So close to L.A., it was the perfect place to bring our boys for their first winter wonderland adventure.

POSTED BY PINKY

A small city in San Bernardino, California, Big Bear Lake is located high up in the mountains along the shore of the lake with the same name.

Called that after the grizzly bears that used to inhabit the surrounding forest, this was also home to the Serrano Indians before the area was explored in the 1840s by Benjamin “Don Benito” Wilson, who years later became mayor of Los Angeles then a California State Senator. He was also the grandfather of World War II General George S. Patton, Jr.

Why Big Bear Lake

We had set out to go on a 2-week holiday in California with the kids, from Christmas until after New Year’s, and wanted to balance our trips to the amusement parks with a genuine winter experience – complete with snow – and without the need to fly.

Lake Tahoe was initially an option, but the more I read about Big Bear Lake, the more convinced I got that a smaller, more compact town like it would be a better match for our family.

So off we went on a 2-hour drive from our hotel across Disneyland in Anaheim to our home for the holidays in Big Bear Lake.

Where We Stayed

There’s a good variety of accommodations to choose from in this all-year-round resort town, but we wanted to stay within what’s popularly called The Village, where we could just walk to the many shops and restaurants if we chose to. And right smack in the middle of it was Robin Hood Resort, a pleasant 2-storey building where each room was equipped with a modern fireplace.

As it was in the center of town and right along the main road, noise could become an issue for some. But we had no such problems during our visit, even during one of the busiest times of the year in Big Bear Lake: New Year’s Eve.

Winter Activities 


Big Bear Lake plays host to a lot of activities throughout the year, which makes it a popular spot for short breaks among southern Californians. They have hiking and biking trails, a lot of water sports, they celebrate Oktoberfest and Halloween in the fall, and skiing is big in the winter.

But for non-skiers like us, there were other great ways to enjoy the snow, too.

One was taking the Alpine Slide at Magic Mountain, a fun bobsled experience. We climbed up to the top of the mountain on a scenic chairlift ride, we each got on a sled, then we snaked our way down on an exhilarating winding track all the way to the bottom. Wheeeee!!

Go-karts and mini-golf were also available in the winter, but sledding definitely won in the novel and exciting category.

Another huge hit was tubing down the slope in Big Bear Snow Play, site of the former ski area known as Rebel Ridge, which introduced snowmaking to Southern California in the late 1950s and made inner tubing a favourite family activity here for many generations.

Tubing down the slopes!

This time, we went uphill not on a chairlift but rather on what they call a Magic Carpet uphill lift, a covered walkalator that did away with the tiring uphill struggle through snow, which helped conserve our energy for the thrilling downhill twists and turns instead. Now this was the hands-down overall winner, specially among the boys. I don’t know how many times they went up and down that hill, but I swear they could have gone on all day.

The popular Snow Summit Ski Resort has newly-opened its Grizzly Ridge Tubing facility, but this wasn’t what we had come to remember Snow Summit for.

Snow Summit is more famously known as the yearly host to a huge Big Bear Lake tradition: the Annual New Year’s Eve Torchlight Parade, where every 31st of December at 7 p.m., around 200 employees, family, and members of the resort’s ski and snow board teams take chair lifts to the top of the mountain and serpentine down the slopes carrying bamboo sticks with bright red flares.

We initially made the mistake of going to the base of Snow Summit earlier in the evening then realised that the best way to see the parade would, of course, be from a distance.

So we each got ourselves a mug of hot chocolate, drove just a few minutes away until we felt we had had a good vantage point from which to see the mountains, parked the car, and waited for the torchlight parade to begin. And boy, what a view we got!

An unforgettable way to greet the new year!

After the parade, the parties usually begin at around 8:30pm in both Bear Mountain and Snow Summit for the countdown to the New Year. Featuring live music and international DJs, this is when the entire town comes alive.

But with the boys tired from all the snow play in the last couple of days, we decided instead  to drink a toast to the new year in front of the warm fire, right in the comfort of our room at the inn. 

Breakfast of Champions

Beside our hotel was the Nottingham Tavern, a good place for dinner or some pub grub. But it was the amazing breakfasts we had in Big Bear that really stood out.

One was in Grizzly Manor Cafe, a short drive from our hotel. Here we had the most amazing pancakes (did I just say amazing again?). It was more of a roadside cafe where you could watch the cook prepare your breakfast in an open kitchen. If you’re trying to watch your diet, it might be best not to look. Just enjoy the food. No one’s probably supposed to eat this heartily every single day, but when you’re on holiday, you can indulge a bit!

Get a load of this humungous pancake in Grizzly Manor Cafe!

The other place we went to for breakfast was Teddy Bear Restaurant, a charming place right in The Village, just a short walk from our hotel. Also serving typical American fare, it was full when we got there on New Year’s morning, but the staff managed and food was great.

Top Tips for a Winter Break in Big Bear Lake

Here are a few suggestions to make your holiday visit as enjoyable and stress-free as possible.

1. Book early, specially if you plan to go during the holidays or on a weekend. It’s too close to a big city like L.A., so competition will be fierce.

2. It’s best to bring a car up. I didn’t see too many buses during our visit, which makes me assume that driving is the primary means of getting around town.

3. If traveling during the winter, check that your vehicle has tires that are considered safe for driving in the snow. A vehicle with a 4-wheel drive or a car with snow tires is best. Otherwise, you might get stopped by the road cops.

4. Try to go at least a day ahead of the rest of the crowd. If going on a busy weekend, see if you can get there either on a Thursday or by Friday morning. If going during a holiday like the New Year, try to be there by the 29th. Beyond that, just get there really early in the morning before everyone else does.

We went up midday of the 30th and by then, the volume of traffic going up the mountain had already gotten pretty heavy. But once you get to the town proper, it eases up and it does get better.

5. For people who, like us, are from countries with neither winter nor snow, you’ll need to purchase or borrow some gear in order to enjoy activities that do involve snow.

In addition to the winter jackets we got the boys in Hongkong prior to this trip, we had to buy water-resistant winter gloves and ski pants. We couldn’t find any in L.A. (or just didn’t know where to get them), but luckily these were available in the big stores on our way to Big Bear Lake.

Snow angels, check. Making snow balls and throwing them (at each other), check.  I must say, this was a trip that everyone in the family still talks about fondly – wistfully –  even years later. So if planning a trip to California during the winter holidays, why not give Big Bear Lake a try?

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