Skiing Big Bear in California offers the full winter experience

Big Bear Lake in Southern California has drawn my family to visit during all four seasons, but as die-hard skiers, we find winter especially appealing. And as desert dwellers, we find Big Bear especially accessible.

On a recent long weekend, my daughter, Charlotte, 12, and I left Las Vegas early one morning and before noon were already suited up and heading down the long sunny slopes at Snow Summit Mountain. Our main mission was to ski, but we also wanted a winter resort experience, which for us meant days full of outdoor activities and nights of kicking back near a fireplace. Big Bear was just right for us, but it also offers good restaurants, shops and a hopping nightlife for those who still have the energy after a day of excellent skiing or snowboarding.

Lodging in Big Bear runs from simple motel rooms and snug cabins for two, all the way up to luxurious houses that can comfortably sleep 16. We chose from the middle: a two-bedroom unit at Snow Summit Townhouses, at the base of Snow Summit Mountain. The location itself was a treat; all we had to do was walk out the door, and in a few minutes, we were on the ski lift. The two-story townhouse had two bathrooms, full kitchen, laundry and those sweetest of après-ski amenities, a large fireplace and a Jacuzzi.

Big Bear Mountain Resorts consists of two mountains, Bear Mountain and Snow Summit, only one-and-a-half miles from each other. One lift ticket gets you on both mountains, and all-day free shuttle service between the two affords access to 26 lifts and 438 skiable acres.

At Snow Summit, we found a mixed population of snowboarders and skiers, but boarders rule Bear Mountain. The latter is mostly freestyle terrain, including "The Park," one of the most progressive terrain parks in the world. It features more than 150 jumps, 80 jibs, a half-pipe and Southern California’s only super pipe. Every run features some sort of man-made terrain, such as jumps, hits, ramps, banks, fun boxes and rails.

For our first couple of hours, we skied the runs off the two high-speed quad chair lifts. The views from these lifts and the runs below are some of the best on the mountain. Spread out below is the seven-mile-long Big Bear Lake and miles and miles of national forest land.

We made a good push to ski every run on the mountain, except the challenging black diamond runs, which Charlotte has decided to defer until she’s had a little more experience. Snow Summit has 31 trails in all, and one suitable for any type of skier or snowboarder; the mountain has rated them as 10 percent beginner, 25 percent low-intermediate, 40 percent intermediate and 25 percent advanced terrain.

One place Charlotte especially liked was called the Family Park, where there are five major intermediate runs especially designed for children. Charlotte loved getting some air on the small jumps and bumps and was thrilled when the cruiser runs summoned her inner speed demon.

On weekends, Snow Summit offers night skiing until 9 p.m., but we called it a day at 4:30 p.m. As ski towns go, Big Bear offers an enviable variety of restaurants and night spots with competing ideas about decor, menus and management, making it great for mixed groups, such as middle-aged parents with easily bored teenagers. But in our case, Charlotte just soaked in the Jacuzzi while I made a fire. Beyond that, reading, drawing and enjoying each other’s company, without the distractions of home, were the ingredients of luxury.

The Town of Big Bear Lake lies at about 7,000 feet, but the surrounding mountains, including the resorts, are higher. Bear Mountain’s summit lies at 8,805 and Snow Summit is 8,200 at the peak. The average snowfall is about 100 inches a year. During our visit, there was plenty of natural snow, but both resorts are well prepared if there isn’t. That’s a good thing to know about any ski resort, as most people arrange a trip weeks in advance. Big Bear claims its state-of-the art technology will provide 100 percent snow coverage, even when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate.

On our second morning, we were among the first on the mountain. After about four hours skiing, we decided to seek different thrills and headed a couple of miles down the road to Magic Mountain Recreation Area.

This is winter fun for everyone who doesn’t ski or just wants new flavors in snow sports. We jumped onto the chair lift and rode to the top of the alpine slide, an arrangement that allowed us to mount individual bobsledlike contraptions and zoom down a concrete track, around banked turns and through straightaways at speeds that burned the wind.

Next, we headed over to the tubing hill. Growing up in New England, I traded many a weary hour dragging a sled or toboggan up a steep, icy hill for the short, sweet thrill of sliding back down. Here, we found all the fun without the hard work; the magic carpet ride, a wide conveyer belt, takes tubers to the hilltop.

Through mid-March, when snow conditions permit, the Big Bear Discovery Center offers guided snowshoe tours. Participants are provided with snowshoes and poles and instructed in their use. Then it’s off on a tour into the forest, where you will not only get a good workout, but learn much of the area’s natural history, winter ecology, plant life and how to identify animal tracks in the snow. Common tracks include the fox, coyote, deer, bobcat and squirrel. Winter birds you might see include woodpeckers, chickadees, blue jays and the bald eagle.

Big Bear Lake and the surrounding San Bernardino Mountains are home to the largest population of wintering bald eagles in Southern California. They usually arrive in early November and stay through March or early April. When the lakes of their summer habitats in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Alaska and Canada freeze over, it diminishes their food supply, so they head south along the Pacific Migratory Flyway and many end up in Big Bear.

The ideal place to look for them is perched high in trees around Big Bear Lake, a great source for their favorite "fast foods" — ducks and coot.

In different years, eagle population estimates have varied from two up to 30 wintering birds. This winter’s count of 12 is slightly lower than average. But for many Americans, seeing just one is the thrill of a lifetime.

One of the best ways to see our national symbol is to sign up for a bald eagle tour through the Discovery Center. The tour begins indoors with some background, including learning about eagles’ migration patterns and feeding habitats. After that, it’s out on a two-hour driving tour to choice viewing areas. The center provides telescopes and binoculars.

Since Big Bear Lake rarely freezes over, the 64-foot paddlewheel boat, Miss Liberty, offers winter cruises. Passengers can either brave the cold upper deck or ride comfortably in a heated, glassed-in area. The narrated 90-minute tour takes you around the lake to enjoy its natural beauty, spot its wild birds or just listen to the local history.

The town was named by Benjamin D. Wilson, who came in 1845, and, finding ursine abundance, named it Big Bear. In 1860, William Holcomb traveled here to hunt some of those bears, but found gold instead, touching off Southern California’s largest gold rush.

We captured neither bearskins nor gold, but what we did find was worth our trip: plenty of snow, plenty of ways to enjoy it, and plenty of time to do it, all fitting easily into a three-day weekend.

 

GETTING THERE

Location: Big Bear Lake, Calif., about 211 miles from Las Vegas, in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Directions: From Las Vegas, take Interstate 15 south for about 155 miles to the Barstow Road exit. Go left onto California Route 247 and drive about 32 miles. Go straight onto California Route 18 and continue about 24 miles to Big Bear Lake.

Visitor information: Visitor center is open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 630 Bartlett Road. Big Bear Lake Resort Association (909) 866-6190, www.bigbear.com.

Lodging: Snow Summit Townhouse rentals start at $230 nightly midweek, $260 on weekends. At base of Snow Summit Mountain, 861 Thrush Road. (800) 445-2223, www.snowsummittownhouses.com. Big Bear Vacations rates start at $125 nightly, $150 on weekends; 41693 Big Bear Blvd., (800) 924-1987, www.bigbearvacations.com. Cal Pine Chalets start at $79 nightly, $110 on weekends, 41545 Big Bear Blvd. (800) 965-7463, www.bigbearcalpines.com.

Big Bear Mountain Resorts: Skiing, snowboarding, lessons and equipment rentals. Snow Summit, 880 Summit Blvd., open Mon.-Fri. 8:30 a.m.- 4:30 p.m., weekends and holidays 8 a.m.- 6 p.m. Night sessions Fridays, Saturdays and holidays, 3-9:30 p.m. Bear Mountain, 43101 Goldmine Dr. Mondays-Fridays 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m., extended slightly weekends and holidays. (909) 866-5766, www. bigbearmountainresorts.com.

Midweek Ski and Snowboard Packages: Lodging, lift tickets and complimentary shuttle, starting at $69 per person, per night, double occupancy. Not valid during holiday periods. Big Bear Lake Resort Association, (909) 866-6190, www.bigbear.com.

Big Bear Off-Road Adventures: Explore the snow-covered mountain backcountry by Pinzgauer. (909) 585-1036, www.offroadadventure. com.

Big Bear Discovery Center: Information and exhibits about the San Bernardino National Forest. Purchase an Adventure Pass, guided snowshoe and eagle tours. Permits for camping, campfires and wilderness trips. Open 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily, except Wednesdays and Thursdays. 40971 North Shore Drive, Fawnskin. (909) 866-3437. www.bigbeardiscoverycenter.com.

Inner tubing: Magic Mountain offers inner tubing, alpine slide and go-karts, weather permitting. 800 Wildrose Lane. (909) 866-4626, www.alpineslidebigbear.com.

Miss Liberty Boat Tours: Winter tours are about 90 minutes, Friday-Sundays and major holidays. Pine Knot Marina, (909) 866-8129, www.pineknotmarina.com/

Ski and snowboard rentals: Available at Bear Mountain and Snow Summit resorts or Goldsmith’s Boardhouse and Ski Rentals, 42071 Big Bear Blvd. (909) 866-2728, www.goldsmithsboardandski.com; also Blauer’s Ski and Board Shop, 41177 Big Bear Blvd. (909) 866-5689, www.Blauersnowboards.com.

Winter driving: Carry snow chains in your vehicle, unless equipped with four-wheel drive and snow tires. Road conditions: (800) 427-7623.

 

Contact Deborah Wall at deborabus@aol.com.

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