By Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times
December 23, 2012
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 neighbors, 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.
1. 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 savor 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 Blvd., 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.
2. SKIS, BOARDS AND GRAVITY
For skiers and snowboarders, there's good news. Thanks to December's storms (and furious snowmaking), Bear Mountain (www.bearmountain.com) and Snow Summit (www.snowsummit.com) at Big Bear Lake and Snow Valley (www.snow-valley.com) 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 trails. For more details: http://www.onthesnow.com. All of these operations are modest compared with the ski resorts at Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Mountain but are, of course, much closer.
3. 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. (Over the stove: "Friends don't let friends join Sierra Club.") 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. If you're renting a cabin, check the many rental agencies listed at http://www.bigbear.com/places-to-stay/private-homes-cabins/.
4. 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. (More info: http://www.bigbear.com.) Besides skiing and boarding in winter, it offers all sorts of hiking, boating and fishing in summer. You can start with a comfort-food breakfast at Teddy Bear Restaurant (583 Pine Knot Blvd., Big Bear Lake), then browse a few shops in the neighboring Village (http://www.bigbearlakevillage.com). 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. ("No," says a sign, "our mountain lions are not pregnant. Help us obtain some exercise equipment for them.") 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).
5. 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 neighborhood. 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. Afterward, cool off with a beer at Big Bear Mountain Brewery (40260 Big Bear Blvd., Big Bear Lake). Or, if the weather outside isn't nice for walking, choose perhaps the most refreshment-friendly indoor sport ever: bowling. For years, the big, red Bowling Barn (40625 Lakeview Drive, Big Bear Lake) has been a mainstay of summer and winter merry-making. And locals will tell you the adjacent Sweet Basil Bistro (40629 Big Bear Blvd., Big Bear Lake) is an excellent dinner choice too.
On the quieter, lazier side of Big Bear Lake is the community of Fawnskin. To lie low, sleep in the Inn at Fawnskin (880 Canyon Road, Fawnskin), which is the big log cabin Laura Ashley would choose if she were in the neighborhood. Locals will recommend at least one meal at the North Shore Café (39226 North Shore Drive, Fawnskin). In summer, you'll have all manner of aquatic options at Captain John's Fawn Harbor & Marina (39369 North Shore Drive, Fawnskin) — stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, canoes, bass boats and speedboats. And the Alpine Pedal Path that runs alongside the north edge of the lake is great spot for walking or riding. For more walking or riding, there's the nearby Stanfield Marsh boardwalk and wildlife preserve (at Big Bear Boulevard and Stanfield Cutoff).
7. LAKE ARROWHEAD
Right away, you'll see this is not Big Bear. The lake is privately owned, which means the only people allowed to put boats on it are Arrowhead Woods homeowners and their guests. And even those people are banned from wind-surfing, kneeboarding or using jet skis. As you may have surmised, the roughly 11,000 folks who live here earn about twice as much money as those in Big Bear (so says the Census Bureau). Lake Arrowhead Village (28200 State Route 189, Lake Arrowhead), almost entirely rebuilt in faux Tudor style in the 1970s, is basically an outdoor mall with specialty and outlet stores such as Bass, Coach, Izod and Pendleton, along with the Lake Arrowhead Resort & Spa. (Resort guests have beach access.) You could rent a vacation home in or near Arrowhead through AAA Resort Rentals (http://www.lakearrowheadrentals.com) or Arrowhead Property Rental (http://www.arrowheadrent.com). But maybe you'll bunk just up the road from the village at the Saddleback Inn (300 S. State Route 173, Lake Arrowhead), which dates to 1917 and offers 10 handsome rooms and 24 cottages. Then meander down to the village, take in the calm water and pine-studded surrounding slopes, and buy a bag of duck food for 50 cents at Pine Cone Coffee Co. (Suite E-100) and shatter the silence by setting off a riot of ravenous waterfowl. To escape prosecution, you duck into Waffle Works (Suite E-150) for a sugar-sprinkled breakfast or browse the art in the nonprofit, co-op Mountain Arts Network Gallery (Suite E-120). Later on, maybe you'll take a child to enjoy the carousel and miniature golf in the village's Lollipop Park. Or perhaps you'll duck into LeRoy's Board Shop (Suite C-100) to buy a $16 adult ticket for a 50-minute cruise on the 65-passenger Arrowhead Queen. Tiny Lake Gregory — small enough to circle on a long family walk — is less than 10 miles away in Crestline.
8. 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. Mountain Mike's (54360 1/2 N. Circle Drive, Idyllwild) has been selling custom leather work, hats, moccasins, straight-edge razors, holsters and elk hides ($10 a square foot) for more than 30 years (For $400, you can have a pair of slippers hand-sewn of sheepskin, elk skin and deer hide, with bull-hide soles.) Candy Cupboard (54250 N. Circle Drive, Idyllwild) is a tiny space full of taffy, chocolate and 28 flavors of shaved ice. Cafe Aroma (54750 N. Circle Drive, Idyllwild), which often has live music on weekends, has tasty food (maple-leaf duck breast, anyone? Garlic bisque?) and a patio area that fills up whenever there's mild weather. 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. Before hiking, buy an Adventure Pass ($5 for a day) at the U.S. Forest Service San Jacinto Ranger District office (54270 Pine Crest, Idyllwild). When it's time to crash, one source for cabins is Idyllwild Vacation Rentals (http://www.idyllvacationrentals.com), which handles about 40 homes. Or you could try the Fireside Inn, which has eight cottages and cabins on the main drag and eight more on the edge of town. For a grown-up experience that's more B&B and less rustic, check out the Rainbow Inn, a handsome old house with five rooms for rent upstairs and so much space downstairs that it gets rented for weddings and parties.
9. PINES, PALMS AND PACIFIC CREST
If you'd rather enjoy your mountain scenery without getting dirty or sweaty, grab your convertible or motorcycle (or just roll the windows down) and try the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway. It begins at Banning (on the way from L.A. to the Coachella Valley) and under the name State Route 243, it climbs steeply to Idyllwild. You might prefer the less vertiginous part — State Route 74, which wriggles for more than 40 miles as it connects Idyllwild to Palm Desert, about an hour of two-lane blacktop, winding past the promised pines and palms, but also oaks, granite, the Pacific Crest Trail and some seriously calendar-worthy views.
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