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Big Bear, California 72-Hour Vacation


Mountains, Snow and Lots of Sunshine
A Year-Round Alpine Playground
by Betsy Malloy


A snowboarder's heaven
A snowboarder's heaven

Big Bear is a great vacation spot in any season, but unless you live in Southern California, chances are you’ve never heard of this alpine playground in the San Bernardino Mountains.  It has survived a lumber rush, a gold rush, and—these days—an annual snow rush.  This casual enclave for outdoor recreation makes an excellent weekend getaway from the urban sprawl of Los Angeles and San Diego, and a fine place for snowboarding and skiing in winter or hiking and waterskiing in warmer months. Just think: Only a hundred miles northeast of the deserts of Los Angeles you get mountains, perfect powder and small-town village charm. And with more than 300 days of sunshine each year, the area offers plenty of activities unrelated to the snow.

Summer trails
Winter runs
Summer trails
Winter runs

The best accommodations in Big Bear are found in its bed and breakfast inns and cozy cabins.  On the high end of the hospitality scale, and set on two acres of lovely gardens, Alpenhorn Bed and Breakfast features eight rooms with fireplaces, spa tubs for two, private balconies, and access to a video library that includes every Academy Award winner for Best Picture since 1939.  The daily breakfast, which is included, offers a variety of hot dishes, homemade granola and house-blend coffee.  

Big Bear Cabins
Big Bear Cabins

More moderately priced lodging includes Big Bear Cabins at Cienaga Creek Ranch, affording lots of privacy and rustic luxury in five cabins spread out over 50 acres.  Timber Haven Lodge boasts romantic suites and intimate cottages.  Besides being dog-friendly and offering special assistive devices for hearing-impaired guests, the property features accommodations that come with full kitchens, fireplaces, cable TV and wireless Internet access.  (Ask about in-room massage services.)  The Grey Squirrel Resort, with two motel-style rooms, nineteen cabins, a heated swimming pool, a horseshoe pit and a volleyball court, is one of Big Bear’s best values.


DAY 1

Get information on the latest area happenings with a stop at the Big Bear Visitors Center. Here you can pick up a complimentary Adventure Passport, also available at many stores, restaurants and attractions around town.  Be sure and have it stamped at whatever participating locations you patronize and then redeem it for a complimentary Big Bear souvenir at the end of your stay. Ten stamps will get you the big prize—a cushy Big Bear teddy bear.

Adventure Passport in hand, ease into your vacation with a stroll around Big Bear Village, full of family-owned businesses, art galleries and souvenir shops. Be sure to check out the Bear Mountain Trading Company on Moonridge Road—it's hard to miss, with truckloads of eclectic objects spilling out onto the front lawn. Big Bear Book & Bean on Pine Knot Avenue is terrific for good reads and a cup of java.

Take a walk through Gallery of the American Landscape , which features the fine art photography of local Timothy Wolcott.  Complete your wander through the village by eating lunch at Boo Bear's Den, a family restaurant on Pine Knot Avenue offering great burgers, chicken-fried steak, baby back ribs and a kid’s menu served in their cozy den or atrium.

Big Bear Discovery Center
Big Bear Discovery Center

Having gotten your fill of village charm, grab the car keys and take off on a drive around the north side of Big Bear Lake (seven miles long and four miles wide at its farthest-reaching points) toward the Big Bear Discovery Center. Even if the lake is frozen, as it usually is in winter, it still offers breathtaking views of tree-lined shores and rocky islands. You’ll note on the lakefront many old homes dating as far back as 1917, as well as a marina established in 1916 by Western music and film stars Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Just offshore lies an island decorated with exotic pagoda-style structures built years ago by a tycoon for his wife.

The Discovery Center, your destination on the north side of the lake, is a state-of-the-art visitor center and environmental education facility with regional wildlife exhibits. Overlooking the mountains and lake, the center is the perfect place for exploring Big Bear’s wild side, with naturalists on hand year-round to answer questions and lead hiking tours that introduce guests to the area’s flora and fauna. Keep an eye out for wildlife in Big Bear, no matter what the season. Each winter, activities like Eagle Explorer Tours and volunteering with the Forest Service to help count bald eagles, are offered through the Discovery Center, but be sure to call ahead for scheduled dates (Note: Keep in mind that the Discovery Center is closed Wednesdays and Thursdays from the last week of October through the last week of April.). Here you can also take snowshoe tours, stay warm browsing their exhibits, attend a lecture or shop at the Adventure Outpost store.

Big Bear Solar Observatory
Big Bear Solar Observatory

If you happen to be visiting Big Bear in July or August, you also have a rare opportunity to tour one of only six solar observatories in the world. Call ahead for a reservation to visit the Big Bear Solar Observatory, a government-funded station that takes advantage of the lakeside setting (water minimizes heat that could deflect rays and distort images), thinner atmosphere (which amounts to very little haze) and fine weather to study solar phenomena. (Note: Check ahead for availability.)

As evening approaches, head back toward the village to enjoy dinner. An upscale (and requiring reservations on Saturdays) choice is a bit of the Los Angeles food scene transported to the mountains in the guise of Chef Thomas Bicanic (who worked for nine years at L.A.’s Patina restaurant before he opened the Knickerbocker Mansion bed and breakfast). On Friday and Saturday evenings, Bistro at the Mansion serves a dinner menu that may include peppered tuna steak, stuffed chicken roulade, or rack of lamb. Other options are Old Country Inn on Big Bear Boulevard or Nottinghams Restaurant, offering both California and European cuisine served in antique-filled dining areas.

If you're feeling more active, you can always topple a few pins while knocking back a few pints at the Bowling Barn & Alley Oops on Lakeview Drive. Stillwell's restaurant and bar at Northwoods Resort is also an idea if you're looking for a nightcap and perhaps a round of karaoke.

Continue to Day 2

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*Images from Big Bear Mountain Resorts, Big Bear Cabins, Big Bear Discovery Center, Big Bear Solar Observatory. Lake view by Chris Hibshman. Cabin & boat image by Tim Wolcott
P080806 (Updated: 11/16/09 NW)

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