variety of food from homestyle cooking to Mexican to Japanese to fast food. A lot of visitors stock up at the local supermarkets and cook their own meals since many of the vacation rentals come with kitchens.
As we drive into Big Bear, we're always struck by the beauty of this area – forested mountains, a pristine mountain lake, lots of huge boulders on many of the vacation parcels just adding to the feeling that we're far away from the Big City. The weather's great year-round – 300 days of sunshine altogether – except for those times when there are winter storms that make driving these mountain roads a little nerve-wracking.
Once settled in, there are a myriad of activities to choose from. In winter, of course, it's skiing and snowboarding. But in summer the resort area takes on a whole different flavor as families trade-in their snow skis and boards for hiking boots and water skis. In addition to boating and fishing, here are just some of the attractions now offered at Big Bear Lake:
New Zealand-style jet boat rides. Big Bear is now the only place west of the Mississippi to offer rides in these boats that dip, twist and spin passengers during a 30-minute thrill ride across the lake. According to Wally Weber, owner and operator of Big Bear Parasail and Watersports, “it's the equivalent of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, but on a large body of water.” The boats hold 12 passengers and the ride includes a tour of the lake where riders will learn more about such landmarks as the Solar Observatory and Garstin Island. The ride ends with a 180-degree spin like the ones you see in internet videos featuring New Zealand jet boats.
Flying Bear Zip Lines. One of the first zip line operations in Southern California has been built at Big Bear, where you'll find five courses to try your hand at this growing sport. The lines are as long as 600 feet and as high as 90 feet and allow you to glide through the forest canopy while attached to these lines. The idea is to have the sensation of flying through the forest and people of all ages are enjoying the experience.
Scenic Sky Chair. Some of the same chairlifts that take skiers to the top of the local mountains are also running in summer and open the door to lots of outdoor fun for hikers and bikers. The chairs take visitors up to 8,200 feet elevation where the views are spectacular. The Scenic Sky Chair is open to all ages and the 15-minute ride takes you to the View Haus where you can enjoy a barbecue lunch. Hikers and bikers will find an expansive set of trails they can go back down including, for bike riders, the Bristlestone Trail and Towne Trail that offer gentle, rolling terrain that is ideal for beginners. More challenging trails also are available.
Standup Paddleboards. Beginning in 2010, this sport quickly became popular with Big Bear visitors and, since then, marinas have geared up to meet that demand with the addition of stand up paddleboard rentals and lessons. The sport is like surfing except that it's much easier – it's said if you can stand up, you can stand up paddle. Big Bear Lake is especially good for the sport because the waters are calmer than the ocean and there are many coves and other vantage points that many boats can't reach.
AT A GLANCEWHERE: Big Bear Lake is about a two-hour drive east of Los Angeles in the San Bernardino Mountains. From the Inland Empire, there are three routes up the mountain and road construction or other conditions may make one or more routes slower – so it's good to call ahead to your lodging and get a suggestion for the best route to use.
WHAT: Big Bear Lake is a mountain resort that has the advantage of being close to Southern California's population centers. It also has more sunshine than most mountain resorts and visitors can drive to Palm Springs in a little more than an hour if they want a daytrip to a completely different climate.
WHEN: Big Bear Lake is a year-round resort area and is especially popular in winter because so few areas in Southern California offer skiing and snowboarding. The resort area doesn't seem quite as busy in summer as winter, but those who visit find a vast array of outdoor activities and excellent weather.
WHY: This is a place for Southern Californians to experience a completely different climate and terrain within a short drive of the Southern California deserts and beach areas. Families find the area appealing because of its many recreational opportunities and an excellent selection of lodgings.
RECOMMENDED LODGING: Click here for several options in Big Bear LakePhotos, from top: Big Bear Lake; New Zealand style jet boat; Chairlift to trails at Big Bear; S.S. Getaway Photos courtesy Big Bear Resort Association