A roadside attraction at Big Bear

Special to The Times

It's not the swiftest plan. An impulsive Sunday drive up to Big Bear at 1:48 p.m. to squeeze in an hour of last-minute family snow time before turning around and sitting in hours of weekend traffic back to L.A.

But snow is snow.

And in the heart of Los Angeles on a tepid Sunday afternoon, there's nothing quite like asking your kids if they want to go tobogganing -- just to see the utterly bewildered look on their faces.

The winding drive up California 38 into the chilled, pine-studded hills of San Bernardino National Forest is kind of pretty (if you're an adult in the front seat) and sort of thrilling (if you're a kid in the back whose idea of winter recreation until now is watching "The Polar Express" in an air-conditioned room). Soon, little mounds of brownish snow sprout by the side of the road. Then larger, whiter snowbanks appear, sprinkled in pine needles and "Icy Road" signs. Pulling up toward Big Bear Valley, 7,000 feet above Riverside and the Mojave Desert, there it is.

Winter. For real.

Convoys of pickups and SUVs are parked here and there on the shoulder. Families are trudging up ivory hills in their jackets and boots and hats and scarves and mittens like pretend Minnesotans. They're sledding. Whooshing and screaming down slopes that would look even more fun if they didn't dead-end pretty darned close to the highway.

"Daddy, I want to get out of the car," barks my son, Jackson, a first-grader who can't wait another millisecond to experience this brief, bona fide winter. Beside him, his younger sister stares out at the snow, speechless.

We keep driving, in search of a safer-looking, less highway-adjacent slope closer -- and a place to buy a cheap sled on a Sunday about an hour from sundown.

Rolling along Big Bear Boulevard, we pass Big Bear Snow Play, a former ski area turned winter recreation spot packed with people whisking down a car- and obstacle-free hill on inner tubes. Looks perfect. Except for the admission price: $22 per person. Weekend sledders can pay to go tubing here or at three other commercial snow play spots in the Big Bear area that all charge about the same amount. Or they can wing it by the side of the road.

We take the cheaper route: buying a shiny, blue-plastic, two-seater sled at a local AM/PM market, pulling over onto Starvation Flats a block from Big Bear's main drag, and joining tobogganing do-it-yourselfers at some anonymous slope wedged between the pine groves and a row of parked cars. It's not Big Bear Snow Play, but there's snow. And it's free.

"I just don't think that going sledding should cost anything," says Mark Segal, a dad from L.A. with his son Jalen. "And, y'know, it would be nice if there was actually a safe, designated spot up here that didn't charge 22 bucks a head," he adds, before whisking down this makeshift sled run with his son and jamming on the brakes at the bottom of the hill by the cars.

We're up next.

"You gotta veer away from the trees and slow down if you get too close to the street," another father waiting behind us needlessly instructs. Thanks.

Down we go. Rumbling between the trees, sailing over a jump -- shards of icy snow pelting our faces and flying up our ankles. We were in T-shirts this morning, and now we're sledding. Pretty surreal, I think, before grinding my heels into the ground to stop us from gently sliding into a parked minivan.

"I want to go again," says Jackson. And again. And again.

Before we pack it in, the inevitable happens. We watch as a young kid whizzes right past his mom waiting for him at the bottom. He sails over an embankment of snow, into the air, and plunks straight onto the road. No screeching cars. No injuries. Just a bunch of silenced parents standing around imagining a far worse scenario.

"I don't recall anyone being hit by a car on a sled up here," Paul Bennett, recreation officer for the San Bernardino National Forest, tells me later, "but there have been some close calls and plenty of other injuries -- especially from people sliding into trees, picnic tables or other fixed objects -- at many of these unofficial sledding areas around Big Bear. They draw hundreds of sledders every weekend, but we don't recommend them as safe for sledding."

A few more rebellious runs before the sun is gone, then it's time to crawl back to L.A. -- in bumper-to-bumper Sunday evening traffic. By the time we've made it off the mountain and back onto Interstate 10 (no exaggeration, three hours later) the family can't help wondering what impelled us to go sledding in the San Bernardino Mountains on a late Sunday afternoon just in time to sit in this brutal gridlock.

But tomorrow, on a warm, snowless Monday, it'll all make perfect sense.

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travel@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The inside track on sledding

What could possibly go wrong during a fun day of sledding? Plenty, according to a recent study by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which recorded more than 15,000 emergency room-treated sledding injuries in 2006. Here's how to reduce the stats.

Don't skimp on your sled: Structurally sound models with runners and built-in steering mechanisms are far safer than snow disks, plastic sheets or spare shopping bags.

Dress for the occasion: Stay warm by layering, keep dry with waterproof clothing and use ski-type helmets and eye protection.

Pick the right spot: The most common sledding injuries at Big Bear, says U.S. Forest Service officer Paul Bennett, are caused by collisions with fixed objects, such as trees. Choose an obstacle- and crowd-free

slope that does not exceed a 30-degree grade with a flat runoff that doesn't end on the street.

Sit up: With your feet in front. Never sled head first.

Stay with your kids: Sledders who aren't strong or coordinated enough to control their own sled should be accompanied by an adult.

Jordan Rane

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Planning this trip

DRIVE TIME

To get to Big Bear take Interstate 10 East to California Highway 30 North and continue north on California Highway 330 East, which turns into California Highway 18 at Running Springs and leads into the village of Big Bear. On weekends and holidays, California Highway 38 (accessed from I-10 near Redlands) is a longer but often faster alternate route.

SNOW PLAY

There are four commercial snow-play areas around Big Bear. In the village area, Big Bear Snow Play, (909) 585-0075, www.bigbearsnow play.com, and Alpine Slide, (909) 866-4626, www.alpine slidebigbear.com.

East of Running Springs on Highway 18 are Snowdrift Winter Playground, (909) 867-2640, www.snowdrift.net; and Snow Valley Mountain Resort, (909) 867-2751, www.snow-valley.com.

Popular unofficial snow-play gatherings in the Big Bear village area include the Aspen Glen Picnic Area, Coldbrook Campground and Snow Forest -- none recommended for sledding by the Forest Service.

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