It's not hard to see why Lake Arrowhead has always been popular with the movie stars — it's close to Los Angeles, yet light years away in attitude. The people with money are here, all right, but there is also an element of small-town America, complete with families and, yes, even family values.
We were walking the waterfront trail in front of the Lake Arrowhead Resort and ran into one of the town fathers — a guy whose job it was to walk some 20 miles around the lake, checking to make sure the trails were not only passable, but pristine as any semi-exclusive enclave ought to be. He talked about the movie stars who live in Arrowhead as everyday, good people. He talked about his daughter winning the national water-ski championship, and how water-skiing was followed just as closely here as football or basketball might be followed in the Heartland.
Well, okay, Lake Arrowhead is not exactly Des Moines, Iowa. But it does have a small-town feel — in a Southern California kind of way.
We went to Lake Arrowhead to spend a weekend at the newly renovated Lake Arrowhead Resort, the biggest and best-located resort in the area that has just taken a quantum leap in its overall appeal to getaway travelers. Prior to the recent renovation, the resort was getting a little tired and starting to show its age. But it's amazing the things you can do with $17 million -- the resort's undergone a total transformation.
All of the 173 guest rooms were re-done, along with the restaurant, bar and spa. New swiveling plasma TV's, walk-in showers and just an overall sense of luxury and class are evident in the guest rooms. Some of the rooms have gorgeous views of the lake; others look out on the alpine forests. The new restaurant, BIN189, also is at least a notch or two better than its predecessor, partially due to the efforts of Stewart Redhead, the new executive chef who was trained in New Orleans before serving in the same city as Executive Chef of the W Hotel.
It's no wonder that June Lockhart makes the Lake Arrowhead Resort her home when she visits her childhood haunt of Lake Arrowhead. Her friend Peter Henry is General Manager at the resort, the latest in a series of upscale lodgings where he has presided.
Aside from the obvious charms that come with a mountain lake plopped in the middle of a scenic forest, Lake Arrowhead has a fun business district called the Lake Arrowhead Village. Not your typical shopping center, the village somehow combines high-end boutiques with tourist shops and carnival rides to appeal to just about any type of person who may visit. It's a five-minute walk from Lake Arrowhead Resort to the village, where you can also find several different eateries and, in the warmer months, listen to live music in a fairly elaborate concert area. While we were there, the Rockit Scientists kept the crowd rocking as they swigged micro-brews just footsteps from the dance floor.
To get an even better view of the lake, visitors can board the Arrowhead Queen, a Louisiana-style paddle-wheeler that takes guests on a 50-minute tour of the lake. On a busy summer day, you'll see lots of small boats, many of them towing water skiers. And, it's fun to look at the expensive waterfront homes and imagine what it would be like to have a lake in your backyard.
There also are plenty of hiking trails in the Lake Arrowhead area — trips of various lengths and degrees of difficulty. The lake is at 5,100 feet elevation and is nestled in a forest of pine, cedar and dogwood that give way occasionally to excellent views of the San Bernardino Mountains. A very easy trail to start with is at the Heap's Peak Arboretum, easily accessed on Highway 18. This half-mile interpretive trail identifies some of the 2,000 species of flora and nearly 400 species of fauna found in these picturesque mountains. You'll enjoy views that offer a reminder of why the Lake Arrowhead area has been chosen as a backdrop for so many motion pictures. There also is a special kids trail that shows what various animal paw prints look like.
Of course there are still more trails just a few miles further into the mountains where the Big Bear Lake resort community offers many recreational activities of its own. There are dozens of lodging facilities in the area as well — many more than Lake Arrowhead — creating a different atmosphere and experience altogether. Big Bear has more activities and lodgings; Arrowhead is quieter, more residential and quite a bit easier to reach from Los Angeles.
While looking through the local magazines, we noticed an ad for a place called Wildhaven, a ranch devoted to the rehabilitation of sick or injured animals. It's not the kind of place you can just drop in, pay your admission and see the animals. You have to call ahead of time and find out when they are scheduling their presentations and tours — which usually is on weekends.
Wildhaven is well worth this little bit of extra hassle. Located just three miles from the Lake Arrowhead Resort, the drive takes you into some "backwoods" residential areas, then through the forests and up some hills until you come to an area that was devastated by fire in October 2003. It's here on a hillside that Wildhaven directors Roger and Diane Williams saw their facility greatly damaged by the fire and have since rebuilt the 30-acre compound to house a variety of animals indigenous to the San Bernardino Mountains.
The Williams offer a complete presentation in a small theater where they bring out various small creatures and explain where they came from and how they are progressing in their rehabilitation. Most interesting are the personal details that Diane provides about how, as a little girl growing up in a troubled home, she found that animals helped give her solace and a reason for living. She knew then that caring for animals would be her life-long work.
Many of the animals at Wildhaven will not be able to re-enter the wild because they may have limited physical ability — such as a bird's inability to fly — or because they have become too domesticated. During one demonstration, the resident mule deer was eating out of the trainer's hand and showing no fear of the group of human onlookers. As Roger explained, "he wouldn't last an hour during hunting season."
Owls, raccoons, bobcats, coyotes, eagles — there were plenty of species to observe during our visit. Especially entertaining were the two black bears doing their tricks and playing in their bathtubs while visitors watched from just a few feet away outside their cage. All and all, this proved to be an ideal family activity that was both fun and informative.
Wildhaven is just another reason why you might consider Lake Arrowhead for your next family vacation. There is plenty of luxury and ambiance for the adults, but it's also a chance to visit the Great Outdoors — and teach your kids a little bit about how it all got there.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear are located about two hours east of Los Angeles and reached by driving a scenic, albeit curvy, highway northeast out of San Bernardino.
WHAT: Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear share the same woodsy feel and plunging winter temperatures. Arrowhead is smaller, a bit quaint and is a quiet romantic getaway. Big Bear offers a larger city, but many more choices for dining and lodging. Both offer a variety of shops and boutiques.
WHEN: Year-round. The shoulder seasons are less crowded, but both summer and winter are popular because of the area's many outdoor activities.
WHY: A complete contrast from the Southern California climate and lifestyle, yet just an hour or so from balmy places like Palm Springs.
HOW: For more information on Lake Arrowhead, contact the Lake Arrowhead Chamber of Commerce at 909-337-3715 or visit www.lakearrowhead.net. For more information on the Lake Arrowhead Resort, phone 800-800-6792 or visit www.laresort.com. For more information on Wildhaven, phone 909-337-1391 or visit www.wildhaven.org.
Photos: Father and son enjoy dock in front of Lake Arrowhead Resort; poolside at Lake Arrowhead Resort; bears and their trainers at Wildhaven; crowd whoops it up for the Rockit Scientists playing at Lake Arrowhead Village.
Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Lake Arrowhead California, Idyllwild, Julian and Sequoia National Park.
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