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Not your average ski trip: 4 memorable things to do in Big Bear

A woman and a child stand on a snowy lakeshore with a dog and a snowman. Houses and evergreens are seen across the lake.
Michele Gunter and daughter Kaia, of Rancho Palos Verdes, visit Big Bear Lake, along with their dog, Elsa, on Dec. 29.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, fellow Escapists. There are many sides to Big Bear, a winter sports destination nestled in the San Bernardino National Forest. The mountain town is home to some unusual offerings — a Wes Anderson-themed cabin (available to rent!) and a sail-able pirate ship, to name just two — in addition to the fresh powder that keeps travelers coming back.

In this edition of Escapes, you’ll find a few classic Big Bear recommendations, in addition to some lesser-known activities travelers might consider on their next trip to the mountains.

With the Omicron variant of the coronavirus continuing to spread, make sure to wear masks and social distance from other travelers when you visit. In addition, give the winter driving advice from the city of Big Bear Lake a close read before making a trip.

Where are your favorite places to go in Big Bear and beyond? Let me know so I can pass them along in a future edition of Escapes.

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Ski and surf in the same day

When I moved to California, I heard a few common refrains from friends and family members: “You’re going to see so many celebrities!” “Won’t you miss seasons?” and, my favorite, “I hear you can ski and surf in the same day.”

For better or worse, none of these statements have come true for me — I didn’t find myself missing freezing rain and black ice, and if I walk past celebrities with any degree of frequency, it’s lost on me.

I also haven’t surfed and skied (or, in my case, snowboarded) in the same 24-hour window. But it’s on my list.

Big Bear presents a good opportunity for achieving this Golden State milestone. Although many skiers and boarders may opt for Snow Summit or Bear Mountain ski resorts, Times travel writer Christopher Reynolds recommends hitting up Snow Valley in Running Springs — 10 miles closer to the coast — if you’re hoping to make it back in time for a sunset surf.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on L.A. surf breaks but in my limited experience, the waves off Bay Street in Santa Monica are generally mild — and so are the surfers you’ll usually find there. Parking is ample too.

The Bay Street beach and Snow Valley are roughly 100 miles apart, but the time it takes to get from one to the other can vary dramatically. Try to time your snow-to-surf adventure to avoid heavy traffic.

Two photos paired, one of a surfer emerging from the ocean carrying a surfboard, the other of a person snow skiing.
(Photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

Embrace offbeat Big Bear

Whether it’s Salvation Mountain in the desert or Confusion Hill amid the redwoods, you’re never far from a generous helping of eccentricity in California. Big Bear is no exception.

If you enjoy embracing the strange during your travels, here are a few places worth checking out in Big Bear:

  • The Big Bear Lake Pirate Ship: Due to its role in the 1981 film “Time Bandits,” this ship is a piece of Hollywood history. It was used for tours in Los Angeles and Newport Beach before it found its home in the mountains. Tickets for a 90-minute cruise aboard the pirate ship are $29 for adults, $27 for seniors and $21 for kids ages 3 to 15. Expect cheesy jokes and sweeping lake views.
  • Castle Wood Cottages: Care to sleep in a fairy-tale forest or crystalline cave during your trip to Big Bear? For us mere mortals, approximations of these settings can be found at Castle Wood Cottages. Or opt for another delightfully over-the-top themed room (the King Arthur suite, anyone?). Rates in winter start at $179.
  • Grizzly Manor Cafe: Maybe I’ve seen too many episodes of “Twin Peaks,” but there’s a special place in my heart reserved for quirky diners in mountain towns. Reynolds mentions Grizzly Manor’s “big portions and irreverent attitude” in his roundup of the 40 best winter experiences in California.
Photo of mountain lake with an illustration of a pirate ship floating on it.
(Photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)

Slow down on a snowshoe trek

What with zipping down ski runs and signing up for activities such as bowling and escape rooms, it’s all too easy to end up with a packed schedule during a weekend in Big Bear.

That’s why it’s important, I think, to intentionally slow down — in any destination you visit but especially in places such as Big Bear that offer so much natural beauty.

Snowshoeing is a great way to take it slow and appreciate your surroundings. Visitors can join a naturalist-led snowshoe trek in the San Bernardino National Forest organized by the Southern California Mountains Foundation. During tours, a naturalist explains how the native plants and animals adapt to colder temperatures, allowing participants to gain a deeper understanding of the nature surrounding them.

Tours are held Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon through March 26, though they are subject to change based on snow conditions. Tickets — which include snowshoes, trekking poles, a snack and water — cost $30 for adults and $20 for children ages 8 to 12. Reservations must be made in advance.

A person walks along a snow-covered road.
A snowshoer walks along a road in Big Bear Lake on Dec. 29 after a storm dumped nearly a foot of snow in the San Bernardino Mountains.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Where to stay:

The Castle Wood Cottages are just the tip of the snowcapped iceberg when it comes to memorable stays in Big Bear. The Big Bear Lake website, which offers plenty of links to vacation homes available to rent, is a good place to begin your search. Here are some options that stand out:

  • Midnight Moon Cabins: These cabins, included in Reynolds’ best winter experiences list, ooze “modern mountain” vibes. They start at $499 per night.
  • Oak Knoll Lodge: A stay at Oak Knoll Lodge is a step back in time. According to the lodge, most of the cabins were constructed during the 1920s. Rates start at about $265 per night during the winter.
  • Camp Gold Dust: Calling all Wes Anderson fans! Complete with Boy Scout uniforms and a usable cassette player, this retro Airbnb will transport you straight to Camp Ivanhoe. “‘Moonrise Kingdom’ is our North star,” the listing says. It costs around $350 per night, though this rate may fluctuate.
  • Noon Lodge: The old-school camp vibes continue at Noon Lodge, where a cluster of cabins makes for a fun spot to stay with a family or group of friends. Rentals start at $156 per night.
Animated illustration of a fireplace with a fire burning in it
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

📰 What I’m reading

  • Do you struggle to think of places to take out-of-town guests to eat? L.A. Times staffers share some ideas.
  • “A beloved rock arch along the coast of San Luis Obispo County crumbled in the recent rains,” writes Times Metro reporter Hayley Smith.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic made hotel housekeeping more difficult — and disgusting. Times business reporter Hugo Martín explains how.
  • Half Moon Bay, a seaside community in the Bay Area, is one of the world’s top surf towns. Tierney Plumb describes how a legendary break shaped Half Moon Bay’s past, present and future, in SFGate.
  • Ski trips don’t need to be exorbitantly expensive. Megan Michelson explains in Outside Online how to score lift tickets for less than $50.
Where we take guests to eat to show them Los Angeles
(Daniel Sulzberg / For The Times)

📸 Photo of the week

 A snowman sits on the beach at Big Bear Lake
A snowman sports a unique hairstyle alongside Big Bear Lake following a storm Dec. 29.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

🎸 Road song

Song: “To the Mountains by Lizzy McAlpine

Favorite lyric: “I’m headed to the mountains, the only place I feel the peace. And I knew you’d come after me so I threw away the keys.”

Where to listen: Driving along Rim of the World Scenic Byway on your way to Big Bear

Illustration of a Polaroid photo showing a mountainside highway with the words "To the mountains"
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)


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