Big Bear Lake California: California's premiere four-season alpine resort - a history lesson in and of itself
By Ron Kapon, Travel Contributor
The Spanish explorers who first came upon Big Bear Valley named the Native Americans who lived there the "Serranos," which means mountaineers. These peace-loving people are thought to be Shoshonean by descent. In July of 1845 a local rancher named Benjamin Wilson was asked to take a force of eighty well-armed men to pursue the raiders. Don Benito, as his men affectionately called him, split his force, sending the main body through Cajon Pass while he rode into the mountains following the "San Bernardino River." On the evening of the second day they arrived in a high mountain valley where "the whole lake and swamp seemed alive with bear." Don Benito Wilson later wrote: "Twenty-two Californians went out in pairs, and each pair lassoed one bear, and brought the result to camp, so that we had at one and the same time eleven bears. That prompted me to give the Lake the name it now bears." Wilson died in 1878, but before he died, he donated land and buildings for the construction of a college, which eventually became the University of Southern California. One of his grandchildren was the famous World War II General, George S. Patton.
Big Bear Lake Snow Summit Ski Trails.
It is estimated that between 1500 and 2000 people were in Holcomb Valley (part of the Bear Valley) during the peak of the Gold Rush Days in the 1860's. Today no structures remain at any of these historic mines and only caved in tunnels, collapsing shafts, and piles of colorful tailings are evidence that they once existed! When the Mormons began their settlement of San Bernardino in 1851, one of their vital needs was for lumber. Because Big Bear Valley was so far away from civilization and hauling costs were prohibitive, the valley was saved from the intensive timber cutting. Sawmills were in use for mining purposes and several small mills ran in Bear Valley. In 1924 Viggio Pederson began his sawmill. It is the last reminder of a once thriving industry in these mountains.
The peak of mountain cattle ranching lasted for about 60 years, from the 1880's until the 1940's, with most of the activity concentrated in the Bear Valley area. With the arrival of the Southern Pacific in Southern California in 1876, the area boomed as people flocked to the new land. In 1883 Frank E. Brown organized the Bear Valley Land and Water Company, purchased the necessary land, and a dam was completed in December of 1884. It was 60 feet high and 300 feet wide. At that time, the Bear Valley Dam created the largest man-made lake in the world. In 1911, J.S. Eastwood built the present multiple-arch dam, which tripled the capacity of the lake to 73,000 acre-feet. This dam was twenty feet higher and was reinforced in 1988 to comply with increased earthquake safety standards.
The new mountain lake formed by the 1884 dam created a great interest in Big Bear Valley for recreation. Soon, trail weary travelers were regularly using the five abandoned dam builders' cabins. When a new wagon road from Santa Ana Canyon was completed in 1899, visitors flocked to the lake in the pines. By 1916, two roads were built and, with the development of automobiles, the number of resorts continually increased. In 1924 over 24,000 cars visited Big Bear over the 4th of July weekend alone. The primary summer attraction by the 1920's was fishing. Ask and you will be told that there are several hundred thousand trout in Big Bear Lake. I am not sure if that is a fish tale. Fishing, boating, mountain biking and hiking are great attractions in the summer to this day. Big Bear Valley has become Southern California's most popular year-around resort with around 10 million visitors a year. It is 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles and has a year-round population of 21,000 with elevations from 6,750 to 9,000 feet. The fresh water lake (fed solely by snow melt) is seven miles long, one mile across at its widest point, with an average depth of 35 feet. There are over 22 miles of shoreline.
Ski lift leading to Snow Summit.
Through the efforts of Judge Clifford R Lynn, the Big Bear Sports District was formed in 1934 to develop winter sports in Big Bear. The first ski lift (known as the Clifford Lynn lift) was constructed on "Lynn Hill" in 1949. Tommi Tyndall was the Lynn Lift's first Far West Ski Association certified instructor. It was through Tommi's dedication that Bear Valley became recognized as a winter sports resort. In the early 60's it was obvious that nature could not provide snow for a major ski area so Tommi arranged financing for the first major snow-making system in California. Snow Summit has increased its snow-making to over 200 acres of runs with a capacity of 7,000 skiers. Bear Mountain was started in the 1950's as the "Moonridge Ski Area." A mile-long lift was installed in 1969. It has been renamed "Bear Mountain" and has been increased to 195 acres of ski runs with a capacity of approximately 7,000 skiers.
The San Bernardino Mountains are the highest range south of the Sierra Nevada's and are also unique in being one of the few transverse ranges in the nation. Proclaimed a "Forest Reserve" in 1893, these mountains were re-designated as the San Bernardino National Forest by presidential proclamation in 1925. Consisting of 1270 square miles within the boundary of the National Forest are 812,633 acres, of which 198,042 acres are State and private lands. The highest mountain in Southern California is Mt. San Gorgonio - nicknamed Old Grayback - at 11,502 feet.
The view alone is worth the trip.
Big Bear Mountain Resort - Play Golf at 7,000 feet. The 9-hole mountain-style course sits at an elevation of 7,000 feet. Ride the mile-long Scenic Sky Chair. That transports you through the San Bernardino National Forest to an elevation of 8,200 feet in 15 minutes. You will find most riders to be cross-county mountain biking participants. There is a BBQ at the top although it is recommend that you eat before taking the Sky Chair. There is a long wait and the food, when you arrive, is just average. Have your cameras ready during the descent for beautiful Big Bear Lake vistas. During the winter skiers and snowboarders flock to the resorts' wide-open runs that have one of the best snow-making systems in the world. www.bigbearmountainresorts.com
Captain John's Fawn Harbor & Marina - Go out with Captain John on Big Bear Lake on one of his electric boats. Or you can opt for kayaking on the lake. There are also pontoons, canoes and stand up paddle boards available for rental. Capt John was a font of information. While lending credence to the fact that there are at least several hundred thousand trout in the lake.
Waiting to Zipline
Gold Mining Tour with Big Bear Off-Road Adventures. There are several tours available using 4-wheel drive vehicles. Go explore the ridges, canyons, meadows, streams and rivers of the San Bernardino Mountains. Tours range from easy to moderate to serious and last from 1 1/2 to 5 hours. I recommend a sack lunch in Holcomb Valley www.offroadadventures.com
Big Bear Historical Museum - I got lucky with Doug Walton, the owner of Big Bear Off-Road Adventures, as our driver. He told us many stories from his 20 years living in the area and he also took us to the Big Bear Historical Museum that has exhibits that include the Indian period to the present day. There is a furnished 1875 log cabin, gold mining artifacts, and displays of native animals, birds and reptiles and exhibits of toys, historical photographs and minerals, memorabilia from the days of Hollywood super stars as well as a working blacksmith shop. www.bigbearhistory.org
Moonridge Animal Park - Go for a moonlight safari. The park is a wildlife animal sanctuary and rehabilitation center founded in 1959. They are the home to 160 orphaned and injured wildlife representing over 89 species among which are mountain lions, grizzlies, cougars, bobcats, coyotes and raccoons. The Zoo director Debbie Richardson will take rescued baby wolves home and bottle-feed them every night (along with her daughter assisting her). www.moonridgezoo.org
The author on the Zipline
Robin Hood Resort's Sherwood Forest - Built in 2002, the rooms have gas-burning fireplaces, Jacuzzi tubs, and lake views and they are located within a few blocks of the village shops. We had several meals at their Nottingham Restaurant. www.robinhoodresort.info
Zip lining - The highlight of the entire trip was our visit to Action Zipline Tours. After an introduction video in town their off-road Safari Jeep took our group 2 miles deep into the forest. There is a nine-line zipline course over the treetops. I have zip lined once before over downtown Las Vegas but that was only one line. This time I had time to think and get nervous many times as we zipped through 9 towers. Of course, if there is trouble it will find me. On the last zip I suddenly stopped short of the last tower by about 30 feet and had to be rescued. It was the highlight of my trip. www.actionziptours.com