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11 Top-Rated Things to Do in Big Bear, CA

Written by Brad Lane
Feb 22, 2021

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A two-hour drive from Los Angeles, Big Bear is a Southern California hot spot for adventure and travel. Surrounded by the San Bernardino Mountains at an elevation over 6,700 feet, the town experiences four distinct seasons. The winter includes a surplus of snow, a Southern California rarity, which fuels downhill endeavors at Big Bear Mountain Resort.

Big Bear and the neighboring Big Bear Lake host millions of visitors every year. No season is the "off-season" in Big Bear, with each month offering new opportunities to enjoy the scenic landscape. And with over 300 days of sunshine, every visit includes valuable Vitamin D and the need for sunglasses.

Big Bear Lake is a central visitors' point of the region. Several marinas line the 22 miles of shoreline, offering different ways to enjoy the water. Other activities tied to the lake include paved paths that follow the shoreline and public parks that provide beautiful boulder views.

Find something new to discover every season with our list of the top things to do in Big Bear.

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Enjoy the Water of Big Bear Lake

Big Bear Lake, seen from Cougar Crest Trail
Big Bear Lake, seen from Cougar Crest Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Big Bear Lake is a central sightseeing destination in the San Bernardino National Forest. This human-made lake caters to just about every water activity under the sun, including boating, fishing, and swimming. The lake also adds a scenic touch to many of the area's hiking and walking trails, including the Alpine Pedal Path on the north shore.

Approximately six marinas dot the 22 miles of shoreline. These places to fuel up also offer rentals like kayaks, pontoon boats, Jet Skis, and outboard fishing vessels. These marinas circle the entire lake, with some popular spots on the south shore including Big Bear Marina and Pleasure Point Marina. Places like Captain John's Fawn Harbor and Paddles and Pedals line the north shore.

The lake also has several charter fishing expeditions available. Other unique experiences on the water include single and tandem parasailing and a fun flyboarding experience. For one of the best places on the lakeshore to enjoy a picnic, check out Boulder Bay Park near the Bear Valley Dam.

2. Ski or Snowboard at Big Bear Mountain Resort

Sunny day at Big Bear Mountain Resort
Sunny day at Big Bear Mountain Resort

The best skiing and snowboarding in Southern California is at Big Bear Mountain Resort, minutes from the south shore of Big Bear Lake.

The resort is split between two distinct mountain areas: Snow Summit and Bear Mountain. These mountains each have unique attributes and base areas located less than three miles from one another. Lift tickets are valid for same-day use at either mountain, lending access to over 400 skiable acres and dozens of terrain features.

Snow Summit is a premier mountain resort catering to the entire vacation experience. Alongside a wide variety of runs suiting every ability, the mountain is flush with extra amenities like lodging, restaurants, and après ski entertainment.

Not far away, the skateboarding and surfing culture of "SoCal" is well represented on the slopes of Bear Mountain. This terrain park mecca features jumps, rails, and Southern California's only winter halfpipe.

Official site: https://www.bigbearmountainresort.com/

3. Learn Something New at the Big Bear Discovery Center

Big Bear Discovery Center
Big Bear Discovery Center | Pacific Northwest Forest Service / photo modified

The Big Bear Discovery Center, near the lake's north shore, should be one of the first stops on a Big Bear vacation. Information is aplenty here, including valuable resources about the surrounding San Bernardino National Forest. It's also a great spot to pick up an Adventure Pass, which is required to park at most trailheads.

Exhibits about the ecosystem and wildlife are on display throughout the Discovery Center. And the facility puts on evening presentations in an outdoor amphitheater. The same manicured outdoor space also houses a new Nature Discovery Zone catering to children aged two to seven.

The Discovery Center ultimately educates on how to be good stewards in the San Bernardino National Forest. Users can put this knowledge to the test at the nearby Cougar Crest Trail, less than a mile to the west.

Address: 40971 North Shore Drive/Hwy 38, Fawnskin, California

Official site: https://mountainsfoundation.org/programs/big-bear-discovery-center/

4. See Wildlife Up Close at Big Bear Alpine Zoo

The Big Bear Alpine Zoo, formerly Moonridge Animal Park, has helped rehabilitate wildlife since 1959. Unlike traditional zoos, Big Bear Zoo is exclusively home to orphaned and injured animals or those otherwise not fit to live in the wild. Many of the zoo residents are short-term guests who eventually make it back to their natural habitats.

Visitors to the zoo have the unique opportunity to see several wild animals up close. A few of the common species include black bears, snow leopards, and foxes. The zoo also houses several species of big birds, including golden eagles and great horned owls. Other animals of interest include American badgers, gray wolves, and flying squirrels.

No physical interactions between animals and humans, except for the trained zookeepers, occur at the zoo. However, every day around noon, a keeper brings an animal to the amphitheater for an educational presentation. The zoo also offers special Saturday night tours with limited entry.

Address: 747 Club View Drive, Big Bear Lake, California

Official site: https://www.bigbearzoo.org/

5. Hike to Castle Rock

Hikers atop Castle Rock
Hikers atop Castle Rock | April Killingsworth / photo modified

Surrounded by the stunning acres of San Bernardino National Forest, hiking trails are abundant from Big Bear - as are stellar views. One of the most frequented hikes in the area, Castle Rock Trail is well-trodden by local and visiting families. The trailhead is in town near the lake's southwest shore, less than a mile from Boulder Bay Park.

The hike up to Castle Rock is just over a mile one-way, with approximately 800 feet of elevation gain. This steepness gives the hike a moderate rating, but the trail's brevity makes the trek manageable for most skill levels. And the view of Big Bear Lake from the top rewards the uphill effort.

Castle Rock is just one of many excellent hiking trails in the area. On the other side of the lake, the Cougar Crest Trail is another popular route that connects to the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. For a more challenging adventure, the Skyline Trail is another recommended hike. This 15-mile route traverses the high-mountain region above the lake's southern shore and is also popular for mountain biking.

6. Go Boating at Boulder Bay Park

Boulder Bay Park
Boulder Bay Park

Boulder Bay Park offers the perfect postcard image of Big Bear. The scenery here includes the water, the mountains, and massive rock islands that catch the eye. Situated two miles east of the Bear Valley Dam, this beautiful public space offers recreation throughout the year.

The park is popular in the summer for activities like picnicking and enjoying the panoramic views. Boating is also very popular in the summer for non-motorized, hand-carried vessels. Boaters can paddle out to the namesake boulder islands that define the park and climb around at their caution. The park also has abundant green space for lawn activities.

Spring and autumn provide a new appeal to Boulder Bay when the season's colors add impressive hues to the environment. April is prime time to see wildflowers throughout the park and surrounding mountainsides. Come winter, activities like snow-pal building and other snowbound activities encourage time spent outside.

Address: 39148 CA-18, Big Bear Lake, California

7. Cycle on the Alpine Pedal Path

The Alpine Pedal Path
The Alpine Pedal Path | Ewen Roberts / photo modified

The Alpine Pedal Path is a stunning bike trail that meanders along the north shore of Big Bear Lake. Stretching between the Stanfield Cutoff to the Big Bear Solar Observatory, this approximately 3.2-mile path is one of the most popular free things to enjoy in Big Bear. The route also connects to the Big Bear Discovery Center.

The route is relatively flat and accommodating for all walking abilities. The trail is also popular for bicyclists. And a stunning view of the lake and mountains accompanies every inch of the pathway. Between May and July, several wildflowers also line the route.

The Alpine Pedal Path allows all forms of non-motorized transportation. On any given day, expect to encounter walkers, bikers, rollerbladers, strollers, and scooters. And visitors should expect to encounter some crowds on sunny afternoons.

8. Grab Some Grub

Himalayan Restaurant in Big Bear
Himalayan Restaurant in Big Bear | daveynin / photo modified

While many visit the Big Bear region for its four seasons, the area's restaurants also add to repeat visits. It's the influx of tourists that has developed dining traditions in Big Bear. From classic breakfast joints to casual cafés and classy eateries, eating out in Big Bear is often a fun part of the visiting experience.

A couple of classic breakfast spots in Big Bear include Teddy Bear Restaurant and Grizzly Manor Cafe. These staple restaurants serve much more than breakfast entrees, but feature the longest wait times in the mornings. For those craving something sweeter, Dank Donuts is a new bakery in town that specializes in handmade morning pastries.

Lunch and dinner menus are nearly endless in Big Bear. For burgers served with a side of Americana, Get the Burger in Big Bear is the place to head. For a more upscale dining experience, the atmosphere at Peppercorn Grille offers the perfect location for a romantic date. And to dine internationally, the popular Himalayan Restaurant features Nepalese fare on the menu.

9. Snow Tube at Big Bear Snow Play

Big Bear Snow Play, near the lake's southwest shore, is the number one spot for family fun in winter. This ski-hill-turned-snow-tube-mecca features the longest tube runs in Southern California. A convenient magic carpet at the facility eliminates any uphill travel.

The snow tubing season typically spans from mid-November to Easter. Near the beginning and end of the season, Big Bear Snow Play supplements with snowmaking machines. A single pass at Big Bear Snow Play allows all-day access to the excitement. And Glow Tubing is offered in the evening on the weekends and holidays.

The facility also features an indoor heated lodge with a snack bar. Big Bear Snow Play doesn't go dormant in the winter, either. Big Bear Speedway revs up once the snow melts, offering fast-paced and family-friendly go-karts. A ropes course is also available in the summer, which has visitors navigating obstacles up to 35 feet in the air.

Official site: http://www.bigbearsnowplay.com/

10. Meet Some Thru-Hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail

View of Big Bear Lake from the Pacific Crest Trail
View of Big Bear Lake from the Pacific Crest Trail

The country-spanning Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) traverses the steep San Bernardino Mountains on the north shore of Big Bear Lake. Long-distance hikers, also known as thru-hikers, access the city with a 2.5-mile side trip on the Cougar Crest Trail. For those hiking northbound from Mexico, Big Bear is mile 266 on the approximately 2,650-mile journey.

This proximity to the PCT makes Big Bear a frequent trail town for hikers. Thru-hikers are generally distinguishable by their large backpacks, hiking poles, and, usually, a little dirt caked onto their clothing. Northbound hikers arrive in the area around May, and many thru-hikers are happy to talk about their journeys if asked to elaborate.

More importantly, the proximity also enables visitors to access the PCT themselves. The Cougar Crest Trail is a half-mile west of the Big Bear Discovery Center and climbs approximately 800 feet up to the PCT. Here, visitors can take a leisurely day hike or embark on an overnight trip on one of the country's most famous hiking trails.

For the full Cougar Crest experience, the trail connects with the PCT for a quarter-mile. It then continues on its own for another 0.8 miles to Bertha Peak. Here, the view of Big Bear Lake is fantastic.

11. Stay the Night at a Cabin

Cabins at Big Bear
Cabins at Big Bear

Big Bear has several vacation rentals to spend the night. Arguably the coziest accommodations are the several cabins available near the lake. These rustic retreats amplify the aesthetics of the surrounding San Bernardino National Forest.

The Laken Haus is always a popular place to visit, located on a small peninsula near the lake's south side. This cozy abode features three bedrooms and some of the best lake views in town. The Lakefront Chalet on Boulder Bay is another sought after cabin for families and groups up to eight people. Farther inland, the peaceful property of Three Bears Cabin also lends to well-deserved vacations.

Big Bear is also home to several larger cabin rental companies. Both Big Bear Cabins and Big Bear Cool Cabins offer several properties near and on the lake. For those looking for more affordable accommodations and dorm rooms, the Big Bear Hostel is a clean and tidy place to stay with incredible value. Big Bear Hostel also features private rooms and cabins.

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