I spent about three August weeks in Big Bear Lake, a small, clean town 6,750 feet high in the mountains of central California, where almost every house is a beautiful log cabin with a stone fireplace, and almost every log cabin has a carved wooden statue of a big bear serving as their personal mascot.
I volunteered reception, kitchen and housekeeping work in exchange for a bed in the staff room and some meals at ITH Big Bear Mountain Adventure Lodge. The rustic hostel sits on a pinecone-covered hill, shaded by tall, dry pine trees. A big tree grows out of the long front porch that offers a sliver of a view of the sparkling blue lake.
The lodge was originally built in the 1920’s, and has a giant old fireplace, a couple of staircases that look like they were made from tree roots and branches and a handful of dead mounted animal skulls to add authenticity. With 3 dorm rooms and 4 private rooms (all comfortable, yet simple), a pretty sweet games room, a fully-equipped guest kitchen, a cozy great room and a big backyard, the place is great for chilled out friends, solo travelers and families. People who expected luxury here were sadly mistaken, but those people sucked anyway. It’s a clean (I helped see to that), cheap place to kick it in the mountains and get a hot breakfast and dinner included in the price of the room. Not to mention all of the cool activities that come with the price of your stay, like boat cruises, guided hikes, karaoke, bowling, games nights and, my personal favorite, ARCHERY!! One of the managers, Rudy, used to compete and would teach anyone who asked how to shoot a bow and arrow.
Before I go into my personal story, I just want to provide a list of practical information for anyone thinking of making the trip to Big Bear Lake.
How do you even get to Big Bear Lake?
Well, funny you ask, because it is a bitch and a half to get there without a car. If you’ve got one, I assume you also have some sort of navigation at your disposal, so please refer to that for driving directions. On public transit, the trip from, say Los Angeles, will very likely take you all day. So bring your patience, some Less Drowsy Dramamine and a snack or two, because it’s going to be a long, winding ride.
1) Arrive in Los Angeles and get to Union Station. I arrived in LAX at around 10 in the morning on a sunny Wednesday. From there, the cheapest and most out of the way route I found was to take an $8 airport shuttle into the city to Union Station.
2a) Take an Amtrak to San Bernardino. Find yourself (in advance) an Amtrak train that goes to San Bernardino, your destination to catch the Mountain Transit bus up the curvy and slightly treacherous road to Big Bear. Make sure you time it right, because there are only three times that the bus leaves from the San Bernardino Metrolink station (where the trains go, not the buses), 8:35 AM, 12:15 PM and 5:15 PM. For some reason, I didn’t take the train to San Bernardino. I took a godforsaken Greyhound bus that stopped in a million small towns along the way and made me miss my 5:15 bus, so I had to sleep in some shithole motel next to the liquor store where locals drank barefoot on the stoop.
But I digress. If you heed my advice and get a two-hour-or-so train ride up, you will also have the privilege of being an Amtrak customer. This means that if you happen to arrive in LA as early as I did and you have some time to kill, Amtrak will hold your luggage, I think for free, at Union Station. I had the unpleasant experience of sweating while guarding my luggage and taking it with me whenever I needed to pee or eat. But you, hopefully, will have the luxury of free hands and a weightless back. If you want to get a little tourism in, head over to Olvera Street, the oldest part of Downtown LA and part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument. It’s basically Little Mexico, and you can kill a few hours eating taquitos off the street and watching traditional Aztec dances.
2b) Take a Greyhound bus to San Bernardino. The Greyhound station is about a $4 Uber, or a 20 minute walk, from Union Station. I was told that the bus that takes you to Big Bear from San Bernardino stops at the Greyhound station. However, the people working behind the ticket booth seemed to not know what I was talking about, even though the schedule on the Mountain Transit website says that it stops at the Greyhound Station…
3) Get to San Bernardino Metrolink station to catch Mountain Transit bus to Interlaken Center, Big Bear. I hopped in another Uber (again another $4 or so) to the Metrolink station (if you took the train to SB, you would have arrived at Metrolink), where I waited at an actual bus stop on the road for the mini-bus to arrive. There was a sign on the street with a number you can call to track the bus you’re waiting for. The bus costs $10, exact change only. Do not be alarmed if you are one of the only people on the bus. Just as likely, you will be accompanied by mountain crazies who shout conversations at the bus driver, or old sweeties who show you photos of their cats and make sure you get to the hostel safely once the bus reaches the Interlaken Center.
4) Go to ITH Big Bear Mountain Adventure Lodge. There are more Mountain Transit buses that go around the lake and can hopefully drop you off at your destination of choice. If you stay at ITH Big Bear, there is a convenient stop right at the bottom of the hostel’s steep driveway. But I know the guys who run the place, and if you just call and ask in advance, chances are someone could pick you up and drive you home. You’ve had a long enough of a day.
What to do in Big Bear Lake in the summer?
Big Bear Lake and Big Bear are more well known for their winter skiing and snowboarding culture because, duh, it’s a mountain. But summer offers a ton of super cool activities, too! My favorites include:
- Pine Knot: This trail, about 3 miles up one way, was only a half an hour walk away from the hostel, off of Mill Creek Road. The trail starts at Aspen Glen picnic area, a clearing with a few tables and some well-maintained toilets. It was a pretty mild hike with lots of shade, but I still wished I had brought more than one bottle of Powerade. About ¾ of the way up is a “picnic area” that looked more like a clearing to me, and a bit further is the Grand View Point. Unfortunately, it was getting dark so my fellow volunteer, Lara, and I didn’t make it to the view point. That didn’t stop us from climbing on top of boulders to get a good look at that glittering lake. It really was extraordinary and peaceful. We only passed a few other hikers and mountain bikers, and I could see that people had ridden horses through the trail, as well. In total, it took us about 3 hours.
- Cougar Crest: This trail was our manager Rudy’s favorite, so he took us volunteers and some guests here one day for an outing. The trail was very dry. I felt more like I was hiking a steep Mohave desert than climbing in the mountains of California. About 2.3 miles up one way, the trail was lined with pines and juniper trees, and it zigzagged a lot and offered many great views of the lake. At the end of the trail, you can connect with the Pacific Crest Trail and get a look at Mexico on one side and Canada on the other. Apparently it’s good to go during all seasons, and mountain bikers are allowed to ride only during off-peak seasons.
- Castle Rock: This one was by far my favorite hike. As it was only 1.3 miles one way, it was probably the easiest trail, but by far the most beautiful. The trailhead is sort of hard to find, as there is no parking lot or easy-to-spot opening. You sort of just park along the road and walk into the trail from the street. As you walk further into the woods, along the dusty paths and the shady pines, the sounds of the street begin to fade. The walk up to the boulder playground is steep, with plenty of other boulders along the way available to climb. If you reach the first section of boulders, you haven’t reached the end, so don’t stop there. Keep going, past tall rocks and cliffs, to the main rock at the top, a castle of rocks, if you will. I took off my shoes so I could climb to the very top, as there is no path up, with a better grip. We even found some scary and dangerous crevices to try to climb out of. I love a good challenge and a solid boulder to climb. The view from all the way up there was the most stunning. The lake spread out infinitely before me, and the slight wind and silence of being so high up filled my ears. I felt lucky to be alive.
Of course, there are many other hikes available, as well as the Deep Creek hot springs, but those are an hour or two out of town.
2) Play on the lake.
- The hostel offers free boat tours of the lake! If you sign up in time, you’ll be one of the blessed few to ride the speedboat with the crisp mountain wind in your hair, the sun in your eyes, and a cold can of Coors in your hand. There is no toilet on the boat, but luckily the lake offers floating restrooms that are surprisingly clean. You can also rent your own boats, and other gear, for a day of fishing for rainbow trout or cruising in the sun. The best place to rent from is the Big Bear Marina.
- You can rent kayaks, canoes, jet skis, paddle boards and wakeboard gear from the Marina, and other spots along the south side of the lake, as well. (Just make sure if you’re bring your own paddle board or any type of boat that you check with the Big Bear Municipal Water District about permits and whether or not you’re required to wear a safety vest.) There are a few places on the north side, too, closer to Fawnskin, but if you stick with Captain John’s, Pleasure Point and even Holloway’s Marina and RV Park, you’ll be good to go. Cabins4Less advertise that they offer pretty cheap rentals, but that might just be for their guests. However, they are very close to Boulder Bay and Boulder Bay Park, some must-see sights.
- You can also tour the lake on a super cool Pirate Ship Cruise- Home of the Bandit. I didn’t do it, but the skeleton mascot hanging from the sails looked like he was having a good time.
- If you want to go swimming in Big Bear Lake, you have to find the right spot. I won’t lie to you, this isn’t the most fun lake to swim in. It’s cold and oily, and when I was there, the algae along the shore made easing your way in difficult and kind of gross. If you’re on a boat in the middle of the lake, unfortunately, you cannot just jump in. You are, however, allowed to fall in, so keep that one in mind. But if you want to have a day alternating between tanning, swimming and snacking, there are a few sandy shores for you.
- Meadow Park: A great space to take friends and family, this park right on the lake is 16 acres big with picnic tables, barbecues, tennis courts, volleyball courts, horseshoes, baseball fields, bathrooms and more. The park is right next to appropriately named Swim Beach. Don’t expect a beautiful swim, here. You’re welcome to have a go, but you’ll probably be a bit disappointed.
- Boulder Bay Park: Boulder Bay and the park next to it are a great place to spend the day. The rock formations all over the space are fun to climb on and take photos with. There are a few picnic areas and barbecues, and the rocky little shore is a good place to launch a kayak.
- Dana Point: On the north shore of the lake, in Fawnskin, is Dana Point, a small park with picnic tables and lake access. What more could you want?
- Explore: This isn’t a place, it’s a suggestion. I went walking around with friends and we ended up stumbling across a small, mostly deserted beach front where the water was nice and not too obstructed by algae. For the life of me I cannot find it on Google maps to show you. I’m sorry. But something tells me it was in between Gibraltar Point and Lagonita Point.
We also found some boulders while we were on the lake that people were jumping off. So we parked on the side of the road one day, climbed over some rocks and possibly someone’s backyard, and voila, we were climbing up boulders and jumping off of them into the lake in no time! I’m pretty sure we stopped around 66 Big Bear Boulevard. There was a sandy shoulder off the road before the bridge on the west side. Directly in front of the shoulder are two signs, a green one that points to “Fawnskin North Shore” and a brown one below it that points to “Big Bear Discovery Center.” If you park there, take off your shoes and follow your heart, you may be able find the boulders we jumped off of (video below). It’s pretty close to “Treasure Island” or “China Island” for a point of reference. I advise someone to wade into the water first and see how deep it goes before anyone jumps off. I’m not sure how rainfall and droughts and science and stuff affect the depth of a man-made lake.
- China Island: You’ll be able to see this small, enticing outcrop of granite boulders from the lake. There are a few huts that were built into the boulders by the Chinese settlers who were building a dam in 1884, without which there would be no Big Bear Lake today. I had assumed that people were renting those huts out, and maybe they are, but further research tells me that the island is open to anyone, and it’s been dubbed the best swimming hole in Big Bear. If you want to jump off of a more established rock, China Island is the place to go. Keep in mind that there are only 6 to 8 parking spots available, so try to get there early if you are driving.
3)Alpine and Water Slide at Magic Mountain
The slides at Magic Mountain offer a nice way to cool off in the summer, as well as adding a cheap thrill to your day. The Alpine Slide, open year round, takes visitors on a chairlift to the top where they can pick which of the two slides they want, have a seat on your sled, and go. If the water slide is more your style, like it was mine, you can join a bunch of dripping, pushing little kids on the line to the two slides. The one on the left is slightly more dangerous if you’re up for a bit more of an adrenaline rush.
Magic Mountain also offers go karts, mini golf, an arcade and a deliciously gross snack bar where I made my fellow volunteers, Julian (from South Africa/ Switzerland) and Lara (from Germany) try, and get addicted to, corn dogs.
4) Eat in Big Bear Lake
There are obviously many places to stuff your face in Big Bear Lake. A few of my faves:
- The Log Cabin: Located on the corner of Big Bear Boulevard and Edgemoor Road, this country restaurant serves all the best comfort food in a warm environment with friendly staff. They have a delightful mix of American and German plates, and they serve breakfast all day! I ate some sort of Sauerbraten (a German pot roast) Eggs Benedict, with a side of potato pancakes. So good, I nearly licked the plate. Ok, I did lick the plate.
- The Grizzly Manor Cafe: A tiny shack on the side of the road (Big Bear Blvd, like everything else), Grizzly Manor serves heaping portions of cheap, down home American breakfast and lunch. They are open from 6am to 2pm, and are nearly always packed. With unassuming food cooked right, rustic settings and sassy staff, it’s no wonder there is often a line out the door.
- Big Bear Mountain Brewery: The brewery is cozy on the inside and looks like a saloon on the outside. They offer 6 craft beers on tap, ranging from The Grizzly, a chocolate porter, to Old Miner’s Gold, a honey blond. Try a sampler set while you munch on some basic pub food.
- Saucy Momma’s Pizzeria: This place stands out on the scenic Pine Knot Avenue, so I had to stop in for a taste. Good service, delicious pizza, and a patio with puppies everywhere. What else could you want?
- North Pole Fudge Co: “The Sweetest Shoppe in Town,” is right. This place is heaven, and it’s right next to Saucy Momma’s. Among the thoughts you will have upon entering this magical place of homemade ice cream, milkshakes, floats, lemonade, fudge and candies, you will certainly think, How can I eat everything without becoming poor or sick? I ate some white chocolate caramel cinnamon delight thing and a fudge that had peanut butter rice crispy attached to it. I had a sugar rush for about 15 minutes and then I felt very sick. Worth it.
This center, while mainly for kids, is a great way to introduce yourself to Big Bear and the San Bernardino National Forest. You’ll learn a lot about caring for nature and the history of the area. While visiting, you can hike their easy trail to the lake, or engage in child-friendly activities like panning for gold, arts and crafts, climbing and crawling, etc. You can also go on a 3 mile guided hike from Snow Summit. On the hike, you get a free lunch and a ride on the Sky Chair to check out views of Big Bear Lake and Mt. San Gorgornio while you continue on the trial. The Discovery Center is pet friendly and free to enter.
The Lake Antique Car Club Fun Run goes down every summer at Big Bear Lake, you just have to check their site to catch it. Our crew was actually heading to a Renaissance Fair that day, but as we drove along the lake, we noticed crazy cool antique cars in front and behind us. Locals had set up camp along the side of the road, sitting on fold up chairs and drinking Cokes from their coolers. Whenever an antique car would drive by, they’d cheer for them, and the car would obligingly honk or rev it’s engine.
7) Kick it at the hostel, and do hostel things.
The hostel itself has large grounds that offer a ton of activities to engage in when you’re bored, from volleyball and horse shoes, to archery and yoga. They also offers activities at night, for example:
- Taco Tuesday’s:
This is the one night a week where you won’t get a free meal at the hostel. Instead, after a few sugary margaritas and some complimentary chips and salsa, everyone takes a ten minute walk over to Azteca Grill for $1 tacos and to overwhelm the staff.
- Karaoke: About twice a week, Ian, our other manager, takes staff and guests to Murray’s Pub for karaoke night. I have heard it’s a good time, but the one night I actually bothered to see for myself, I was told I couldn’t return. I flipped off the bartender as I walked out for not letting my underage friend, Lara, stay. Whatever.
- Bowling: Normally every week, the staff takes guests on a bowling night, as well. I suck at bowling, and hated it. But everyone was shrieking with delight most of the time. We went to The Bowling Barn, and it had all the stuff of a bowling alley. Black lights, gross shoes, cheap disinfectant smell, mass-produced nachos and previously frozen chicken nuggets, an impossible to win claw crane, multiple lanes, and a bored-looking bartender with cheap beer. Ah, yes, it was everything I expected it to be.
The list can go on and on. Big Bear was a great place to spend a quiet, yet action packed summer. I wish I could be there for the winter, but I’ll be kicking it by the beach in Australia this winter!!!
Check out the next post for some ITH Big Bear hostel life stories.
by Rebecca Bellan