Lake Arrowhead in California’s San Bernardino Mountains

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The San Bernadino Mountains in California. Noreen Kompanik photos.
The San Bernadino Mountains in California. Noreen Kompanik photos.

Lake Arrowhead: ‘The Alps of the Pacific’ Are a Postcard Perfect Escape

By Noreen Kompanik
Senior Writer

Biking at Lake Arrowhead in California.
Biking at Lake Arrowhead in California.

Fluffy cotton cloud forests blanket the horizon. Fog-shrouded layers of mountains as far as the eye can see. And vistas are so picturesque, it’s no wonder the twisty winding roads have so many turn-out spots.

It didn’t take long to realize it was for those innumerable “honey, stop the car “moments. And all this adventure before we actually arrived in the charming alpine village of Lake Arrowhead.

Located an hour-and-a-half from Los Angeles, and two hours from San Diego, Lake Arrowhead is ideal for a weekend getaway or an extended stay.

Cradled in the heart of the San Bernardino Mountains, it’s one of the few places in Southern California that provides a true four-season experience. Because the mountain range runs east to west, it creates unique microclimates harboring a variety of flora and fauna. Vibrant wildflowers in the spring, warm Mediterranean-like summers, colorful autumn leaves, and snow in the winter are hallmarks of Lake Arrowhead’s seasons. And an unbelievable 310 days of yearly sunshine.

For those visiting Lake Arrowhead in the winter, snow chains are required as driving conditions in this lofty area can change rapidly.

The Perfect Place to Stay on the Lake

Though Lake Arrowhead offers many options such as quaint bed and breakfasts, small hotels, cabins, camping sites, or vacation rental homes, our favorite place to stay is the Lake Arrowhead Resort and Spa.

Sitting at a mile-high elevation of 5,200 feet, the resort is surrounded by stately cedars, and ponderosa pines, and overlooks the stunningly picturesque lake. You’d almost believe you are someplace like upstate New York in the Adirondacks rather than sunny Southern California.

Spacious rooms and suites, all with décor complimenting the alpine region offer the perfect accommodations. Our lakeside room featured a king bed and balcony with direct lake views. And those breathtaking sunrises? Well, those are on the house! Along with those twinkling dark starry night skies.

The resort also boasts a spacious outdoor pool and hot tub along with a full-service spa with a steam room, sauna, and fitness studio.

Downtown Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernadino Mountains.
Downtown Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernadino Mountains.

This quintessential mountain retreat is the perfect blend of rustic elegance and modern comfort. The lobby features natural wood decor and a blazing stone fireplace surrounded by comfortable chairs and mountain-inspired accents. The resort’s impressive signature restaurant, BIN 189 offers equally stunning views from its indoor or outdoor patio dining.

The restaurant is heavily accented with birch panels, tree stumps, antler chandeliers, and a cozy stone fireplace. Just a perfect complement to its stunning natural surroundings. And somehow every sumptuous meal we had here tasted even better in the breezy clear mountain air!

Kayaking Lake Arrowhead.
Kayaking Lake Arrowhead.

About the Lake Itself and Special Access

One of the deepest man-made lakes in the U.S., Lake Arrowhead is also a private lake, which is why it remains so incredibly pristine. The deep sapphire-colored reservoir covers a surface area of 780 acres, 14 miles of picturesque shoreline, and is 185 feet at its deepest point.

Because of the privacy, many renowned artists, actors, athletes, and company CEOs have lived or currently reside along the lake in absolutely stunning homes.

Guests Only

Though its use is restricted to Lake Arrowhead property owners only, guests of the Lake Arrowhead Resort & Spa enjoy the resort’s private exclusive beach, with the option to rent kayaks or take a private lake tour from its docks.

No other accommodation in the area offers this amenity. Another reason we love the resort and its prime location.

For those not staying at the resort, the Lake Arrowhead Queen offers group or private tours on the vintage wooden paddle-wheeler around the perimeter of the lake. The one-hour narrated boat ride offers spectacular views, the background history of the lake, and stories of the celebrities that once or currently call Lake Arrowhead home.  We loved the hilarious tales and dry humor from our boat captain.

Guests can also take on water skiing or boogie boarding by booking a tour through the Mckenzie Water Ski School. Or if you’re wanting to take a few lessons or up your water-skiing skills, this is the way to do it!

Getting to Know Lake Arrowhead Village

Lake Arrowhead Resort
Lake Arrowhead Resort

With over 50 waterfront shops, boutiques, and restaurants, this picturesque European-inspired village center exudes the charm of Swiss chalets. And it’s only a short walking distance from the Lake Arrowhead Resort. Summers bring a free outdoor concert series that lasts through Labor Day weekend featuring tribute bands.

There are numerous dining options in the village, but honestly, with the incredible views this area offers, our favorites all have stunning panoramas.

Inside one of the condos at the resort. Lake Arrowhead
Inside one of the condos at the resort.

Jettie’s Waterfront Kitchen is a true-blue fork-to-table eatery located right on the lake. The entrees are amazing, service outstanding, and it’s such a fun place to take in the village vibe. We enjoyed the stroll along the shore promenade to Jettie’s watching the ducks, trout, and other game fish frolicking in the crystal-clear shallows.

Wine connoisseurs (like us) are totally into cool, kitschy The Grapevine, a wine bistro perched over the lake and the docks. We ordered a flight on the outside deck and what a relaxed way to see the activity happening on the lake.

For those into craft beer, Lake Arrowhead Brewery, a short shore-lined jaunt from the village offers some amazing local brews by the pint or flight.

It’s a really fun, vibrant, and in-demand brewery, especially with its myriad of games located on the back patio.

An Outdoor Lover’s Nirvana for Hiking

Mother Nature must have planted an extra kiss on this region, but the lake isn’t the only gem of the San Bernardino National Forest.

If you’re as into hiking as we are, Lake Arrowhead offers a ton of great trails ranging from short and easy to long and more advanced treks. Heart Rock Trail in nearby Crestline is one of the best hiking opportunities and certainly one of our favorites.

Big Boat on Lake Arrowhead.
Big Boat on Lake Arrowhead.

It’s an easy 1.3-mile adventure that takes about a mile to reach the awesome boulders that contain pools, one in the shape of a heart. We were fortunate that despite not much rainfall this year, we still got to see a small waterfall and natural water slide near the idyllic rock formation.

If time allows, the more challenging 6-mile, 2-hour there-and-back Deep Creek Hot Springs/Goat Trail is well worth it. The thermal hot springs located here are magnificent. Of note: visitors to any of the San Bernardino National Forest locations for recreation purposes are required to display a National Forest Adventure Pass in their vehicle. These daily or annual passes can be purchased at any of the area’s ranger stations or online.

Best Views for Non-Hikers

For one of the best panoramas of the San Bernardino Valley for non-hikers, we recommend a visit to Strawberry Peak Fire Lookout Tower, located just southwest of Lake Arrowhead. A two-mile paved drive off the main highway gets you to the base of the stand. Climbing the stairs of the 80-foot tower leads to awe-inspiring vistas of the mountains and communities below.

Biking and Fishing at Skypark

European inspired Lake Arrowhead Village exudes the charm of Swiss chalets

When we first heard about Skypark at Santa’s Village, I admit to having a smirky look on my face. The name did not resonate as a place for authentic outdoor adventures. But like many other times during our travels, we truly get surprised, and this is one of those.

My hubby and I were absolutely delighted with this amazing place. First of all, it has a fascinating history. Santa’s Village opened on Memorial Day, 1955. The original idea came from a Saturday Evening Post story about a New York project called “North Pole.”

Local resident Glenn Holland worked with local artists and craftsmen to create a whimsical alpine village all built with local timber. The result was a cutesy and popular theme park representing a Christmas wonderland in the woods.

Many of the historic buildings still remain on site and are used as eateries, bakeries, and shops, and even a chapel. There’s a motorized train that guests can ride around the spacious property, seemingly enjoyed by both the big kids and the littles.

However, the park today is highly regarded for its outdoor adventure-based activities like archery, ax-throwing, sharp shooting, ice skating, zip-lining, biking, and fly fishing.

Nestled within the majestic beauty of the mountains with the fresh scent of towering pines, Skypark offers some of nicest and most well-maintained trails for walking, hiking, and biking. And the picturesque Ladybug Pond offers catch and release fly-fishing for those into this really fun sport.

Short Escape to Big Bear Lake

Big Bear Lake.
Big Bear Lake.

Located just 40 minutes beyond Lake Arrowhead, the drive to Big Bear is as exciting as it is to arrive there and explore this fun and fascinating region. The route from Crestline to Big Bear is part of the aptly named Rim of the World Scenic Byway.

The views heading to Big Bear continued to be awe-inspiring as we climbed to an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet passing through boulders and towering pines reminiscent of the Old West.

Known for its excellent fishing, horseback riding, snowboarding, skiing, hiking, and mountain biking, Big Bear also sports a large and incredibly lovely public lake with two marinas.

Guests here can rent pontoon boats, kayaks, paddle boards, and even jet skis. Fishing charter services are also available.

The area is extremely popular for vacation rentals, family reunions, and get-togethers. Even on our short visit, we could understand why Big Bear is also a very attractive destination. Though it is definitely busier with heavier traffic than its San Bernardino County sister, Lake Arrowhead.

Hiking at Big Bear Lake.
Hiking at Big Bear Lake.

The downtown area is adorable with its manicured planters hanging from its lampposts and bursting with colorful blooms. In the fall, autumn leaves show off their rich orange, yellow, and crimson hues, and in winter, the village transforms into a snowy alpine wonderland.

A few years back, the downtown sidewalks were renovated adding heaters to make it so much easier and safer for shop owners and strolling pedestrians.

In a lovely little boutique shop in Lake Arrowhead, a plaque read “Lake Rules: Enjoy the Sun, Gather Around the Fire, Wish on Stars, Catch Fish, Go Boating, Take a Walk, Roast Marshmallows, and Skip Rocks.”

This what a beautiful lake destination is all about. A place where we can slow the pace, appreciate the views, and be thankful for the heavenliness we encounter on the journey.

Lake Arrowhead certainly fits the bill. And it’s one of those special places that remains a somewhat secret destination. And that’s truly an additional gift.