Southern California’s Inland Valley is presided over by the mountain patriarchs called Baldy, San Jacinto and Big Bear. These giants are as much a part of the daily experience to valley residents as the ocean is to those who live on the coast. Valley residents watch the sun coming up from behind them, enjoy the magnificent clouds that form at their peaks, play and explore them every month of the year, and navigate by them.
The great mountainous ridge to the north is now called Big Bear, but the Serrano Indians who lived on the mountain once called it Yuhaviat, meaning Pine Place. The Serrano people considered bears sacred and forbade the killing of them. History tells how in 1845 a posse of white men led by future Los Angeles mayor Benjamin Davis Wilson pursued a group of Indian raiders up into the mountains and found a valley swarming with grizzlies. The posse never captured the raiders, but they took home 11 grizzly pelts and gave the place a new name: Bear Valley.
The Big Bear ridge isn’t just one mountaintop, but several peaks that make up the San Bernardino National Forest. These peaks give valley residents a two-fold pleasure. From the valley floor they are a magnificent backdrop which changes from dawn to dusk, season to season. The perspective changes from the top. A drive up the winding road offers panoramic views of the valley. Hikers who have taken the foot trails to the 11,502 foot peak of San Gorgonio claim that on a clear day you can see the ocean and Catalina Island.
Except for a small swatch of water on the east end of the valley, there wasn’t a lake in Bear Valley when Wilson first named the place. In the mid-1880s, a couple of land developers from Redlands saw the great snow caps as perfect sources of water for their planned community of orange groves. They formed a company to build a dam at the mouth of the valley so they could control the water formed by the melting snow caps and channel it to the valley. In 1888 the first dam was completed, the entire Bear Valley basin was flooded and Big Bear Lake was born. Trout was brought in for the new lake and soon it became a haven for fishermen as well as mountaineers hunting bears. By 1906 the last grizzly was killed and only the name remains in honor of the bears the Serrano considered their ancestors.
The San Bernardino National Forest is a four seasons adventure land. Hiking, fishing, rock climbing, boating, birding, and camping await those who eschew the snow sports that make up only a fourth of the region’s activities. A permit is required for any hiking or camping in the wilderness areas, but the permit is free and can be downloaded and printed from the San Bernardino National Forest website prior to visiting.
These mountains are perfect getaways all year long. When temperatures in the valley are in the triple digits, you can be sure to find cool breezes with mild sunshine in the mountains. Accommodations such as rental cabins, rooms in lodges, B&Bs and hotels are plentiful, affordable, and charming. Some visitors may want a more luxurious getaway and for them the Lake Arrowhead Resort and Spa offers exquisite rooms, world-class dining, and a full-service spa. The Northwoods Resort in Big Bear City offers deluxe accommodations and some fabulous getaway packages.
Mountain cabins, upscale condo rentals, and rustic lodges can be found throughout the mountains. Do you homework to avoid disappointments and misunderstanding when booking from independent owners or small agents. Insist on seeing recent photos of the property, check references, and read through all booking agreements carefully and note the deposit requirements and check-out procedures.
The villages of Big Bear Lake and Lake Arrowhead, as well as the quaint hamlets that dot the forest, have distinctive personalities. Each town offers celebrations, festivals and concerts throughout the year. Like many small towns, the villages are home to artisan studios, gear outfitters, and gift boutiques. You’ll find everything from fine cuisine, to family dining, to street-side cafes with fresh pastries, coffee and tea.
Campgrounds and RV parks make up a good portion of overnight facilities and are found close to the villages and in remote mountain settings accessible only by backpack. Reservations are required at some of the campgrounds and information on accessibility, directions and pricing is available online. The solitude of remote camping can be a profound experience to city dwellers who have never heard the wind whistling through pines or the melodious trickling of a mountain creek.
Southern Californians love their snow, and we appreciate it staying in the mountains for skiing, snowboarding, sledding, and cold play. About four months out of the year our mountains play host to thousands who come for winter sports. About halfway up the mountain is Snow Valley, a 240-acre park with 13 lifts and a snow play area for sledding and other snow play. Just east of Big Bear Village is Big Bear Mountain Resorts, consisting of the classic Snow Summit and its sister property Bear Mountain. Set highest in elevation, with 435 combined acres and 26 lifts, these resorts are always the first to open for skiing and the last to close.
The mountains that govern our valley are rich with legend. A visit to the Big Bear Historical Museum is a trip back to the days of the Serrano people, onward to the gold rush days of 1860s, through the creation of the lake and its early resorts and settlements. Open on the weekends from May through October, the museum is operated by the Big Bear Historical Society and is worth the trip for anyone interested in local history.
Find more about the Big Bear mountain resorts from the following sites:
Big Bear Lake Resort Association
Lake Arrowhead Village
Big Bear Historical Society Museum
San Bernardino National Forest Info
Big Bear Camping
Big Bear Mountain Resorts