Just a two- and-a-half- hour drive from the pressure cooker atmosphere of Los Angeles, Big Bear Lake is not just a place to play in the snow, but an escape in time. Its laid-back, small town charm takes city folk back to a kindly, more innocent America.
Big Bear City on the south shore of the lake is still small enough that the clerks and bag boys at the one supermarket know customers by name and take the time to chat with visitors, saying, “Welcome.” And they mean it!
It’s a perfect family ski town, with the bonus of a beautiful lake.
The lake owes its beginnings to the citrus industry. In the 1880s, growers who were looking for a reliable source of water built a dam to form the lake in the Bear Valley meadow of the San Bernardino Mountains. The 45-foot high single-arch dam was an architectural marvel in its day, and people traveled far to see it.
As the citrus industry flourished, the need for irrigation water grew, and in 1910, plans were drawn up for a taller dam to increase the lake’s storage capacity. The dam was completed two years later.
From the first, tourists were attracted to Big Bear Lake, even arriving by burro before roads were paved. Lodging was built to accommodate tourists, and soon “water wars” developed between citrus growers, who needed to draw down the lake to irrigate their groves, and Big Bear Lake tourism promoters, who wanted to maintain high water levels for fishing and other recreation. As years passed, houses gradually replaced orange groves, and the citrus and tourist industries resolved their conflicts. By 1977, the irrigation spigot was turned off for good.
In the beginning, Big Bear was primarily a summer resort, providing a cool retreat from the hot valleys below. But in 1952, the Kun family decided to capitalize on the snow melts that form the lake. They built Big Bear’s first, and still largest, ski lodge, Snow Summit.
Since precipitation in Southern California is unreliable, the Kuns had to become experts in the art of “snow farming.” Many ski resorts and “snow play” parks have snowmaking equipment, but Snow Summit is still the king of the mountain. It has a whopping 500 snow guns that shoot enough water and compressed air to make a blizzard. A bare slope can be skiable in just two days. The resort has even installed its own power plant and employs about 30 people full time to keep the slopes white and perfectly groomed. It has the most reliable ski season in the state.
Big Bear normally gets about 100 inches of snow a year. The current ski season started well. In mid-December, Big Bear received its largest single snowfall in 10 years, accumulating more than two feet in 24 hours.
Big Bear Mountain Resorts now operates two Big Bear resorts—Snow Summit and Bear Mountain, with a 1.5-mile free shuttle between the two areas. There are 26 ski lifts and 435 skiable acres.
Unlike ski resorts elsewhere, there are no long lift lines at Big Bear because the sale of lift tickets is limited. You won’t experience more than a 15-minute wait during the peak season, even though the resorts handle 500,000 visits a year. The devoted staff has learned how to keep things moving and people happy.
The latter is a skill that the entire Big Bear area has mastered. A visitor is liable to be asked, “Enjoying yourself?” several times a day. If the answer is “no” for some reason, the person asking will genuinely try to do something about the situation.
Along with the skiing and snowboarding, Big Bear has a special treat for nature lovers. Each year from December through March, bald eagles come to visit the lake. The lake supports a large coot population and the eagles love nothing better than a dumb, chubby waterfowl for lunch. So somewhere between 12 and 18 of the magnificent birds come down from the north to enjoy Big Bear’s winter amenities. Last year a pair stayed for the summer as well, sending the naturalists into frenzies of joy. “Could they be nesting here?” is the burning question of the day.
It’s not hard to see the big birds. A very active Discovery Center leads nature snowshoe hikes and eagle-watching tours. They keep the night roosting spots a closely guarded secret but they happily show off the birds’ day resting spots on their favorite dead tree snags (dead trees are special treasures at Big Bear).
Not all is rosy in the bird world. Shortsighted developers and planners have allowed construction of big houses just 10 feet apart in eagle habitat areas.
But it’s Big Bear. They have a way of working things out. If they can resolve a California water war they can resolve anything. Big Bear offers the same kind of pleasure and comfort that you get from a bowl of good hot soup and a hug. n
Andrea Granahan is a writer who lives in Bodega, California.