Why Big Bear Is One of Southern California’s Favorite Mountain Retreats

The mountain town offers outdoor fun all year round.

Four bike riders on wooden boardwalk, with lake in background

Cyclists have the choice of flat lakeside trails or challening downhill runs in Big Bear.

Courtesy of Visit Big Bear

Southern Californians can take their pick when it comes to mountain retreats. From ski-bike-hike paradise Mammoth Lakes in the eastern Sierras to singular, artsy Idyllwild in the San Jacinto range, options abound. Big Bear, in the San Bernadino mountains, is popular for a number of reasons. Its proximity to several cities is a major draw (2 hours from L.A., 90 minutes from Palm Springs, and a 3.5-hour drive from Las Vegas) but the city, mountain resort, and lake also pack a ton of things to see and do in a small radius. I’ve visited many times over the years in all seasons, mostly recently spending a few days there in February 2023. Here are a few things I love to do in Big Bear, whatever the season.

What to do in Big Bear in the summer

Summer and early fall in Big Bear brings warm temperatures that rarely exceed 85 degrees Farenheit, inviting long days of outdoor exploration.

Dive into the lake

Jet skiers, kayakers, and fishers all make the most of Big Bear Lake’s seven miles of water during the summer months—and water levels have been topped up nicely thanks to the 2023 winter season’s epic snowfall. Waterskiing and wakeboarding here are super fun—and wakesurfing is an easier but no less thrilling alternative. A number of water sports schools can get you started. You can also tour the lake by paddlewheel boat or pirate ship.

Hit the trails

The ski trails are carefully turned into challenging downhill mountain bike paths by the mountain resort team in the spring, with runs ranked as green, blue, or black diamond. Hire a bike and safety gear at the base, take a ski lift to the top (staff will assist you by putting your bike on an adapted chair) and race back to the bottom. For less adrenaline-fueled riding, you can cycle flatter trails at the top, take a fire road down, or pedal around the lake.

Slide down the mountain

Alpine Slide at Magic Mountain is open year-round but it’s particularly fun outside the ski season. The Alpine Slide itself features small sleds on concrete tracks that allow riders to speed up or slow down with a hand brake—perfect for younger kids—while the Mineshaft Coaster speeds things up a little but still offers complete control. Elsewhere at the fun park, go-karts, video games, and the Soaring Eagle catapult ride will keep the family entertained for a morning.

Big Bear mountain in the winter: snow-covered lodges, mountains with snow and evergreens in background

Big Bear is home to three ski resorts: Bear Mountain, Snow Valley, and Snow Summit.

Courtesy of Lee Stockwell/Big Bear Mountain Resort

What to do in Bear Bear in the winter

Big Bear gets dusted with powder every winter, with flurries often concentrated between December and March.

Shred, shred, shred (or snowplow gently)

Three mountaintops are draped in powder during the colder months, with combined snowfall at Snow Valley, Snow Summit, and Bear Mountain ranging between 39 and 168 inches in the previous four seasons. Artificial snow machines assist things during drier times. Snow Summit tops out at 8,200 feet while Bear Mountain reaches 8,805 feet into the sky. Lift passes work at both, giving skiers and snowboarders access to 400 skiable acres, 19 lifts, and 58+ runs. A variety of season ski passes (including the Ikon pass) will also get you access.

Rentals are well organized and there’s a solid ski school program. My instructor Glen was knowledgeable (and exceptionally patient) on my last trip as we worked on my re-entry to ski life after some ill-fated years attempting snowboarding.

Big Bear Lake surrounded by snowy hills and mountains

Snowshoe trails await around Big Bear Lake.

Courtesy of Visit Big Bear

Sled, sled, sled (or snowshoe)

The roads into Big Bear are littered with empty cars indicating nearby sledders, and flashes of neon clothing among the trees reveal the slopes they’ve discovered. My favorite spot is on a hill at the end of a road just behind Snow Summit resort, but opportunities are everywhere as long as you respect private land. There are some more official spots to sled and snow tube, too.

Big Bear’s national forest land promises miles of serene snowshoe trails for anyone with a pair (and an Adventure Pass for trailhead parking)—and several operators offer tours and rentals.

Where to eat in Big Bear

Big Bear has multiple restaurants offering hearty mountain fare to address that calorie deficit after long days on the slopes or trails. There’s always a line for Get the Burger’s range of burgers, tater tots, and sweet potato fries; the walls are painted with retro diner scenes, pine trees, and classic cars. Country Kitchen, meanwhile, offers a friendly welcome and numerous combinations of breakfast items.

In the heart of the village itself, try Amangela’s for sandwiches or bagels or Big Bear Lake Brewing Company if you want to wash down carne asada fries or a pretzel with a local IPA. For more global flavors, Sweet Basil Bistro serves up popular Italian dishes, while Hacienda Grill and Royal Thai will sort your Mexican or Thai cravings.

 Interior of a cabin at Noble + Proper with black-and-white checkerboard floor and green walls

The cabins at Noble + Proper are meticulously curated.

Photo by Jenny Siegwart. Courtesy of Noble + Proper

Where to stay in Big Bear

Big Bear is stuffed full of stuffed bear–full cabins. Rentals can run the gamut from delightfully retro to just . . . retro, but there are plenty of decent options.

On our last trip, we stayed in a spacious, three-story house operated by Cool Cabins. It was right on the road into town, opposite a park with views of the lake, and packed in a games room in the garage as well as a snow-crusted hot tub out back.

I also took a tour of the artfully decorated new cabins at Noble+Proper, which each offer 2 bedrooms, 1.5 bathrooms, a kitchenette, and living room among the pines. Each building is named after a grandparent of the owners, and furnishings are a mix of vintage and custom items; expect heavily patterned wallpapers, curios everywhere, and Instagrammable angles galore.

How to get to Big Bear

Most people drive the 210 from L.A. and take the 18 up the mountain. If you’re driving from the desert spots like Palm Springs or Joshua Tree, it might make sense to take the back road up from the northeast. There’s also another, slightly longer road, the 38. Be sure to defer to Waze, and check Caltrans for road closures, especially if you’re heading up in the winter. Once you’re there, stop by the Discovery Center to get oriented, pick up maps, and get the lowdown on responsible recreation.

Tim Chester is a deputy editor at AFAR, focusing primarily on destination inspiration and sustainable travel. He lives near L.A. and likes spending time in the waves, on the mountains, or on wheels.
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