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For many of us living in Southern California, Big Bear Lake is a beloved mountain getaway easily enjoyed year-round. Nestled at about 7,000 feet in the San Bernardino National Forest, Big Bear Lake experiences the four seasons. In fact, it’s among the best places in SoCal to experience autumn’s changing leaves, a winter snowfall, spring wildflowers and summer water activities. So no matter when you visit, you’ll find there are many things to do in Big Bear.
I’ve been visiting Big Bear since I was a kid, and I’ve been bringing my own family here for years. We like that it’s a rustic, authentic (no frills) mountain town that’s close to home. And it’s dog-friendly!
Getting to Big Bear is easy and just about a two hour drive from Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego.
Here are some of our favorite things to do in Big Bear Lake
SheBuysTravel Tip: Stop by the Big Bear Visitor Center at the beginning of your trip to get your bearings anad see what’s new. It’s located on the main drag, Big Bear Blvd.
Visit the Big Bear Discovery Center in Big Bear Valley
The Discovery Center, located in Fawnskin on the North Shore, offers programs, tours and area information. Learn about things to do in Big Bear and about its history in the San Bernardino Mountains. Long before Big Bear became a popular ski resort, Big Bear (named for the grizzly bears that once roamed the area) attracted gold prospectors. William Holcomb, a bear hunter, discovered gold flakes in the backcountry in 1860. The gold rush lasted about 15 years.
Thrilling Lake Activities
Surrounded by towering pine trees, the lake sparkles like a jewel from the town, slopes and hiking trails. From kayaking, canoeing and paddle boarding to jet skiing and wakeboarding, there are many water sports. There’s also a small swim beach. One of our favorite things to do is cruise around the lake on a canopy-covered pontoon. They’re super easy to maneuver (take it from a non-boating family) and a lot of fun. We bring a picnic and admire the scenery while our dog Trooper eyes the quacking ducks.
When my friend, Kim Orlando, founder of SheBuysTravel.com, recently went on her first trip to Big Bear, I recommended she rent a pontoon. And she did, from BigBear Marina. “I motored around the lake, checking out the dam, mysterious pagodas and the solar observatory,” she said. A boating license is not required to rent a boat, only a driver’s license.
Fishing is another fun activity in Big Bear Lake. In May, a fishing derby awards big bucks to a lucky angler who catches a tagged trout.
Guided Lake & Village Tours
We’ve taken narrated lake tours a few times and always enjoy them. Both Miss Liberty Paddlewheel Tour Boat and Time Bandit Pirate Ship (from the 1981 movie, “Time Bandit”) offer relaxing and interesting tours around the lake. Guides share area history while pointing out scenery, wildlife and mansions dotting the shores. The Big Bear Discovery Center offers naturalist-led kayak and canoe tours for all abilities. These are a lot of fun because the guides share history and point out various shorebirds.
On land, Action Tours California offers several adventure tours. Segways are a cool way to explore the town. Friendly guides share fun facts and point out landmarks, such as Big Bear’s first post office. The log house is where President Richard Nixon and his family stayed on vacation. Action tours also offers zip lining, fly boarding and tree rope climbing.
Biking Around Big Bear
“Bike riding is one of my favorite ways to see an area,” said Kim, who recommends renting bikes from Goldsmith Sports. She was happy with the high end Hekler e-bike she rented to explore the lakefront neighborhoods and ride around the lake on the Alpine Pedal Path.
I agree with Kim that bike riding is a great way to explore. In summer, the scenic sky chair brings you to the summit, where you can enjoy lunch and hiking. One year, my family rode the chair to the summit with our bikes. From there, we barreled down the mountain. Well, my husband and kids barreled down. I carefully maneuvered my bike over rocks and ruts.
Hiking in the Forest
Hikers will be glad to know there are many hiking trails for all levels in Big Bear. The Castle Rock Trail is a 2.7-mile out-and-back moderate trail near Big Bear Lake, California. A small sign marking the trailhead is located on Highway 18. One of my favorites is the Big Bear Lake Town Trail, which travels between the village and ski resorts.
We also like hiking along the Big Bear portion of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail that travels from Mexico, through California, to Canada. The scenic trail winds among pine trees, affording peek-a-boo lake views. In spring and summer, masses of wildflowers add a pop of color.
Unique Things to Do in Big Bear
One of Big Bear’s top attractions is Alpine Slide at Magic Mountain, which features Southern California’s only authentic bobsleds. Open year-round, the family-friendly facility has a variety of seasonal attractions. Fly down the mountain on the Mine Shaft Coaster and cool off on a double water slide in summer. Go-Karts and mini golf are among more fun things to do in Big Bear.
Find indoor activities at the Big Bear Bowling Barn, which has 16 state-of-the-art lanes, an arcade and a Laser Maze.
Big Bear Alpine Zoo
Situated in the Moonridge area near Snow Summit, the zoo is a rehabilitation and release facility for injured and orphaned animals. The public is welcome to visit the animals, which include coyotes, bald eagles, Arctic fox, black bears and many other species.
Skiing & Snowboarding
Big Bear Mountain Resorts consists of three ski resorts: Snow Summit, Bear Mountain, and as of 2023, nearby Snow Valley Mountain Resort. While Snow Summit and Bear Mountain are located in Big Bear Lake, Snow Valley is situated 11 miles down the mountain on State Route 18.
More Winter Activities
You don’t have to be a skier to enjoy Big Bear’s snowy winters. Snowshoeing through the forest and snow tubing are more fun winter activities.
Explore the Village
It’s fun to stroll through The Village, which spans about three blocks and is lined with mom and pop restaurants, gift shops and cozy fire pits . It’s where you’ll also find the Big Bear Lake Brewing Company. The village has free parking from dawn to dusk. Spaces in front of shops are available on Village Drive and Pine Knot Avenue.
Tee Off at Bear Mountain Golf Course
No matter your skill level, the Bear Mountain Golf Course offers a welcoming experience. With the San Bernardino Mountains as a backdrop, Bear Mountain Golf Course offers a scenic alpine setting with Ponderosa pines, mountaintop vistas, and a pastoral 9-hole, par 35-course layout.
Horseback Riding at Baldwin Lakes Stable
Located seven miles east of Big Bear Village, Baldwin Lakes Stable offers a variety of trail rides in the national forest. Enjoy the fresh air and forest on various trails, depending on your riding experience.
Picnic at Boulder Bay Park
Nestled among the boulders of Big Bear Lake, Boulder Bay Park is a scenic spot for a picnic. You’ll see it as soon as you enter Big Bear Valley from Highway 18/330. The well-manicured park has picnic tables, a gazebo, a short walking trail and restroom facilities.
Festive Annual Events
Big Bear loves to celebrate and one of its most popular events is the annual Big Bear Lake Oktoberfest. It’s considered the best Oktoberfest in Southern California. The town’s Oktoberfest typically takes place from September to early November at the Big Bear Lake Convention Center. Kim attended the Oktoberfest and was impressed with its authenticity. While a German band played live music, other events like log sawing and stein-carrying took place.
The atmosphere was festive and the dance floor was packed with visitors in lederhosen and dirndls doing the polka and chicken dance. “Every once in a while the band will shout, “Zicke Zacka, Zicke Zacka” and everyone responds, “Hoi, Hoi, Hoi!,” just like they do at the Munich Oktoberfest. It was hilarious,” she said.
The refillable stein made it possible for her to sample many German beers and lagers as she feasted on traditional German food. Culinary delights included bratwurst with pretzel roll, sausages, vegan bratwurst, delicious apple strudel (made by a German baker in Orange County), a huge Bavarian pretzel, beer cheese and currywurst.
“The star is the infamous, secret recipe sauerkraut and I would make that drive up the mountain again just to have more of it,” said Kim.
Note: advance reservations are encouraged. There’s free general admission for American heroes.
Free Trolley Service
No need to worry about Ubers or sampling too much German beer. The Big Bear Trolley will bring you to your lodging free of charge. The trolley travels year-round to the slopes and other places in town.
A Smorgasbord of Dining Options
Burgers, sandwiches, curry dishes, tacos … you name it, Big Bear has it. For a secluded mountain town, Big Bear has an impressive selection of dining options to please all palates.
Where to Stay
Over the years, we’ve stayed in quaint cabins, condos, a lodge and house rentals – and enjoyed them all for different reasons. In winter we stay near the slopes. In spring and summer, we opt for lakefront accommodations.
Destination Big Bear is one of the major property managers in the area, with 400 cabins to choose from. Kim stayed in the Hidden Oaks cabin, which sleeps 8. It has floor-to-ceiling windows, and a hot tub surrounded by trees in the backyard. On her visit, the cabin was stocked with pots, pans, towels, and hand and dish soap but no bathing soap (bring your own).
Fireplaces in the living area and master bedroom – which had an elevated bed topped with a puffy comforter – added to the cabin’s coziness.
Big Bear Vacations also offers a variety of accommodations. One summer we stayed in a three-story lakeside house (named Eagle’s Nest) with five bedrooms that sleeps 14. It had a dream kitchen, recreation room with pool table, and a Jacuzzi. With the lake at our fingertips, we were able to paddle off in our own kayaks.