Southern California is known for its sandy beaches, warm weather and sprawling suburban cities. Situated about 100 miles east of Los Angeles, Big Bear Lake is nestled in the San Bernardino National Forest. This idyllic alpine town is perfect for outdoor enthusiasts and families who are looking for an adventure or simply an escape from city life. The small city sits at 6,759 feet elevation, so you’ll want to prepare for cooler temperatures and plan to take it easy the first day to prevent altitude sickness. But whether you’re there for a weekend or longer, there’s plenty to do and see. Read on to learn about some of the best things to do in Big Bear, regardless of the season. (Note: Some tours and excursions may be affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Capacity restrictions, mask mandates even closures may be in effect. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the local tourism board before making plans.)
Relax or enjoy water sports on the lake
If you’re visiting in the spring, summer or fall, you can rent boats, kayaks, paddleboards, Jet Skis and other watercrafts at one of the Big Bear Lake marinas. You can even hire a fishing charter to do some trout fishing or take a boat tour on the freshwater lake, which stretches for 7 miles. Alternatively, you can set up on the beach and spend the day relaxing, swimming or shore fishing. Just keep in mind that average temperatures don’t climb into the 70s until June, so some water activities might not be suitable earlier than that, especially for small children. Also, some visitors have noted that the lake has been quite low recently due to drought conditions in the state, limiting some water sport options.
Ski or snowboard at Big Bear Mountain Resort
If you’re visiting Big Bear in winter, Big Bear Mountain Resort offers some of the best skiing and snowboarding terrain in Southern California. The resort is made up of two resorts, one at Bear Mountain and the other at Snow Summit. Between the two, there are 26 lifts and 55 runs across 400 acres of terrain. The ski resort also features a family-friendly tubing park with 300-foot-long lanes. If you visit during the warmer months, you can take advantage of the climbing wall, a Euro bungee trampoline, a zip line, a nine-hole golf course and more. Visitors say that lift tickets can be pricey and parking can be a hectic experience, but it’s typically not too crowded during the week, and the views are incredible. The town is relatively small, so you can find a hotel or vacation rental just about anywhere.
Address: 43101 Goldmine Drive, Big Bear Lake, CA 92315
Alpine Slide at Magic Mountain
Regardless of when you’re visiting, the Alpine Slide at Magic Mountain has plenty of kid-friendly activities year-round. During the warmer months, you can take the chairlift up to the top of the mountain and ride down one of two quarter-mile alpine slides on sleds big enough to hold one to two people (typically an adult and a child). You can also drive go-karts, play the 18-hole mini-golf course, shoot down the alpine waterslide, ride the thrilling mountain coaster and get your adrenaline pumping on the Soaring Eagle, which sends you flying at 28 mph 100 feet in the air. During the winter, the recreation area has a tubing hill, which includes a plexiglass-covered uphill magic carpet lift for a more comfortable experience. If you’re visiting Big Bear in October or November, you can tube even if it hasn’t started snowing yet because the resort starts making its own snow around that time. Note that you cannot purchase tickets in advance online. Past visitors recommend bringing cash because the attraction doesn’t accept credit cards — although there is an ATM on-site — and you may want to get there before the park opens for easier parking.
Address: 800 Wildrose Lane, Big Bear Lake, CA 92315
Big Bear Alpine Zoo
One of only two alpine zoos in the U.S., Big Bear Alpine Zoo’s animal residents are mostly from the San Bernardino mountains. The zoo is primarily a rehabilitation facility and sanctuary for indigenous wild animals that have been injured, orphaned or imprinted. The wildlife may stay at the zoo temporarily until they have recovered, however some animals reside here permanently if they are deemed to be unable to survive on their own. Visitors will be able to see a wide variety of species, including arctic, red and gray foxes; bald and golden eagles; black and grizzly bears; snow leopards; bobcats and many more. There are also various programs throughout the day, where visitors young and old can learn about wildlife behavior, natural history and other topics. The zoo is relatively small, giving guests a feeling of being up close and personal with the animals, and there’s even a kid-friendly playground.
Address: 747 Club View Drive, Big Bear Lake, CA 92315
Do some shopping
Along Big Bear Boulevard and the various side streets in town, you’ll find plenty of places to shop. At Barrel 33, for instance, you’ll find handcrafted wine barrel furniture and wine accessories, which you can peruse after you’ve enjoyed a glass at the shop’s wine bar. If you’re a bird-watcher, you’ll find supplies, guides and gifts at Chirp Nature Center. And if you’re looking for unique gifts, souvenirs and local food items to bring back home, there are plenty of options, including Big Bear Discount Gifts and Souvenirs, Shirt Shanty in The Village, Bear Essentials, Brown Bear Gift Shop and The Village Sweet Shoppe. Plus, there are plenty of sporting goods stores in town for skiing and snowboarding gear and other outdoor needs. Getboards Ride Shop, in particular, is a top-rated option for ski, snowboard, bike, kayak and other rentals.
Go mountain biking
Whether you’re a novice or pro, Big Bear Lake is considered to be the mecca of cycling and mountain biking in Southern California. Snow Summit Bike Park is particularly known for its downhill trails as the host of many national races, and it’s a favorite among biking enthusiasts for its well-maintained runs. The town also has more than 100 miles of cross-country, single-track and Forest Service roads, offering options for cyclists of all skill levels. Some of the more popular trails include Skyline Ridge, Grand View Loop and Plantation Trail. If road cycling is more your speed, the town has also hosted major cycling competitions, with roads for beginner, intermediate and advanced cyclists. If you’re looking for a kid-friendly option, the 3.5-mile Alpine Pedal Path runs along the shoreline of Big Bear Lake and is car-free.
Big Bear Discovery Center
Located in Fawnskin across the lake from the town, Big Bear Discovery Center is a great place to experience various exhibits, programs and eco-tours to give you a better sense of the natural world. Due to the pandemic, the center is currently only open for visitor information and its outdoor nature programs. However, there are still plenty of things for you and your family to see here. Kids can play and explore in the Natural Discovery Zone (an outdoor area with interactive play stations that’s designed for children ages 2 to 7), and depending on when you visit, you may be able to catch one of the concerts, theater productions or interpretive programs at the center’s amphitheater. Visitors love that the center’s programs are free and say they are a great place for children to learn via interactive displays and activities.
Address: 40971 North Shore Drive (Highway 38), Fawnskin, CA 92333
Hit up the hiking trails
You can find a few dozen hiking trails in Big Bear Lake — and even more if you’re willing to explore the surrounding area. There are options for all skill levels, so be sure to do some research to find trails that match the type of difficulty and length you are comfortable with. Some of the more popular Big Bear hiking trails include the 6.9-mile Pine Knot Trail to Grand View Point, the 2.7-mile Castle Rock Trail, the 5.6-mile Cougar Crest Trail and the 7.5-mile Bertha Peak Trail. Keep in mind, though, that some trailhead parking lots may require an Adventure Trail pass, which costs $5 per vehicle per day. You can purchase a pass at many of the shops in town, including two 7-Eleven locations, Alpine Liquor, Lakeview Market, Chirp Nature Center and more. Avid hikers recommend bringing proper footgear, including spikes and poles during the winter, and say the views from many of the local trails are stunning.
Eat at some of the best restaurants in the area
Whether you’re a foodie or you’re just looking for a nice place to get some grub, Big Bear Lake has a lot to offer. While most of the top-rated restaurants primarily offer traditional American fare, you can also find Hawaiian, Indian, French, Italian, Mexican and more. Some traveler and local favorites include Grizzly Manor Cafe, Peppercorn Grille, Oakside Restaurant & Bar, Teddy Bear Restaurant and Tropicali. Previous diners have lauded the Peppercorn Grille as a quaint spot serving up dishes with “immense flavor.” Meanwhile, Tropicali’s sushi and poke bowls are called a must-try, though because of the eatery’s popularity you can likely expect a wait.
Gold Rush Mining Adventures
Before Big Bear Lake became a popular resort destination, it was a gold mining settlement. With Gold Rush Mining Adventures, you can take part in various activities inspired by the largest gold rush in Southern California history. You can pan for gold, dig for fossils, harvest pearls from oysters and search for gems, minerals and crystals in the Cosmic Galaxy Cave, among other activities. You can also check out the family-friendly reincarnated mining ghost town Glitter Gulch, where you can play a word scavenger hunt game. Past visitors call Gold Rush Mining Adventures a unique and quirky attraction that’s especially fun for kids.
Address: 40016 Big Bear Blvd., Big Bear Lake, CA 92315
Boulder Bay Park
The lakefront city park is an excellent place for a lunch picnic or even to spend the entire day. You can rent a canoe or kayak and paddle around Boulder Bay, fish off the park’s docks, take a stroll along the park’s walking path or just spread out a blanket on the grass and soak up the sunshine. Even during the fall and winter, visitors love the panoramic views of the beautiful mountain scenery, complete with the rock formations in the water. Catch the leaves change from green to red, orange and gold during the fall or take in the winter wonderland once the snow falls. Unfortunately, the bay has shrunk in recent years due to drought conditions, but it can still be a nice relaxing place to spend part of your day.
Address: 39080 Big Bear Blvd., Big Bear Lake, CA 92315
Stanfield Marsh Wildlife and Waterfowl Preserve
This section of the lake provides a refuge for the avian population of Big Bear Lake. As you walk along the Stanfield Marsh boardwalk, you’ll come across information boards, where you can learn about the diverse ecosystems of the region. It’s recommended to visit in the early morning or late in the afternoon when the birds and fish are feeding. The walk is relaxing, and past visitors have reported seeing herons, pelicans, bald eagles and more. Parking for the preserve is limited, though, so you may want to have a backup plan in case it’s too crowded.
Address: 42300 Big Bear Blvd., Big Bear, CA 92314
Butler Peak Fire Lookout
Butler Peak Fire Lookout is the tallest of seven fire lookouts in the San Bernardino National Forest and sits on the third most prominent peak in the area. At an elevation of 8,535 feet, the lookout gives you a breathtaking view of the San Bernardino Mountains, and the tower is open to visitors between Memorial Day and November. That said, the 10-mile out-and-back trail to get there may be best suited for experienced hikers — at that elevation, there can still be as much as 5 feet of snow in early July, making it a more difficult climb. Also, you may need an Adventure Pass to park at the trailhead. Hikers call the trail challenging, but the 360-degree view at the top of the peak is tough to beat, with some saying you can see as far as Catalina Island on a clear day.
Address: 39607 2N13C, Fawnskin, CA 92333
Big Bear Valley Historical Museum
Run by the Big Bear Valley Historical Society, the museum is designed to preserve the rich history of the region and to promote an appreciation among visitors of its diverse heritage. The museum, which is open from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, features a wide variety of exhibits, highlighting the indigenous Serrano Indians, the gold rush, cattle ranching, cowboys, logging, fox farming and winter sports. It’s a lot of history packed into a relatively small space, complete with fun activities and fascinating artifacts.
Address: 800 B Greenway Drive, Big Bear, CA 92314
Big Bear Lake Brewing Company
If you’re a craft beer enthusiast, the Big Bear Lake Brewing Company is a must-visit. The brewery offers a variety of house beers on tap (including ales, IPAs and porters) and in cans or growlers, plus you can also try draft beers from other breweries in Southern California and cocktails. If you’re going around lunch or dinner, Big Bear Lake Brewing Company also offers a full menu of food, including appetizers, salads, pizzas, other entrees and even a kids menu. Diners have remarked on the good food and drinks and great service.
Address: 40827 Stone Road, Big Bear Lake, CA 92315
Big Bear Snow Play
Boasting the longest tube runs in Southern California, Big Bear Snow Play sits on a former ski hill and is great for both day and night tubing during the winter. There’s a covered lift, so you don’t have to drag your tube uphill after each run, and the hill is illuminated at night. During the warmer months, try out the ropes course, which is a self-guided course that takes you between 12 and 35 feet off the ground through 37 different obstacles. While you’re there, check out the Big Bear Speedway with its mini-race cars. Once you’ve had your fill out the outdoor activities, visit the lodge to find arcade games, a cotton candy machine, restrooms and a snack bar. That said, it can get crowded at times, and you might not get enough bang for your buck if you’re only planning a short visit.
Address: 42825 Big Bear Blvd., Big Bear Lake, CA 92315
Bluff Lake Reserve
Located about 6 miles southwest of Big Bear Lake, Bluff Lake Reserve is open between May 1 and Nov. 1 and free to visit. The area features a 20-acre lake and a meadow surrounded by pine trees and outcrops of quartz monzonite, plus a variety of indigenous plant species, including the Bear Valley bluegrass, the Big Bear checkerbloom and various sedges, wire grasses and other native grasses. The reserve was used as the setting for the original 1961 version of “The Parent Trap” and “Dr. Doolittle 2.” While you can’t swim or fish in the lake and camping is also prohibited, you can still spend an entire day hiking, viewing the wildlife and laying out a picnic. Make sure you bring your own water — there’s no potable water available — and keep an eye out for bears, mountain lions and rattlesnakes. Visitors call the reserve a hidden gem in a region already full of serenity and natural beauty.
Go zip lining
Action Tours offers a three-hour course that includes nine high-speed zip lines and a suspension bridge. You can fly through the forest at speeds of up to 35 mph, with each zip line longer, faster and higher than the last. The tour starts with a 2-mile off-road trip on an unmaintained road for a more remote-feeling experience. Before you go, check the website for age, height and weight restrictions. Also, consider the GoPro rental package, so you can get your experience on video. Another add-on option, the “Zip and Sip” package includes a wine or beer tasting at Barrel 33 after the conclusion of the tour. The tour is highly rated by past guests, with many people commending the staff and guides for providing a safe and exciting adventure.
Go off-roading in a jeep
The Big Bear Jeep Experience offers the chance to traverse some of Big Bear’s jeep paths, including some advanced rock crawling trails. Tours range from one to four hours, each one offering its own special features. In all cases, you’ll be the one behind the wheel, so you can choose the tour that you feel most comfortable with. The Holcomb Valley Gold Fever Trail, for instance, is a beginner trail, and you’ll get to see an old mine and a historic cabin. The Squeeze tour provides an introduction to using four-wheel drive, with guides helping you navigate rock formations, and the John Bull Jr. Trail and Gold Mountain Trail are for more advanced adventurers who have experience with more difficult terrain. Big Bear Jeep Experience is one of the top-rated outdoor activities in Big Bear Lake, with many visitors highlighting the helpful and knowledgeable guides.
The Bowling Barn
The Bowling Barn can be a great place to spend an evening after a long day of outdoor activities. The 16-lane bowling alley also has an arcade for younger guests, a laser maze obstacle course, a full-service grill and a sports bar for older guests who want to relax with a drink and watch a game. Families love the glow bowling experience when the staff turns down the lights, turns on black lights and turns up the music. Glow bowling starts around 8 p.m. during the week and earlier in the afternoon on the weekend.
Address: 40625 Big Bear Blvd., Big Bear Lake, CA 92315
Go horseback riding
At Baldwin Lake Stables, you can choose from a number of horseback riding tours, which can last anywhere between an hour and half a day. Baldwin Lake Stables also offers a sunset ride, where you’ll get to watch the sun set over the mountains from a scenic spot. The stables are 7 miles east of Big Bear, so you can enjoy the beauty of the wilderness without the crowds. Visitors relish the scenery, but the staff receives mixed reviews.
You might also be interested in:
More from U.S. News