The Best of California's Big Bear
Nestled in the San Bernardino National Forest is the small town of Big Bear Lake, California, a tranquil retreat for outdoorsy Californians.
Before this mountain town was known as Big Bear, natives referred it to as Yuhaviat — an indigenous word meaning Pine Place. But when ranchers discovered the area in the mid-18th century, they found it inhabited by at least a dozen grizzly bears. According to the Big Bear Visitors Bureau, Big Bear became a gold mining boomtown, though today it’s best known for its ski resorts and lake activities.
The Moonridge Ski Area, known today as Big Bear Mountain Resort, opened for business in 1959. It has since evolved into a dynamic and innovative destination for active recreation. Visitors even flock here during the summer, long after the snow has gone.
Big Bear makes a broader appeal to younger crowds, while the sister mountain, Snow Summit, has a more family-friendly vibe. But while its reputation might be staked in its snowy slopes, Big Bear isn’t just for snow bunnies.
Travelers will find endless opportunities for exploring this mountain resort, the adjacent lake, and town. This is a four-season destination, with ample opportunities for enjoying the lake, the slopes, and the surrounding pine forest no matter what time of year you visit.
Where is Big Bear Mountain?
Big Bear, located in Southern California, is just two hours from Los Angeles, making it a convenient playground for adrenaline-seeking Angelenos.
Big Bear elevation and weather
With a peak elevation of 8,805 feet (for reference, Whistler Blackcomb has a summit elevation of 7,493 feet), visitors can enjoy a vertical drop of 1,665 feet and an elevation gain of 1,665 feet from base camp. The altitude ensures things never got too hot at Big Bear, and the entire area is known for having more than 320 days of sunshine.
Map of Bear Mountain Trails
Getting to Big Bear
It’s easy to reach Big Bear Mountain Resort from Los Angeles, San Diego, and the San Fernando Valley from Highway 330 — the fastest and shortest route to the mountain.
From the same stretch of California, travelers can opt for the longer (but often less congested) Highway 38: a scenic route that meanders through the Redlands.
Travelers visiting from Las Vegas and other high desert cities, take Highway 18. (This option also has the least amount of mountain driving, if you’d rather avoid a white-knuckle experience.)
Upon arrival, visitors will find three types of parking — a free upper lot, free off-site parking (access to Big Bear and Snow Summit provided with an inter-mountain shuttle), $20 preferred parking. Regulars may want to opt for a Big Bear Mountain Resort season parking pass, which includes a season locker, and a discount card for retail, lessons, and food and beverage purchases.
Flying to Big Bear? The closest airport is Ontario International Airport in San Bernardino, though Los Angeles International, Palm Springs International, and John Wayne Airport in Orange County will also get you within range of Big Bear.
Things to do in Big Bear in the winter
When winter arrives at Bear Mountain (typically in late November) and the slopes are blanketed in fresh powder, skiing and snowboarding are two of the most popular activities. Bear Mountain is home to the only halfpipes in Southern California, and it also has the largest beginning area in the region, making it perfect for winter sports enthusiasts of all ages (and skill levels).
Boarders and skiers can enjoy 28 trails spread across nearly 200 acres of developed terrain, accessible by an impressive network of 12 chair lifts (including two high-speed quads) at Bear Mountain.
The sister park, Snow Summit, has an additional 14 lifts and 240 acres of skiable terrain. You don’t have to be comfortable on ski lifts to enjoy Big Bear in the wintertime, however.
For a more serene approach to the season, visitors often enjoy exploring the snow-covered pines on cross-country trails or in the backcountry on snowshoes. But those seeking something unusual can head to the Grizzly Ridge Tube Park at Snow Summit, which offers high-speed tubing on groomed lanes. You’ll even be treated to a cup of hot cocoa when you reach the bottom, and it’s a bit easier than zipping down a mountain balanced on two slim boards (or just one).
Skiing at Bear Mountain and Snow Summit
If you’ve come to Big Bear to ski and to snowboard, the town’s two ski resorts (Bear Mountain and Snow Summit) offer terrain parks, a combined 26 ski lifts, and 435 skiable acres.
Big Bear Mountain Resort uses dynamic pricing to determine ski lift ticket prices, based on anticipated attendance and demand. Adult single-day lift tickets ranged from $59 to $99 during the 2016/2017 season. Tickets are valid at both Bear Mountain as well as Snow Summit. Big Bear’s ski resorts also offer two and three-day tickets, as well as night session tickets and half-day passes for visitors seeking a more affordable option.
Out-of-town visitors don’t need to worry about checking a bag full of skis and ski poles. On-site rentals are available, and include everything from boards and skis to boots and helmets. Prices vary wildly depending on the gear package and brand. Better deals and a wider selection might be found in town, at Goldsmiths Sports.
Things to do in Big Bear in the spring and summer
Visitors will find even more ample opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors at Big Bear when the snow melts.
Spring at Big Bear is ideal for hiking and cycling, with trails ranging from easy half-mile loops to the expert-level, 15-mile John Bull Loop. Anglers will also love visiting Big Bear during the spring, when the lake teems with rainbow trout and bass. The expert staff members are Ski Mag product testers and seriously well-versed tuners.
Summers are best spent on the seven-mile Big Bear Lake, which invites visitors to kayak, stand-up paddleboard, parasail, water ski, and even jet ski. “[Big Bear Mountain Resort has] tons of family-friendly activities in the summer,” a representative told Travel + Leisure.
Not only do visitors utilize the trails for biking and hiking, but also the base area has a host of all-season activities like a climbing wall, a Eurobungy trampoline, and a quick-jump bungee. The mountain is also home to a nine hole, par 35 golf course for those who prefer to spend summers on the green.
All-weather, all-year Big Bear activities
You don’t have to have perfect lake weather to enjoy your trip to Big Bear. There are plenty of indoor activities, like the popular escape-style puzzle at Mountain Room Escapes. Big Bear Funplex offers indoor diversions like laser tag, arcade games, and an indoor ice skating rink, while families can spend dreary afternoons (not that there are many) at the 16-lane Bowling Barn.
Special events at Big Bear
Big Bear doesn’t let holidays pass by unnoticed. In fact, there may be no better place to celebrate July 4 than from the top of Snow Summit (an elevation of 8,200 feet) during the Above the Boom Independence Day party. In addition to a fireworks display, the resort caters a barbecue dinner and hosts live music.
You can even celebrate the New Year at Big Bear during the annual New Year’s Eve Torchlight Parade, also at the Snow Summit Ski Resort, on December 31. Come for a night ski or ride session, when skiers and boarders navigate the mountain with only a handheld torch to light the way. Following the so-called parade, Snow Summit hosts two New Year’s Eve parties.
The Village Spa at Big Bear Lake
If what you want is the complete opposite of an adrenaline rush, head to the Village Spa in the town of Big Bear Lake. Therapists offer both in-house as well as mobile spa treatments, meaning you can also enjoy a Swedish, deep tissue, or post-ride sports massage from the comfort of your rustic lakeside cabin or lodge.
Shopping at The Village in Big Bear
Whether you’re seeking gear rentals or kitschy bear-themed souvenirs, you can find it at the Big Bear Lake Village. Grab your skis or mountain bikes from Goldsmiths Sports, and hit the Brown Bear Gift Shop for souvenirs (they’ve been in business since 1924). Big Bear Lake shops also include more upscale boutiques like ReJoyce, which sells handcrafted jewelry and cozy knit sweaters to complete your look.
Where to stay near Big Bear Mountain
Resort lodges at Big Bear Lake
Big Bear Village Lodge
Families will love Big Bear Village, which offers spacious apartment-style rooms with full kitchens. You can’t get much closer to The Village than this.
One of the more contemporary lodging options in Big Bear Lake, the Marina Resort offers lake-view rooms and plenty of modern conveniences, including free Wi-Fi, cable TV, and an en suite mini fridge.
The Lodge at Big Bear Lake
A Holiday Inn resort property, The Lodge at big Bear Lake offers contemporary rooms with rustic accents (log cabin-style bed frames, stone fireplaces) and thoughtful amenities like free Wi-Fi, a microwave, and an HDTV with HBO.
Unique Big Bear cabin rentals
Sleepy Forest Cottages
In Big Bear, cabins are plentiful and available at many price points. Visitors who want to stay close to town should consider a vacation rental from Sleepy Forest Cottages. Families will love the massive Bear’s Den, a Big Bear vacation rental with a native stone wood-burning fireplace, a jetted bathtub, and a private fenced-in yard.
Big Bear Private Rentals
One of the most unique private rentals you can book during your trip is this log cabin-style Big Bear Airbnb. With five bedrooms, a 10x40-foot indoor pool, and a game room with foosball, pool, and Ping-Pong, this home is a perfect rental for your group trip to Big Bear Lake, California.
For travelers who prefer VRBO, Big Bear Tree House is a popular rental with five bedrooms, four bathrooms, and impressive mountain views.
Big Bear campgrounds
For a Big Bear camping experience that will put you deeply in touch with nature, head to the Serrano Campground in the San Bernardino Mountains. The site is just north of Big Bear Lake and, like many camping sites in California, should be reserved in advance through the United States Forest Service.
Another one of the most popular Big Bear campgrounds is the Holcomb Valley Campground, which has 19 single-family sites. These, unlike Serrano, are available on a first come, first serve basis.
Best places to eat at Big Bear
Big Bear Mountain Resort is home to seven restaurants and five coffee stands and bars, making it easy and convenient to refuel without leaving the mountain. But the area is full of restaurants for travelers who want to avoid the on-site crowds. Whether you’re craving a slopeside beer or an upscale dinner with an uninterrupted view of the lake, these are the best places to eat in Big Bear Lake, California
Dining at the ski mountains
Dining at Big Bear Mountain Resort typically features traditional ski resort fare like flame-grilled burgers and pizza by the slice, according to the resort’s representative. For something more special, opt for a mountaintop dinner at Skyline Taphouse, or the Slopeside Speakeasy.
Restaurants in The Village
Believe it or not, Big Bear's mountain village is known for its exceptional Indian restaurants. Take a break from the slopes by refueling with a lunch special from the newcomer, Masala Craft (think: lamb tikka, chicken Madras, or a paneer makhani with housemade cheese).
At Himalayan, traditional Indian cuisine is infused with elements of Nepalese cooking. Order the mo-mo, a Tibetan snack of steamed flour dumplings with achar dipping sauce.
Restaurants with a lake view
In terms of ambiance, it doesn’t really get better than The Pines, a lakefront restaurant in town that serves upscale steak, seafood, and pasta dishes. While you may catch a glimpse of the lake from other properties, this is the only restaurant directly on Big Bear Lake.
A similar menu can be found at Evergreen International, which also offers outdoor seating and ample views of the town’s eponymous freshwater lake.
Important things to know for your trip to Big Bear
No mater what time of the year you’re visiting Big Bear, be sure to check the weather and road conditions in advance. Storms and traffic can vary wildly, Big Bear Mountain Resort’s representative warned, and can impact the route you decide to take.
Even on a cloudy day in the winter, don’t neglect to wear sunscreen. The atmosphere is much thinner at this altitude, and can lead to severe sunburns. Likewise, stay hydrated, which can help combat altitude sickness and will keep you hydrated.