Big Bear Lake, California
It seems that even millions of years of animal instincts cannot compete with the lure of Big Bear Lake's towering pine trees, sparkling blue waters and rugged mountain peaks. The rustic outdoor playground, a two-hour drive from Los Angeles in the heart of the San Bernardino Mountains, is home to the largest wintering population of bald eagles in Southern California. But last year, for the first time in recent memory, a pair of bald eagles ignored their instincts to migrate north for the summer, choosing to nest year-round. Who can blame them?
Conditions have improved this winter with an unusually heavy snowfall that locals hope will turn droughtstricken forests green and lush. Thanks to the liquid bounty, the mountains should be exploding with eye-popping wildflowers and enough greenery to stave off the insatiable bark beetles and a ruinous fire season.
So Big Bear right now is an ideal place to gather the family, sniff the pine-scented air and soak up the brisk spring mountain atmosphere.
You can start at the Big Bear Discovery Center, a nonprofit educational center on the less-developed north shore. To explore the blue-water lake, brimming with fresh snowmelt, call the center to reserve a spot on one of its guided kayak trips (weekend mornings) or canoe trips (afternoons) of nearby Grout Bay, home to herons, eagles, hawks and bigmouth bass.
Back on dry land, lace up your hiking boots and try a backcountry hike in the San Bernardino National Forest. Workers at the Discovery Center can point you to the best treks, including the moderate-to-difficult Cougar Crest Trail that begins about half a mile west of the center. It's a five-mile round trip to the Pacific Crest Trail, with a 1,500-foot gain, but what a payoff: a breathtaking 360-degree view of Bear Valley to the south, Holcomb Valley to the north and the Mojave Desert farther north.
For a steeper hike, head to the south shore to pick up Castle Rock Trail, about a mile east of Bear Valley Dam, off California Highway 18. The trail is a 2 1/2-mile round trip with a quick 500-foot ascent over car-size boulders to the top of an outcropping of granite rocks overlooking the lake. (This hike is not recommended for children younger than 9.)
Ah, the lake. When the snowmelt fills once-depleted Big Bear Lake, the fishing scene should be jumpin'. If you take your gear to the shore near Bear Valley Dam, you should find plentiful trout, bass and crappie. For easier catches, the shore around the Juniper Point Marina, just east of the Discovery Center, is full of bluegill and crappie that younger fishermen can hook.
More serious anglers can take California Highway 38, southeast of Big Bear, to the South Fork Campgrounds. A forest trail leads to Fish Creek, where you can find rainbow and brown trout from May till the end of summer. (If you forget your fishing pole, stop by Big Bear Sporting Goods where you can rent all the gear you need, plus pick up bait and a one- or two-day fishing license.)
A win-win all the way around.
WHERE TO STAY
Pine Knot Guest Ranch, 908 Pine Knot Ave.; (909) 866-6500, www.pineknotguestranch.com. Cabins, most with Jacuzzis and wood-burning fireplaces, on the south shore. Doubles from $119.
Northwoods Resort & Conference Center, 40650 Village Drive; (800) 866-3121, www.northwoodsresort.com. Resort accommodations with free Internet, sauna and pool. Doubles from $129.
WHERE TO EAT
Peppercorn Grille, 553 Pine Knot Ave.; (909) 866-5405, www.peppercorngrille.com. Italian American cuisine: pizza, pasta, steak and seafood. Main courses $15 to $35.
Teddy Bear Restaurant, 583 Pine Knot Blvd.; (909) 866-5415 Known for great breakfasts, including pancakes and omelets. Main courses $7.50 to $14.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
The Big Bear Discovery Center, www.bigbeardiscoverycenter.com. Offers canoe and kayaking trips. The canoe trips take place between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. The kayak trips run 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. $25 for adults; $15 for children. The volunteers at the Big Bear Discovery Center offer free guided nature walks and lessons on tracking wildlife, among other programs. Just east of the center, astronomy buffs can visit the Big Bear Solar Observatory, where scientists from the New Jersey Institute of Technology are readying a new solar telescope (check with the observatory for times and dates at www.bbso.njit.edu). If you need fishing gear, try Big Bear Sporting Goods, 40544 Big Bear Blvd. Gear for a day will cost about $20.
TO LEARN MORE
Big Bear Chamber of Commerce; (909) 866-4607, www.bigbearchamber.com.