Where is the John Muir of the San Gabriel Mountains? The Ansel Adams of the San Bernardinos? The Donner Party of the San Jacintos?
All right, maybe one Donner Party was enough. But Muir, Adams and company are among the reasons the inland mountains of Southern California have never quite matched the attention won by their taller northern neighbours, the Sierra Nevada.
Still, hikers, board-riders, skiers and snowball-tossers in Southern California find no shortage of peace and exhilaration. Peaks and forests, lakes and trails, cabins and creeks. And most winters, there’s a fair amount of snow.
Here’s a quick introduction to Big Bear, Lake Arrowhead and Idyllwild. These nine micro-itineraries round out this year’s series of Southern California Close-Ups, which covered San Diego and Santa Barbara counties, the high desert around Joshua Tree National Park and resorts of the Coachella Valley. Now, to the road.
Don’t omit the overlook
One of the best things about a local mountain trip is getting there. Yes, driving those two-lane roads takes your full attention, but there are views to cherish as you creep into the San Bernardino Mountains on State Route 330 (or, depending on traffic and your destination, State Route 18 or State Route 38).
If you’re on the 330, notice all those turnouts on the way? Use them, not only to let tailgaters pass, but also to savour the views of the constantly rearranging clouds and ridges bristling with pines. At sunset, even basin smog can look heavenly from here. In about 15 miles, most of your climbing will be done. To celebrate, pause for a snack at Rocky’s Roadhouse (32150 Hilltop, Running Springs). From here, if there’s enough snow, you can go skiing or snowboarding at Snow Valley (35100 State Route 18, Running Springs).
Or if you’re on a group retreat, perhaps you’ll find yourself brandishing a bow and arrow at the Pali Mountain Retreat & Conference Center (30778 State Route 18, Running Springs). Or maybe Running Springs is just a pit stop and you’re continuing on to Big Bear. That means more two-lane blacktop, but also more altitude and more scenery.
Skis, boards and gravity
For skiers and snowboarders, there’s good news. Thanks to December’s storms (and furious snowmaking), Bear Mountain and Snow Summit at Big Bear Lake and Snow Valley at Running Springs are all open. Running Springs is about 85 miles east of Los Angeles; Big Bear Lake, 15 miles farther. Check individual resorts for info on snowfall and openings. All of these operations are modest compared with the ski resorts at Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Mountain but are, of course, much closer.
The bear, the blob, the anchorage
If you’re a young boarder on the way to Bear Mountain, stop at the gritty Grizzly Manor Cafe (41268 Big Bear Blvd., Big Bear Lake) to load up on calories with menu items such as the Blob and the Mess, and to check out the bumper-sticker collection.
If you’re an old-school skier, maybe you’d rather wind up the day by digging into a steak near the big stone fireplace at Captain’s Anchorage (42148 Moonridge Road, Big Bear Lake), which dates to the 1940s.
Big bear and other beasts
Big Bear Lake (population, about 5,000; altitude, 6,750 feet) is a mountain town with a 7-mile-long lake next door, a batch of vintage cabins and lodges on its side streets and a deflating series of national franchises along its main drag.
Besides skiing and boarding in winter, it offers all sorts of hiking, boating and fishing in summer.
You might or might not want a look at the Big Bear Alpine Zoo, formerly known as the Moonridge Animal Park, a long-standing, homespun facility with about 180 animals, most of them orphaned or injured in the wild, including a bison, a few bears and eagles and a bunch of timber wolves whose howls will excite the hairs on the back of your neck. Boosters are hoping to move to a new location soon. Until then, some people might be unsettled by the chain-link enclosures and the pudgy mountain lions.
But read the other signs: If 90% of these creatures are returned to the wild, as they say, that’s a pretty good batting average. Cap off your day with a Mexican dinner in the Village at El Jacalito (535 Pine Knot Ave., Big Bear Lake).
Walking and hiking
Wake in your woodsy unit at Sleepy Forest Cottages (426 S. Eureka St., Big Bear Lake; fireplaces and Jacuzzi tubs), then stroll a few blocks in the adjacent Eagle Point neighbourhood. Here, along Eureka Drive, Eagle Drive and Meadow Park, you see massive and classic cabins with big lake views.
For a more direct lake view, head about 2 miles west to Boulder Bay Park (39148 State Route 18, Big Bear Lake), which has picnic tables, a covered pavilion and a little fishing dock. But your real workout is waiting a little farther west along Big Bear Boulevard, about 500 feet beyond Talbot Drive. (There’s a turnout on the lake side of the road.)
That’s the Castle Rock trailhead, the beginning of a path that climbs for a mile to a high jumble of granite with wide views of the lake and mountains. It’s pretty steep — about a 500-foot altitude gain — which makes the payoff view that much better.
The idyllwild life
If you live to ski or snowboard, stay away from Idyllwild — nothing for you here. But everybody else, including rock-climbers, listen up. Idyllwild (population 3,500; altitude 5,300 feet) sits in the San Jacinto Mountains, fairly bursting with artsiness.
While you’re here, keep an eye out for posters advertising concerts by students or faculty at the well-regarded Idyllwild Arts Academy (52500 Temecula Road, Idyllwild-Pine Cove). But while the sun’s still shining, head to Humber Park, at the northeast end of Fern Valley Road, for its breathtaking views of 8,750-foot Tahquitz Peak to the east and Suicide Rock to the north.
From there, two trails will take you into the landscape — the more challenging Devils Slide Trail, which climbs to a mountain saddle, and the flatter Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail.