Finding new adventures in California is quite an easy task. Just a few hours drive in any direction and you’ll find yourself in a completely new terrain whether that’s wine country, desert, mountains, canyons, or the ocean. California bragging rights often consist of being able to experience three lanscapes in one day.
Due to the pandemic, I hadn’t seen my mom who lives in Connecticut for over 2 years so when she told me she was going to fly in for Mother’s Day a few days before, my travel brain was swimming with ideas. First, I whisked her to Santa Barbara from Malibu since she had never been. Afterward, we traded the ocean for a lake stay before heading to the desert.
Although Big Bear is known for its Bear Mountain Ski Resort, we drove to Big Bear Lake where the scenery, once you get off the highways, feels like a postcard. My mom’s first reaction as we spiraled up the mountain alongside massive trees in the San Bernardino National Forest was, “It feels like we are in Europe.” However, she was also grasping the car sides from the passenger seat perhaps afraid I might zoom off a cliff as the drive took us off major highways through meadows soaring up and around the mountains with beautiful clear skies – BUT easily one wrong turn could careen us over the forested side. Numerous times we pulled the car over just to immerse ourselves in the view and perhaps to also prove to ourselves that the scenery was not some dream.
We found the drive alone to Big Bear Lake worth the trip as the lake on top of the mountain sits above sea level some 6,750 – 9,000 feet. My last stint at Big Bear Mountain was over 10 years ago to watch a snowboarding competition but somehow even though there are thousands of miles of skiable terrain, I never remembered a lake.
- Did you know gold was found in Big Bear in 1855 by the early settlers? A mining operation began at Starvation Flats a few years later which is now the intersection of Division and Big Bear Boulevards. In 1911-1925 tourism soared thanks to the burgeoning film industry in nearby LA wanting to use the scenic mountain vistas and tranquil forests.
Breathe in the fresh mountain air and escape to Big Bear Lake all year long. Choose your own open-air adventure. Try 3, 2, 1, on your next visit.
3 places to dine
The town known as The Village is way more substantial than previously imagined bustling on a May weekend with post-Covid visitors shopping, dining, and sipping. We ‘LaLaScoop’d some of the best spots for your next getaway.
Authentic Mexican food can be found even way up here in the mountains at Hacienda Bar and Gill like carnitas tacos or big burritos stuffed with carne asada, shrimp, or chicken. Try the deeeeelicious barbacoa bowl or the Tortas (like a sandwich), taco salad, Mexican Cesar, or inventive craft cocktails like chili-laced melon Cadillac margarita or the Mezcal El Matador with pineapple juice and mango puree. The restaurant is a short drive from town.
A few years ago the Royal Thai Café arrived from Pasadena in the center of Big Bear Lake Village. My mom and I dined outside fulfilling my Thai food cravings with Thai tea, mango sticky rice, and curries and noodles. Share the Tom Kha, pad Thai noodles with shrimp and one of their numerous curries. Ask about their $10 lunch special during weekdays.
Before your outdoor adventures fuel up with breakfast at Amangela’s Sandwich and Bagel House with a morning bagel loaded with 3 eggs, bacon, ham, or veggie sausage. We ordered their homemade focaccia sandwiches to-go to take on a hike. You can make your own sandwich with this enhanced bread – fresh focaccia in options like Jalapeno Cheddar, Black Olive Parmesan, Basil Garlic, and Italian Herb.
2 adventures to partake
Pick up a trail map at the new Big Bear Visitor Center or Big Bear Discovery Center where you can also ask for recommendations. Hiking in the National Forest is free but an Adventure Pass is required to park at some trailheads although you can skirt this issue sometimes by parking along the street and walking into the trail. You can pick these passes up at the centers mentioned above.
On the water
Kayak, paddleboard, or canoe right from the lake docks on the north shore with Paddles and Pedals. My mom and I kayaked along the lake admiring birds and the tranquil setting. Along the shores, some people were fishing. My mom couldn’t get over the floating bathroom area but I was more intrigued by the mud swallows (?) or some type of bird that continued to build its mud nests quickly and efficiently, apparently, a nuisance since the lake management informed me they come daily to remove the nests.
With 23 miles of shoreline, your lake exploration is endless.
In the woods
In spring or summer, hiking is the best way to get into nature although for the brave, mountain biking trails are available in all levels too. For several easier trails, start with the paved Alpine Pedal Path alongside the lake. You can veer off the path and head to the sandy shores at some points and even picnic at a designated area. This path is bike-able as well as seats are available for resting.
Just across the street from this north shore paved path, I found The Woodland Trail, a 1.5-mile loop that starts and ends at the trailhead off Hwy 38. Pick up a pamphlet at the entrance to read and learn about botany, wildlife, and geology at the 16 posted markers along the trail. Leaving my mom to rest, I sped through the dry woods with not another soul in sight admiring the manzanita trees, ancient bristlecones, and stacked boulders. Look for oaks, junipers, the Pinyon Pine or the tough Mahogany “Ironwood.” Once grizzly bears roamed these parts!
For those looking for more exercise, the 2.4 mile Castle Rock Trail is the most popular hike with an impressive granite rock outcrop with lake views. The Pineknot Trail is 6 miles roundtrip winding up through white fir and Jeffrey pine while the Skyline Trail is 8.5 miles one way.
1 Alpine Zoo
While not a fan of most zoos, Big Bear Alpine Zoo is a wildlife rehabilitation facility with more than 150 native animals including black bears, grizzlies, bald eagles, and timber wolves. Founded in 1959, the zoo staff nurses sick or injured animals to health before releasing them into the wild. We watched as animals were fed by zookeepers in a way that matched their real environment so in one scenario food was buried thus the animal had to dig to find it.
The zoo is doable in an hour but I wish they had each animal’s story next to their cage so visitors could understand why they were caged. It was not til I went home and researched online that I learned about each animal and why they were there. It can be hard to understand why a bear is in an enclosure and the animal’s story is an important lesson to impart to the many kids visiting.
We watched a bear play with sticks, swim around, and wobble over to bear friends. The bear even threw dirt on the other bear from above to wake him/her. Other creatures that fascinated us included the arctic fox, tall marsh birds with red beaks making trumpeting noises, a snow leopard, and more.
The only thing that made me feel better about leaving this place is that injured animals or those who have lost their fear of humans have a permanent home here – 7,000 feet above sea level.
The beauty of California is you don’t have to go too far to feel worlds away.