Big Bear Lake California: Spectacular Sun and Snow
By Jack Dunphy
Big Bear Lake, California is both magical and majestic. It’s a rare place where the sun just about always shines.
And it’s a place of snow-covered majestic mountain peaks. It is hard to believe this place–teeming with nature and natural beauty–is only a 2 1/2 hour drive from downtown Los Angeles.
There are many things for anyone to enjoy at Big Bear. If you like to ski and snowboard two mountains await you, Bear Mountain and Snow Summit. In March 2014, we visited Big Bear and skied Snow Summit with Dallas Goldsmith, owner of Goldsmith’s Board House (as in snowboards).
My friend Max Hartshorne, editor of Gonomad.com joined me on the trip. It had been a difficult year for snow in the Sierras but with Big Bear’s sophisticated snow-making machinery we enjoyed our runs as much as the 60-degree weather, which brought out skiers in t-shirts and shorts.
Big Bear Lake is a true all-season outdoor fun zone. We visited in March when winter grudgingly yields to spring. Everyone was out to play. We met downhill skiers, cross-country skiers, kayakers, mountain bikers, road bikers circumnavigating Big Bear Lake, hikers traipsing parts of the Pacific Crest Trail just outside of town, Segway riders, and more.
And there are certainly more diversions in this California vacation-land. Tree climbing, archery, golf, jet pack flying, helicopter rides, water skiing, bird watching, zip line, even bowling.
Big Bear’s Pirate Ship
By the time we left two days later a crowd cheered on the shoreline as the mast popped up soon followed by the pirate boat (filled with compressed air).
The boat is a one-third replica of a real pirate ship and is used for booze cruises and as a prop in some of the many movies and TV shows that are filmed in Big Bear.
Hollywood loves it here, at one point we were shown the place where the opening credits of Bonanza were filmed back in the 1960s.
Sweet Basil Bistro
We began our visit at the Sweet Basil Bistro. where Dawn Elig from the Big Bear Visitors Bureau shared some of the history and folklore of the lake region. Due to a rare deluge rainstorm the week before, a major tourist attraction, the Pirate Ship, sunk. All the locals were scratching their heads, and offering suggestions, on how to raise the sunken ship.
Over lobster lasagna and rack of lamb, Dawn told us Big Bear got its start during the 1855 Gold Rush. The prospectors found both gold and grizzly bears in abundance.
Most of the gold is gone as are the grizzles, but black bears have moved in. We did meet some actual gold prospectors a few days later by chance while we took an off-road tour in Polique canyon on the far side of the lake.
The Large Big Bear Dome
Across the lake from the restaurant we saw an intriguing white building with a large dome. Dawn said that this was the Solar Observatory, one of only two solar observatories in the world.
It keeps an eye on the sun. The astronomers there presumably will be the first to know if a major solar flare is headed our way. The rest of us will know eight minutes later when our cell phones stop working, she said.
The reason the Solar Observatory is in Big Bear is because of the weather. The sun shines virtually every day. Since the 8,000 foot elevation of Big Bear is above most clouds there is nothing to block out the sun. “No one living here has that winter Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) problem people get in Northern climates from lack of sun,” she said.
Great Place for Stargazing
When the sun goes down another drama reveals itself. High altitude and clear air make Big Bear Lake “the perfect place to see the stars at night,” Dawn said.
Dawn, who grew up in Minnesota, is now a full-time Big Bear resident and booster. She loves the sunny days there so much she moved here from her last residence, San Diego. “Big Bear is a paradise for me. San Diego was too cold. The weather here is phenomenal.”
A huge added benefit she pointed out, is the clean air. Big Bear is above the smog of Los Angeles.
But it is not too high — it counts on getting several bountiful snowfalls each winter to blanket the ski areas and mountain vistas. And if the snow is thin the ski areas cover their slopes with man-made snow from water drawn from Big Bear Lake practically at the base of each ski area.
Festivals in Big Bear Lake
Dawn told us about the popular festivals which now draw so many visitors to Big Bear at different seasons. Their most popular festival is over the 4th of July attracting over 100,000 visitors to their “Fireworks Spectacular.”
Other events include the “Starlight Festival” (live music and astronomy education on May 24-25), the Heritage Arcade on June 14, the JazzTrax Music Festival on June 20-22, Summer Theater Festival, Film Festival, Octoberfest- something fun seems to always be going on.
Dawn summed up her feeling about the place she loves: “There is just something about being up here.”
Early the next morning Max and I strolled into the Grizzly Manor Cafe. It was a good thing we got there early because soon the place was full with a line outside. The affable owner Jayme Nordine told us that lines, especially on weekends, are the norm.
He also said, “A real friend would die for you so I have no friends.” I am not sure what prompted those words of wisdom but I did not want to press the issue.
Skiing with Dallas Goldsmith
After breakfast we showed up at Goldsmiths Boardhouse, a ski shop that rents and sells skis and boards. The owner, Dallas Goldsmith, outfitted us with skis and boots. He loves to ski so he joined us for several runs down the slopes of Snow Summit Mountain Resort.
We learned on our rides up the chairlift that he is a golf pro who played against Tiger Woods when they were both in high school. His favorite golf partner, he said, was the Dalai Lama, who once joined him on the links for a round.
We got a sense now that Dallas’s passion is being an entrepreneur.
For example just that week he started a drive-through window for ski and snowboard rental returns. He also is the California sales representative for a clever new ski boot company. Instead of the typical clunker heavy ski boots, this new boot comes in two parts, a slipper, and a rigid outer shell.
So when you’re in the ski lodge having lunch you simply unclip the soft liner and walk around in slipper-like comfort. Pretty smart.
The Himalayan Restaurant
Having worked up an appetite we headed around the corner for dinner at the Himalayan restaurant. The owner, Keshar Bhandari, told us he has been in the US for ten years and started the Himalayan Restaurant six years ago. It draws an enthusiastic clientele.
Since Keshar is from Nepal I asked if he had ever climbed Mount Everest, “No,” he said, “but I have climbed to the summit of Annapurna at over 22,000 feet elevation.” That is impressive!
The restaurant offers dishes with names I’ve never heard such as loo, mattare, skuwa, sekuwa, vindaloo, momo, and others. Keshar suggested we try a variety of his Nepalese and Indian dishes. I enjoyed them all accompanied by a spicy red wine. Part of anyone’s vacation is to see new things and try new foods and the Himalayan Restaurant makes trying new foods a joy.
The Perfect Après Ski
A must visit in Big Bear Lake is the Wine Room. After your day of skiing at Snow Summit or hiking or any of the numerous outdoor activities here the Wine Room offers a delightful place to relax. Located at the Wolf Creek Lodge, it’s the place where grown-ups like to go to unwind.
Snuggle up next to the warm stone fireplace with a choice of any of 600 different wines. Much of the seating is set up facing the fireplace so you can’t help but strike up a conversation with your neighbor.
One unique service The Wine Room offers is a free shuttle service to anywhere in the Bear Valley if one feels they’d rather not drive after enjoying the wine. I met Jake the Wine Room shuttle driver. I asked him what kind of condition a typical customer passenger of his is in.
He diplomatically replied, “most people I take home are not drunk, just tipsy.” I asked him how he got paid. He said “tips.” The shuttle services not only the Wine Room but the Wolf Creek Lodge, Bear Creek Lodge, and Fireside Lodge. What a potential vacation saving service!
Big Bear Alpine Zoo
Our next stop was the Big Bear Alpine Zoo. Like most people, I prefer to see animals living their lives in the wild. But this zoo is special as it helps sick and injured animals.
Their motto is “Saving Wildlife Since 1959.” Curator Debbie Richardson introduced us to each animal by name. And each animal had a story.
The bobcat Mika suffered a broken pelvis and could not survive in the wild on her own now. Harley the black bear got hit by a car and one leg had to be amputated. So she hobbles about on three legs and does quite well.
I saw a red-shouldered hawk up in a tree and told Debbie Richardson it must’ve got out of its cage. Debbie said, “Oh no. He is wild. He comes to visit the other animals and gets a free meal.”
The goal of the Alpine Zoo is to rehabilitate and release as many animals as they can. Last year they treated 280 injured animals. “We release between 80% to 90% of the animals who come to us,” Debbie said. “We keep only animals who could not survive in the wild.”
The zoo is located at the base of the Big Bear Ski Area. But they’ve long had a vision for an expanded 10.4-acre facility and thanks to successful ongoing fundraising that vision is being realized. The new zoo, called Big Bear Alpine Zoo at Moonridge, will be a $34 million project when completed. It is designed in part by John Stone famous for designing Splash Mountain at Disneyland. Clearly, this is a refreshingly different kind of zoo.
Big Bear by Segway
For our afternoon adventure, we headed to Action Segway Tours. We joined a group of six other adventurers. None of us had ever been on a Segway before. Our competent instructor and guide showed us the dos and don’ts of driving a Segway.
He said, “do keep your balance, don’t fall off.” We launched off a bit wobbly from their shop in Big Bear Village. After Segwaying through several back roads, we gained some confidence. We revved up our speed a bit and two of our riders took spills, fortunately without injury.
The highlight of our Segway tour was rounding a corner alongside Big Bear Lake and looking straight ahead at a bald eagle perched in the tree in front of us. The two-hour tours cost $85 per person.
To see more of the pretty countryside around the lake, we joined Doug Walton, off-road driver and local historian, who loaded us into his 10 wheel army surplus truck called a Pinzhauer. He offers a 4×4 tour with plenty of interesting commentary on the town he knows very well.
After a short ride to the other side of the lake, he pulled onto a dirt road and headed up the mountain. We stopped several times to gaze in wonder at the mountain peaks across the valley.
During our tour, we traveled deeper into the forest, stretched our legs on the Pacific Crest Trail, saw the homestead where many Bonanza episodes were filmed, and talked with prospectors digging in their gold mine claims. We tried without success to stump Doug with our many questions of things Big Bear.
Snow Summit Mountain Resort
For our accommodations, we stayed at the Snow Summit Mountain Resort located at the base of Snow Summit Mountain. You can walk to the slopes from there. Our clean and comfortable condo offered two levels with three bedrooms two full baths, a full kitchen, a living room and an outside balcony.
Our first day we mistakenly locked our key in the condo. It was an easy walk to the manager’s office who graciously supplied us with another key. What could have been a big hassle became only a slight annoyance due to their helpful on-site management.
Big Bear Lake reminds me of the fabled Shangri-La. You have to search for Big Bear by driving up through mountain passes. After finding Big Bear, wonders and adventures await. Our trip to Big Bear was full and exciting but with so much left undone.
Hiking, golf mountain biking, jet skiing, helicopter sightseeing, even sailing on the refloated pirate ship. Another trip to Big Bear Lake for me sounds like a necessity.
Find out more about Big Bear Lake at bigbear.com
Sweet Basil Bistro
40629 Big Bear Blvd.
Grizzly Bear Cafe
41268 Big Bear Blvd.
672 Pine Knot Ave.
Snow Summit Mountain Resort
880 Summit Blvd.
Snow Summit Town House Rentals
861 Thrush Dr. #44
Big Bear Lake, CA 92315
909-866-6339 or 909-866-7504
Big Bear Alpine Zoo
43285 Goldmine Drive
42071 Big Bear Blvd.
630 Bartlett Road
Action Segway Tours
40754 Village Drive
Listen to Max Hartshorne talk about Big Bear Lake on the radio