Winter In the Mountains: How to Spend 1 Day in Big Bear
A huge thank you to the team at Big Bear Visitor’s Bureau for hosting us. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
Seeing snow is a special treat for most Californians (and adopted Californians, like myself). Depending on where you’re reading this from, that might make you laugh, but snowfall is such a rare sight if you live somewhere that’s warm year-round. For me, winter usually just means a 10-degree drop in temperature and occasional rain, and snow is just a far-off fairytale that I only get to see on social media and in movies, and I know I’m not alone! But that’s where Big Bear comes in.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of Southern Californians make quick 2-hour drive up the mountains to Big Bear to exchange city smog for fresh mountain air. Big Bear is a small mountain town (population 5,200) situated against the sprawling, 7-mi Big Bear Lake. The mountains encompassing the area are world-famous for skiing, snowboarding, hiking, and horseback riding, and have been for almost 100 years. In the winter, Big Bear serves as the quickest go-to destination for Californians to get a quick dose of snow, making it a perfect weekend getaway. I had never been before, and I was curious about what draws so many people to Big Bear each year. However, having never skied before, Big Bear was honestly lower on my list for a while. I don’t know why, but something about heading to a famous ski town just didn’t seem appealing to me. Don’t get me wrong, I love mountain towns (remember the Alyeska Resort in Alaska?), but for some reason, Big Bear was just not on my radar. That is, until just a few days ago, when for whatever reason the FOMO of hearing everyone come to work each Monday talking about their epic adventures up in the mountains over the weekend really kicked in. So, with one day to spare in late January, we decided to see for ourselves just what makes Big Bear so magical.
While most people do Big Bear over a Friday - Sunday, we only had Saturday to visit Big Bear and squeeze in a full day of mountain town fun. So, is one day enough time to explore all that Big Bear has to offer? No – because to my surprise there is tons to do! – but it is enough time to get a taste.
Here is what you need to know to have the perfect time in Big Bear if you only have one day to spare.
How to Spend One Day in Big Bear
Big Bear is located just over 100 miles inland of Los Angeles, nestled up in the San Bernardino mountains. From LA, you have two main options once you hit Redlands:
CA-330 N to CA-18: Shorter route, but could have more traffic as this is the main route most people take into the town
CA-38: Longer route that weaves around the San Gorgonio and Sugarloaf mountains, but a viable alternative route if the 18 is packed
In the winter, be sure to take chains and an ice scraper with you just in case! You may be required to show your chains between November and April as a safety precaution, so keep that in mind.
In order to successfully do Big Bear in one day, we left LA around 5 AM, got to Big Bear by 8:30 AM, and then left to come back home around 5 PM.
Hitting the Slopes (Whether You Ski or Not)
Big Bear is famous for 2 ski properties in particular – Snow Summit and Bear Mountain, both of which are owned and operated by Big Bear Mountain Resort. I wasn’t sure if I was going to feel brave enough to attempt to ski at all, and what I found out was that even if you don’t ski or snowboard, there’s still so much to do at either mountain. Regardless of what you feel like trying, I suggest heading to either mountain first thing in the morning when you arrive, as parking will be an effort in itself and renting equipment can takes some time. Best to go early when the crowds are a bit less packed!
We decided to go to Snow Summit, and were able to sign up for a ski lesson at 9:15 AM. I recommend doing this at least 2 days in advance online if you’re hoping to get a lesson, too (you can do it day-of, but seeing how full our lesson was, I’d say best to play it safe!). We were a little late (because we didn’t realize how long equipment rental can take – definitely allow 20-30 minutes for this!), but I had a blast wobbling around on my skis and trying to navigate that fine line between wanting to go faster and not wanting to fall flat on my face.
If you don’t ski or snowboard, you can also go snow tubing or enjoy one of the mountain’s various restaurants. Honestly, Snow Summit felt a little like a mountain Disneyland – there was so much to do, upbeat music playing in the background to amp you up, and so many people all gearing up for a day full of adventure.
Skiing and Snowboarding:
Alpine Slide at Magic Mountain: 800 Wildrose Ln
Big Bear Snowplay: 42825 Big Bear Blvd
Grizzly Ridge Tube Park: 880 Summit Blvd
Other Things to Do
If you don’t feel like hitting the slopes, there are still tons of ways to enjoy the outdoors. Hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding are all popular options in Big Bear. If we had more time, we would have loved to do some of these things, but skiing was our priority for our first visit, and we only realistically had time to do 1 main activity. But, since we take weekend camping trips regularly, we’ll most likely be coming back to Big Bear in the summer or fall to try out a hike or two!
There are 10 main hiking trails in the area, ranging from 0.6 miles to 15 miles in length and difficulty.
Alpine Pedal Path (2.5 mi, easy)
Woodland Trail (1.5 mi, easy)
Champion Lodgepole Pine Trail (0.6 mi, easy)
Castle Rock Trail (2.4 mi, moderate)
Pine Knot Trail (6 mi, moderate)
Cougar Crest Trail (4.5 - 5 mi, moderate to difficult)
Snow Summit / Grand View Loop Bike Trail (9 mi, low intermediate)
Grout Bay Bike Trail (13 mi, intermediate)
John Bull Loop Bike Trail (14.9 mi, advanced to expert)
The Skyline Trail (15 mi one-way, intermediate)
Where to Eat
With one day in Big Bear, you’ll probably only have time for one big meal, either before or after you hit the slopes. While we skied, our friends went to Grizzly Manor Cafe, and afterwards, we all met up for lunch at Santana & Maverick’s. More options can be found at Big Bear Lake Village, the central hub for Big Bear’s food, coffee, sweets, and drink scene.
Off the main drag at The Village, Santana & Maverick’s is conveniently removed from the winter season crowds, meaning we were able to get seated right away. The food is uncomplicated, and there is tons to choose from. But what really stands out about Santana & Maverick’s is the view, which overlooks Big Bear Lake in all its glory. Window-front seats are the most popular seats in the house, second only to the rooftop, which features outdoor seating that would have been perfect if I could handle eating in 50-degree weather. The restaurant’s customer service made you feel like you were family, and the crème brûlée is a can’t-miss.
Big breakfast portions in a no-nonsense setting served up by your local tatted, pierced, and smiley kitchen staff. Our friends had zero complaints and were full for pretty much the entire day. Located close to the parking lot for Snow Summit, it’s a good choice for grabbing a bite before, or in between, a day spent on the mountain.
A casual neighborhood brewery setting with good beer on tap and bar food staples like burgers, pretzels, onion rings, and wings.
After just one day at Big Bear, it’s clear to me why people come flocking to this little mountain town year after year. Its close location and easy access to snow activities make Big Bear more doable in a shorter amount of time than other destinations like Mammoth and Tahoe. And, although I am by no means ready for the 2022 Olympics after one day on skis, I could already tell how addictive it was – the feeling of catching speed with brisk winter air on my cheeks, the sun dancing between the leaves on the surrounding pine trees, the slower pace of a town far removed from the incessant demands of the city. If you only have a weekend – or less – to spare, and you’re looking to get away from it all, Big Bear would tick all your boxes, for sure.