Welcome to peak Southern California. Between its lake, the surrounding mountains, ski resorts, cozy cabins, and small villages, the Big Bear area promises four seasons of alpine adventures roughly 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles in the middle of the San Bernardino National Forest at an altitude between 6,750 and 9,000 feet above sea level. Elevate your itinerary using our guide to the best nine things to do while in the area.
As many of the recommended activities are seasonal, anyone planning to travel there should keep an eye on the area's weather conditions. Visit Big Bear is also a helpful resource when it comes to planning as it has up-to-date information on events, safe travel policies, environmental pledges (they are very serious about leaving no trace in these parts!), closures, road conditions, and air quality, which becomes especially important during the wildfire season and snowy winters.
Live That Lake Life
At 7 miles long, a 1/2-mile wide, and 72 feet at its deepest, Big Bear Lake is not the Golden State’s biggest or deepest lake by a long shot. It is, however, one of the most fun to visit thanks to 22 miles of gorgeous tree-dotted shoreline and myriad recreational opportunities, including kayaking and canoeing with rentals from Paddles and Pedals, trying wake sports, fishing (mostly for bass), riding Jetskis, scrambling over the patches of big boulders common on the water’s edge, catapulting off those same rocks into the refreshing pool below, and swimming. The beach at Meadow Park is a great spot if you have younger children, want to BBQ, or would like to float on rafts in calmer, shallower waters away from boats. Learn local history, facts, and folklore on the 90-minute narrated tour aboard the Miss Liberty Paddlewheel. A pirate ship also gives guided tours.
Play in a Winter Wonderland
For many, winter—specifically when fresh powder dusts the mountains, and they can strap on skis and boards—is the ultimate time to visit. The typical ski season runs from late November through March, and the place to spend it is Big Bear Mountain Resort, which is made up of two properties. Bear Mountain's 748 permitted acres contains award-winning terrain parks, the largest learning area in this half of the state, and halfpipes. With 240 shreddable acres and more than 18 skiable miles, Snow Summit has a more family-friendly image, 14 chairlifts, and 31 trails with varying degrees of difficulty.
The frosty fun does not end with skiing. Snow tubing and sledding are available at Big Bear Snowplay (which also offers a ropes course) and Magic Mountain Recreation Area. Baldwin Lake Stables takes folks out on horseback year-round. Action Tours offer wintry zip lining, Segway, and snowshoe experiences. Speaking of a ramble through the white woods, you can also rent snowshoes in town and head out on National Forest Trails on your own. Adventure Passes, which can be purchased at the Visitor Center, are required to park in most trailhead lots.
Barrel Down the Mountain at the Snow Summit Bike Park
When the snow melts, Big Bear becomes a road and mountain biking Mecca with rides suitable for all ages and skill levels. The aforementioned Snow Summit transitions into a lift-served, gravity-fed bike park with 12 runs full of jumps, berms, bridges, and other challenges (typically open from May-October). The 10-Ply was recently added for the Fox US Open of Mountain Biking. It also accesses more than 60 miles of cross-country trails with pine trees, wildflower meadows come spring and panoramas of towering Mt. San Gorgonio.
Those who want to go for a spin but fall short in the guts department should stick to the paved, almost 4-mile Alpine Pedal Path, which travels along the shoreline and ends at the unique solar observatory. To circle the whole lake is a casual 15-20 mile ride; 40 if you tack on the Baldwin Lake loop. Need a bonus challenge? Onyx Summit road ride is a nine-mile trek up SoCal's highest altitude roadway (8,443 feet).
Support Life-Saving Work While Wildlife Watching at the Alpine Zoo
One of the very few alpine zoos globally, Big Bear Alpine Zoo is actually more of a sanctuary and rehabilitation center for injured, orphaned, and imprinted animals where 90 percent of the animals brought in to recover and recuperate are released back into the wild. Those that remain on exhibit wouldn't be able to care for themselves in nature. It has been doing this important work since 1961, but as of 2020, after two decades of fundraising and construction, it is now doing it in a new $18.2 million facility. Visitors have a chance to see most of the animals who inhabit the surrounding forest and a few non-native residents, including owls, mountain lions, foxes, snow leopards (pictured), ringtail cats (kept by miners as pets during the Gold Rush), and a family of grizzly bears.
Brave Magic Mountain's Slides and Rides
Magic Mountain has various alpine slides, and rides are more ways to get the heart beating a little faster. The Alpine Slide is akin to bobsledding. Families can take the lift to the top and then shoot down a 1/4-mile-long track while setting their own speed. Mineshaft Coaster is California's first and only mountain coaster. Again, you control how fast you go through hairpin turns, tunnels, and 360-degree corkscrews for a mountainside mile. Soaring Eagle, which looks like a chairlift, launches two people down the mountain at up to 28 miles per hour. MM also has Go-Karts, waterslides (summer), and a play area for tubing, snowball fights, and sledding in winter
Put on Some Walking Shoes and Take a Hike
The mountains are calling, and you should hike them. As with the region's slopes, there's a lot of degree-of-difficulty diversity in the destination's trails. Happy Hills Trail is an ADA-friendly route. Town Trail is an easy three miles that explode in autumnal color. Cougar Crest is a calf-burner that features lake vistas and ends at a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail of "Wild" fame. Castle Rock requires navigating up boulder outcroppings. Stanfield Marsh has a boardwalk. Gold Fever is a combo driving-walking trail with markers at Gold Rush-era sites like abandoned mines and graves. The 15-mile Skyline Trail is a breathtaking loop along a mountain ridge with views of the lake and Gorgonio.
The Visitor Center has maps. A reminder to be mindful about Adventure Passes. They (of a National Parks annual pass left on the dash) are required to park at any U.S. Forest Service trailhead. Otherwise, you can be ticketed or towed. Remember to abide by the "leave no trace" commandments and keep an eye open for bears, rattlesnakes, and mountain lions.
Eat, Shop, and Socialize in Town
Affectionately known around these parts as The Village, the tiny storybook hamlet is the hub for shopping, entertaining, and dining out. Strike out (literally as there's a bowling alley and figuratively) for a stroll, popping in for a wine tasting at Barrel 33, grabbing souvenirs at Brown Bear Gift Shop, hearing live music at The Cave, and putting your wits to the test in an escape room. If you've worked up an appetite, there are plenty of places to chow down, including Himalayan Restaurant, Country Kitchen (hearty breakfast), and The Pines Tavern, which is on the lake and often features live music. Do yourself a favor, and don't skip dessert at Sister My Sister Bake Shop.
Traverse Insane Terrain on a Jeep Tour
Depending on your daredevil level and which 4x4 tour you selected, it's not out of the ordinary to have a "Jesus, take the wheel!" moment while off-roading with Big Bear Jeep Experience. Mostly because you're in the driver's seat as your truck rolls through puddles, climbs inclines, squeezes through tight passages, and overtakes boulders. Not that you're left alone to figure it all out on your own. The guides caravan with you and often hop out to spot vehicles and give advice. They also deliver area history via two-way radio and serve as the day's Insta-husband snapping action shots. Holcomb Valley is a kid- and wimp-friendly excursion that uses mostly maintained dirt and fire roads.
Tuck Into a Chic Cozy Cabin at Noon Lodge
Providing an on-trend mix of boutique-hotel and cabincore vibes with mounted antlers, canoe photos, and macrame art, these accommodations from the 1950s have been given a new, comfortable, and adorable lease on life while maintaining their rustic charm. (But not so rustic you'll have to forgo Wi-Fi or TV during your stay.) The Lodge, only a mile and some change from the village, is situated on a lake inlet giving some cabins water views. Most have fireplaces and kitchens. There are communal fire pits (pack S'mores fixings!), barbeques, picnic tables, a meadow, lawn games, a bocce court, shuffleboard, and a pool, which encourages mingling with other guests.
If this sounds too plush, pitch a tent (or hook up the RV) at several campgrounds, including Serrano Campground and Holcomb Valley Campground. Amenities vary from fire rings and bear boxes to pit toilets and electricity.