Perched among the tops of pine trees blanketing Onyx Peak, I stand on a metal platform.
There’s no way down the platform nested on a single, steel trunk. No stairs. No ladder.
But there is a way down. The same way I came half a dozen times, leading me here. This will be the longest stretch, though.
I squint at the next platform as far as three football fields downslope. A worker grabs the pulley attached to my harness. He slings it over the steel cable strung between the towers in a slightly sunken arch. Then, he unlatches the carabiner holding me to the tower.
I’m free to step forward and fly along the cable in the 80-degree afternoon air, afforded in June by the mile-and-a-half-high elevation.
Pushing off is the easy part. So is the descent, suspended as pine trees whoosh by my sides at 30 to 40 mph. But I need to brake as I near the platform, squeezing the cable behind the pulley with a leather-palmed glove. Squeeze too hard and I’ll stop short and feel the smart of a sudden tug at my arm.
If I come in too hot, the worker for Action Tours Big Bear will throw out a brake on the cable to stop me with a jolt.
I like having full control over my speed, but the hand-braking (which can’t get any more literal) isn’t for the faint of heart.
Those wanting a more laid-back experience can try the company’s tours on Segways with off-roading wheels, or you can go even wilder with Aqua Flight, strapping on jet boots and wrist mounts to rocket out of Big Bear Lake with water shooting from all limbs.
Just like this one company, Big Bear Lake, Calif., provides all kinds of outdoor experiences, from the adrenaline rushing to the relaxing, outdoor reveling. Although the alpine lake surroundings are alien from Las Vegas, it’s just a 3½-hour drive from Sin City into the San Bernardino National Forest. In the summer, Big Bear offers a reprieve from the desert heat, and winter brings snow and skiing.
But before planning a thing, contact the Big Bear Visitors Bureau (bigbear.com or 1-800-4 BIG BEAR) and request a 2014 Visitors Guide. They’ll send the glossy magazine at no charge, providing all the information you’ll need about lodging, shopping, restaurants and activities, including a calendar of events and colored maps.
But nothing will prepare you like the fun and failures of my trip.
Unfortunately for my girlfriend and me, our weekend vacation to Big Bear started with a headache directly upon our arrival at 10 p.m. one Friday after work.
We forwent the usual hotel room for a stand-alone cabin complete with wood fireplace, a full kitchen, bathroom, hot tub, king-size bed and charcoal grill on the front patio for $131 per night. We booked it through Cabins4Less and were texted the cabin’s door code since the office closes at 8 p.m. However, the code was wrong. After 30 minutes of messing with the door panel, checking for unlocked windows, emailing and calling Cabins4Less, we drove back into town and got a hotel room.
The next morning, we discovered that the company left a digit out of the code. We weren’t offered a refund on the night in the cabin we never had, but had to ask for it.
Employees were friendly and the cabin at the edge of town was ideal for the alpine setting, but the headaches didn’t stop there. Weeks later, I discovered the company charged us the full price for two nights.
I called to request the refund. They agreed but never did it. Weeks later, I called a second time and the employee said she forgot to refund the one night and would do it. As I’m writing this a couple of days later, I’m still waiting for the refund to show on my credit card account.
But that was the only bad news to come out of Big Bear. And, as you’ll see in the Visitors Guide, the town of more than 5,000 people offers a slew of lodging options, including other cabin rentals, but not many chain hotels.
Saturday was spent on the zip line tour costing $120 per person and offering a truly unique three-hour experience. Vans took us from the office in Big Bear Lake up state Route 38, which boasts the highest roadway in Southern California, reaching 8,443 feet at Onyx Summit point. The van dropped us off at a pullout for a steep dirt road. There, the adventure began as eight of us climbed into the bed of a flat-faced all-terrain military vehicle called a Pinzgauer, first developed in the 1960s and named for a breed of horse in its country of origin, Austria. The vehicles ascended the narrow dirt road to switchback after switchback until we reached the top of the first zip line.
The tours are year-round even on holidays and in the depths of winter.
“This may sound corny, but it’s kind of magical,” said four-year employee Suzanne Castro, describing the feeling of zip lining in a winter wonderland as snow gently falls. “Everything is really beautiful.”
That evening, we retreated to our cozy cabin, grilling steaks and vegetables over charcoal purchased from the town’s Vons supermarket as we prepared for a relaxing Sunday to come.
We spent our last day exploring Big Bear Lake, a town facing the lake with peaks at its back marked by the ski trails of Snow Summit and Bear Mountain resorts.
We paid $16 each for a round-trip chairlift ticket, climbing 1,200 feet in elevation up Snow Summit Mountain Resort. After a short hike down the slope, we ate lunch looking at the town and lake as hawks rode the swells overhead. At the summit sits a lodge offering cooked lunch and a large patio peering off the backside into the wilderness.
While hikers are welcome and have their own trails, the mountain offers extensive mountain biking trails ranging from novice to extreme. An all-day bicycling pass is $35, and the resort rents out bicycles and equipment. See bigbearmountainresorts.com for rental prices.
After descending the mountain, we drove to the lake to explore another trail that the casual bicyclist and family can enjoy. The 15-mile dirt trail circles the water’s edge and sometimes towers over it on wooden bridges, taking about an hour of casually pedaling.
We were ready for dinner after that and settled on Peppercorn Grille in Big Bear Lake Village, the mountain resort’s picturesque shopping and entertainment district. Our steaks were good but nothing special preventing us from trying a different place next time. Visit bigbearlakevillage.com for a complete listing of the village’s offerings.
We capped our first trip to Big Bear with a wine tasting at Wolf Creek Resort and its impressive wine room just off of the town’s main thoroughfare, Big Bear Boulevard. Nestled behind the wine room sits a young vineyard, Stone Summit Winery, which the owner claims is the highest-altitude commercial vineyard in the northern hemisphere. At 6,750 feet, it tops Terror Creek Winery in Colorado by 333 feet.
Don’t ask for my opinion of the wine. I am anything but a connoisseur, but it was an enjoyable experience, offering the local wine and many others.
We relaxed there a little while, swallowing our last bit of alpine air before descending into the Mojave Desert on state Route 18, then taking Route 247. We reached Barstow, Calif., an hour out of Big Bear and caught Interstate 15 North for the rest of our journey back to Sin City. It was dark when we arrived 2½ hours later, trading ponderosa pines for skyscraping casinos and shimmering stars for neon lights.
Contact Trevon Milliard at email@example.com or 702-383-0279. Find him on Twitter: @TrevonMilliard.