There’s plenty of off-season family fun to be had at this snow and ski resort. It’s a rejuvenating retreat.
by Mimi Slawoff
On a drive to Big Bear Lake shortly after your ascent to the resort begins, the landscape changes dramatically from clogged freeways to mountain vistas, with whiff s of pine drifting in through open car windows.
Fresh mountain air, year-round recreation and diverse culinary options are about a two-hour drive from nearly anywhere in Southern California, making this mountain retreat a rejuvenating destination.
Nestled above 7,000 feet in the San Bernardino National Forest, long before it became a bustling ski resort, Big Bear (named for the grizzlies that once roamed the area) attracted gold prospectors. William Holcomb, a bear hunter, discovered gold flakes in the backcountry in 1860. The gold rush lasted about 15 years.
For my family, Big Bear holds many golden memories. It has been our go-to ski resort for a number of years, and we’ve enjoyed lake activities, hiking, biking and exploring the backcountry since our kids were tots. On recent trips, we’ve brought along our dog, Trooper. The deeper we dig, the more we discover about Big Bear, a laid-back mountain town that is home to 5,019 year-round residents.
The village’s fudge shop, old-school theaters and whimsical mom-and-pop boutiques are a refreshing change from generic, multi-level malls. Although there are several fast-food joints along Big Bear Boulevard, we prefer dining at the eclectic, independently owned restaurants.
We were pleasantly surprised to find the Himalayan Restaurant (www.himalayanbigbear.com), which serves tasty, authentic Indian and Nepalese dishes. For steak, seafood, pasta, hamburgers and salads, we like Nottinghams (www.nottinghamstavern.com).
Our favorite “hole-in-the-wall” is Grizzly Manor Café (909-866-6226), where there’s oft en a line to get in the door for a plateful of oversized pancakes or a big juicy burger, among other comfort-food selections. The grub is worth the wait.
Snow Summit and Bear Mountain together make up Big Bear Mountain Resorts. Both get packed with skiers and snowboarders in winter, but offer plenty of fun year-round. Mountain biking down Snow Summit is a thrilling adventure. The Scenic Sky Chair, which brings cyclists to the top of Snow Summit, is worth the ride for the views. This past summer, Big Bear unveiled the Snow Summit Adventure Park, a more formal bike park that will continue to expand with additional trails in the near future. The park also features a hiking trail and the Flying Squirrel Zipline.
Beyond the slopes is a forest that invites snowshoeing in winter, and hiking and biking the rest of the year. It was on a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail that we discovered Trooper is a born hiker. Insisting on being the leader, he trotted ahead, sniffing sky-blue and golden-hued wildflowers along a fragrant trail with lake views.
Fall, when green leaves transform into shades of gold and amber, is a spectacular time to visit Big Bear. The Aspen Grove is among the best spots to see fall colors.
The seven-mile-long lake is a wondrous sight in winter and a glittering haven for water sports and boating spring through fall. Boats, stand-up paddleboards, kayaks and jet skis are available for rent from local marinas. Our favorite family and pet-friendly lake activity is a canopy-covered pontoon, a roomy, easy-to-maneuver boat with comfortable seating. We pack a picnic and set sail for an afternoon of sunshine and quality family time.
Guided tours are an enjoyable way to learn about Big Bear’s history from locals. For a laid-back history lesson, cruise around the lake onboard the Miss Liberty Paddlewheel (with shaded upper deck) or the Time Bandit Pirate Ship, complete with swashbuckling pirates and entertainment. For a hands-on experience, grab a paddle on a two-hour Discovery Center (mountainsfoundation.org/big-bear-discovery-center) guided canoe or kayak tour and watch for beavers, great blue herons, ducklings and other wildlife.
A paved path along the lake’s north shore is ideal for walking, biking and perhaps fi nding a secluded picnic spot.
The Back Country
In contrast to the hub of Big Bear, which is as far as many tourists get, is the surrounding pristine wilderness of the national forest. Big Bear Off -Road Adventures (www.off roadadventure.com) offers several tours into the back country where you can see old mine sites and take in panoramic mountain and desert views. Our Holcomb Valley tour took place in February, so the rutt ed roads were slippery with snow and mud – making the bumpy ride inside the all-terrain Pinzgauer even more fun for my kids. The two-hour tour makes several stops for scenic views and photos.
For a fairly small town, Big Bear sure has a lot of big-time events happening throughout the year. The main event taking place in fall is the annual Big Bear Lake Oktoberfest that spans from mid-September to Oct. 26 at the convention center. Music, dancing, entertainment, contests and German food make this a family-friendly event. New this year is an outdoor stage in the Spaten Bier Garten. Concerts feature a band from Germany.
Cabins, inns and rental homes are fairly basic, which is apropos for a rustic mountain town. Within walking distance of the village is the Northwoods Resort (www.northwoodsresort.com), the most contemporary lodging in town. We’ve stayed there twice and like the cozy, lodge-style ambiance. Usually, however, we book a vacation rental with two or more bedrooms and a full kitchen in the Moonridge area, near the ski slopes, through Village Reservations (www.villagereservations.net) or Resort Town Rentals (resortt ownrentals.com). Traveling as a couple? Cozy up at The Inn at Fawnskin (www.fawnskininn.com).
For more information about Big Bear Lake, visit www.bigbear.com.
Mimi Slawoff, Let’s Go Columnist and mother of three, writes about family travel.