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SoCal's alpine playgroundSoCal's alpine playground

Big Bear, CaliforniaBig Bear, California

When Southern Californians want to get out of the big city, they head to Big Bear, SoCal’s closest alpine playground. In summer, you can go fishing or boating on the lake or go hiking in the pine-scented forest. But with plenty of winter sports like skiing, snowboarding, tubing, and fat-tire cycling, Big Bear really shines as a winter destination. The ski areas are equipped with snow-making equipment, making Big Bear one of the more reliable ski areas you can fly to, both in terms of good weather and plenty of snow.

  • Big Bear is SoCal’s alpine playground. Its year-round popularity has everything to do with its elevation. At 6,752 feet, Big Bear’s temperatures run 20 to 40 degrees cooler than the lands below. The area records over 300 days of sunshine a year. In case the skies are blue too often, the resorts are equipped with snow-making equipment. Photo courtesy Big Bear Mountain Resort.
  • Skiing with a lake view. At Snow Summit, terrain is provided for all skill levels and varies from 8,200 to 7,000 feet elevation; open until 8:30 p.m. on select dates. Multiple restaurants offer breakfast, lunch, and après-ski entertainment options; menus range from American grill to smokehouse specialties, a coffee house, or full bar. Photo courtesy Big Bear Mountain Resort.
  • Powder, corduroy, moguls, terrain parks, and more are yours at Bear Mountain. Photo courtesy Big Bear Mountain Resort.
  • Big Bear Snow Play sports the longest snow tubing runs in SoCal and is open on select nights. A covered lift called the “Magic Carpet” whisks you to the top of the tubing hill. Children ages 2 to 6 can ride free on the same tube with a paying adult. Go-karts run on their Big Bear Speedway from April through November. Photo courtesy Big Bear Snow Play.
  • At Big Bear’s “Magic Mountain,” you can ride the alpine slide year-round. It’s like a bobsled on wheels and you can brake as much or as little as you like, to control your speed or let it fly. Photo courtesy Alpine Slide at Magic Mountain.
  • Two Big Bear shops rent many types of bikes, including fat-tire for use on snow. Staff members are happy to help you with trail and riding information. Photo courtesy Derek Hermon.
  • Offered year-round, zip line tours from Action Tours include a fun suspension bridge and an off-road ride in their safari vehicle. Photo courtesy Action Tours.
  • Ever tried a Segway? They’re fun both on and off the snow. Action Tours can take you. Photo courtesy Action Tours.
  • In winter, scan the trees around Big Bear Lake for bald eagles, which hang out around the lake, feasting on trout. Or see one up close at the Big Bear Alpine Zoo. Photo by Matt Curtis.
  • Built by the California Institute of Technology in 1969, the Big Bear Solar Observatory is now run by the New Jersey Institute of Technology and funded by NASA, the National Science Foundation, U.S. Air Force, and other agencies. Its location on Big Bear Lake is ideal for two reasons: at 6,742 feet elevation, it sits above much of earth’s lower atmosphere, and the surrounding water helps eliminate ground heat radiation waves that would otherwise cause optical aberrations. Free tours (reserve ahead) are offered once a month, April through November. Photo by Leo Lucido.
  • Boat rentals are generally only available April through November, but you can cruise Big Bear Lake on the 64-foot paddlewheeler “Miss Liberty” year-round. 90-minute tours include plenty of Big Bear history and folklore. Photo by Hector Macias.
  • The English Beat perform at The Cave. Laser light shows and great sound make the most of the music from classic bands like Los Lobos, Jefferson Starship, and Marshall Tucker Band, to name a few. Excellent tribute bands run the gamut from Led Zeppelin USA to bands that pay tribute to The Doors, The Police, Van Halen, Rush, Eric Clapton, Journey, and more. Enjoy gourmet sandwiches and local craft brews on tap while you tap your feet to the music. Other events include art nights, ski films, or Friday-night bands. Photo courtesy The Cave.
  • We’re not kidding when we say Grizzly Manor’s pancakes are bigger than their plates. One of these can fuel hours of skiing or hiking. Big Bear’s most popular breakfast spot since its opening in 1992 almost always has a line out front, sure sign of a winner. Photo by Dan Flores.
  • Once a private home, the Inn at Fawnskin offers four upstairs rooms (three are suites) with private baths and fireplaces, balconies, lake views, and plush robes. A book in each room describes the antiques in that room. Innkeepers Nancy Walker and Bill Hazewinkel serve a complete breakfast in the stone fireplace-accented dining room and will happily assist you with activity plans. Photo courtesy Inn at Fawnskin.
  • Centrally located Bear Creek Resort offers a few motel-style rooms, most with king beds and wood-burning fireplaces, as well as a variety of studio to three-bedroom cabins, most with wood-burning fireplaces and some with a full kitchen, backyard deck and/or private hot tub. Photo courtesy Bear Creek Resort.

The ski area now called Snow Summit opened in 1952, prompting many Angelenos to take up the winter sport. Later, a second resort, Bear Mountain, opened just two miles away from Snow Summit. In 2013, both resorts were purchased by the owners of Mammoth Mountain, but still retain their original names. Lift tickets are good at both resorts, each is less than five miles from the airport, and they have 15 restaurants. Snow Summit offers 14 lifts, including two high-speed quad chairs that provide access to 31 trails, 240 skiable acres, and a tube park, all covered by snowmaking equipment in case nature doesn’t provide. Snowboarding is big here, and they offer classes, a kids’ camp, and regular ski lessons. Bear Mountain has 12 lifts and 198 developed acres, including two half pipes and a beginner pipe; 550 additional acres are undeveloped and provide natural terrain. There’s also a Grizzly Ridge Tube Park with a lift and groomed lanes, one website for all.

Non-skiers have plenty of options for fun. Big Bear Snow Play has a snow tubing hill in winter and go-karts April through November. West of the village, Magic Mountain is a giant fun zone, with a water slide for summer, and an alpine slide, arcade, miniature golf, and go-karts that operate year-round. The alpine slide is like a bobsled on wheels, and you’ll get to the top via a chairlift. You can make your own fun riding fat-tire mountain bikes in the snow. Rent from Bear Valley Bikes, near the alpine slide, or Chains Required, at the base of Snow Summit. Action Tours has year-round ziplines, Segway tours, and tree rope climbing, plus winter snowshoe tours.

Big Bear City Airport is just a short flight from the balmy Los Angeles Basin, but you’ll be climbing most of the way and arrive in an alpine environment; check density altitude on hot summer days. All traffic patterns are flown to the south of Runway 8/26. Watch for jets parked perpendicular to the runway; a Falcon jet with engines running nearly blew us off the runway just after touchdown a few years ago. The office is in the main terminal and offers competitive prices for 100LL and Jet-A. The terminal also houses the Barnstorm Restaurant. Photo courtesy Big Bear City Airport.

Up Moonridge Road just south of town you’ll find the Big Bear Alpine Zoo, where you can see (often up very close) mostly animals native to the local area, including gray foxes, mountain lions, and black bears, but also grizzlies, snow leopards, and wolves. Speaking of wildlife, scan the trees around Big Bear Lake for wintering bald eagles. Learn more about the surrounding San Bernardino National Forest and its wildlife at the U.S. Forest Service Big Bear Discovery Center, on the north side of Big Bear Lake, near Fawnskin. Half a mile west of the Discovery Center, the Big Bear Solar Observatory is one of the world’s preeminent facilities that studies the sun; tours are offered spring through fall. At the Pine Knot Marina, you can rent a boat spring through fall or cruise Big Bear Lake on the 64-foot paddlewheeler Miss Liberty year-round.

At the Big Bear Alpine Zoo, you’ll see mountain lions, gray foxes, and black bears, as well as snow leopards, wolves, and grizzlies. Most animals at the zoo are “rescue” cases of some kind. The rehabilitation center receives over 100 animals annually that require intervention to survive, of which over 90 percent are eventually returned to the wild. Photo by Bob Cisneros.

The Cave is a state-of-the-art, yet intimate rock concert and entertainment venue that also provides gourmet sandwiches and local craft brews on tap. Jayme and Tracy Nordine’s Grizzly Manor Café has been Big Bear’s most popular breakfast spot since its opening in 1992. The Nordines also own Grizzly’s Bear Belly Deli & Cafe, on the way to Bear Mountain Ski Resort and known for Big Bear’s best sandwiches. Fine dining and lakeside views make Evergreen Big Bear’s favorite romantic restaurant. Paoli’s Italian Kitchen is the place for antipasto salad, deep-dish pizza, or chicken Marsala. The tiny North Shore Café turns out fine entrées like steaks and seafood, plus burgers, sandwiches, and breakfasts.

There’s something about a winter trip to the mountains that makes a cabin sound delightful. Fortunately, Big Bear offers a huge variety of rental cabins, most south or east of the lake. Apples Bed & Breakfast is less than two miles from the ski resorts, while the Inn at Fawnskin, on the lake’s quiet, north side, gets our vote for coziest place to stay. Other convenient accommodations include Lagonita Lodge, and the Bear Creek and Wolf Creek resorts.

At Big Bear you won’t find ultra-luxe hotels, restaurants, and shops like those at Aspen, Vail, or Park City, but you also won’t get the high prices. From a pilot’s perspective, the terrain, while high, doesn’t approach that of the Rocky Mountains, or frequent cloud cover you get in the Cascades. See why Big Bear is the SoCal pilot’s alpine haven.

At Big Bear’s Action Tours, you can zip on nine separate high-speed zip lines ranging from 140 to 860 feet long and travel through the tree tops up to 85 feet above the forest floor. Each zip is faster and longer than the previous one until you’re zipping along at speeds up to 45 mph. Photo courtesy Action Tours.

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Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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