Nestled in the San Bernardino National Forest is the small town of Big Bear Lake, California. If you’ve never heard of it, Big Bear is a tranquil retreat for outdoor enthusiasts in California. While it is most well known for its snowy slopes in the winter, Big Bear has a fantastic summer scene as well. Sunny skies, mountains, year-round activities and a lot of cute places to stay make Big Bear Lake a family-friendly destination. Travelers will find endless activities here, including exploring the mountain resort, the lake, the forests, and the town.
With its proximity to Los Angeles, Big Bear is an incredible weekend trip option for the summertime. Read on to discover the many things to do in Big Bear, California in the summer.
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HOW TO GET TO BIG BEAR, CA
Big Bear Lake is located in the San Bernardino Mountains and is an easy drive from most of Southern California. It is approximately 2 hours, or 96 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Depending on traffic and road conditions, it can take quite a bit longer.
When visiting Big Bear during peak visitation periods (or during a snowstorm), consider these routes:
- Highway 330 – tends to be the most traveled route and tends to get the heaviest traffic on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Holidays and long weekends also tend to be very busy. If you take 330, be mindful of the time and leave as early if possible (otherwise expect moderate to extreme traffic delays).
- Highway 18 (to/from Lucerne Valley) – this is the best route to take in snowy conditions. Traffic can be heavy on weekends, holidays, and after snowstorms.
- Highway 38 – will take you a bit more east and then wind down back to the main highways; people usually take this as route alternative during heavy traffic periods.
IMPORTANT NOTE: When traveling to Big Bear, CA in the winter months, you are required to carry chains even if it isn’t snowing during your drive. Should Highway Patrol stop you and find you without chains, you will be asked to turn around and purchase them before you proceed. (If you have 4-wheel drive and mud/snow rated tires, you may still need chains with you, though you likely won’t need to put them on in the case of snow.)
All in all, I’ve heard a ton of horror stories of friends who’ve been stuck on the road for 4 to 8+ hours going from Big Bear to LA. Plan ahead and leave early! Don’t forget to keep a flashlight, water, snacks and extra blankets in the car–just in case there are traffic delays (or worse, if you’re stuck in a snowstorm in the wintertime!).
Alright, now that the logistics are out of the way, let’s get into some of the best things to do in Big Bear, California!
THE COOLEST THINGS TO DO IN BIG BEAR, CALIFORNIA: SUMMER EDITION
BIG BEAR DISCOVERY CENTER
I always try to start any nature trip with a visit to the information or visitor center. Even though I do plenty of research before visiting a new destination, the rangers never fail to teach me something new. Since they are the local experts and know more about the area, they’ll have tips that will make your trip better and safer. Make a stop here to get advice on what to do, find out about the current road and trail conditions, and even learn about the local plants and animals here. Often times, they host free daily tours or docent walks for visitors, and sometimes even concerts and shows throughout the year.
BIG BEAR ALPINE ZOO
There are only two Alpine zoos in the US and one of them is so conveniently located next to Bear Mountain Ski Resort. This makes it 100% worth a stop! The Big Bear Alpine Zoo is a rehabilitation facility offering injured, orphaned and imprinted wild animals a temporary home while they heal (or a permanent one if they are unable to survive on their own). You’ll see animals native to the area, including black bears, wolves, coyotes, bald eagles, arctic foxes, and snow leopards.
EXPLORE BIG BEAR VILLAGE
In the heart of Big Bear Lake you’ll find a charming district known as The Village, which serves as the central hub for shopping, dining, and entertainment. There are lots of family-friendly attractions in The Village such as urban scavenger hunts, bowling, and arcade gaming rooms. Not to mention, many of the annual Big Bear Events are held in this area, so be sure to check if there are any events on the days you decide to visit.
There is plenty of free parking available throughout The Village.
GO ON A HIKE
The great thing about Big Bear is there are multiple trailheads with easy access points throughout the valley. The Castle Rock hike (2.4 miles round-trip, intermediate/difficult) is one of the most popular trails because of the amazing panoramic views and how easy it is to access. If you only have time for one hike, make it this one! Should you have more time, I’d recommend checking out Pine Knot Trail (6 miles round-trip, intermediate), Bertha Peak Trail (6.8-mile round-trip, intermediate), and The Woodland Interpretive Trail (1.5-mile loop, easy, best for families). No matter what fitness level you are, there are tons of options for you to choose from.
Some hikers prefer to conquer peaks (summiting mountain peaks), and The San Bernardino National Forest has an abundant amount of mountain hikes. Some of your best options here: Bertha Peak, Sugarloaf Mountain, Delamar, and Sugarlump. No matter which one you pick, you will be rewarded with outstanding panoramic views.
VISIT THE VISTA POINTS
Not interested in hiking up but still want to experience sweeping vista points? Snow Summit’s Sky Chair can easily take you to the top so you can hike down while enjoying spectacular scenic vistas that include superb views of Big Bear Lake and the forests surrounding it.
WATER ACTIVITIES AT BIG BEAR LAKE
Big Bear Lake has a lot of water activities. Rent a kayak, canoe, stand-up paddleboard, jet ski, or boat to get out and enjoy some time on the water. Kayaking and canoeing are my favorite options, as they offer great exercise and fitness while staying cool from contact with the water. If you’re looking for something more relaxing, you can even go fishing. Along with sports shops, the following marinas offer rentals for hourly or day rates: Captain John’s on both the northern and southern shores, as well as Pleasure Point Marina, Big Bear Marina, Holloway’s Marina, and Pine Knot Marina.
SWIMMING IN BIG BEAR LAKE
Swimming in Big Bear Lake during the summer is so, so refreshing. It goes so well with a picnic as well! For parents who want a safe swimming area to bring the family, Meadow Park is the best place to go. The swimmable beach has a lifeguard, a floating dock, and even water toys, as well as a snack bar and public restrooms. The East Boat Ramp beach is another popular option for families and small children. There are bathroom facilities and also a fishing dock for use as well.
For more adventurous swimmers: head to China Island aka Garstin Island; you can climb up the rock formation behind China Island and take a plunge into the water below.
RELAX IN BOULDER BAY PARK
This is hands down one of the most popular spots in Big Bear. Most residents and visitors say Boulder Bay Park has the best universal views of Big Bear. Whether sunbathing in the summertime or prancing through the park in the spring, this place is a great spot to add to your itinerary. The massive boulders are perfectly backdropped by the lake, which makes for amazing photos. There are picnic tables, public bathrooms, and plenty of space to enjoy a picnic in peace.
DRIVE THROUGH THE BACKCOUNTRY
Take a shot at off-roading with a beginner-level trail. I recommend driving along the Holcomb Valley Scenic Drive (10.8 mile trail), where you will for sure encounter breathtaking photo spots. There’s a section approximately 7-9 miles in that’s pretty rocky, but any 2WD vehicle will handle it without problems. If you visit in the winter, be sure to check road conditions. Most of the time, they won’t even let you up there without a vehicle with 4WD and snow chains.
Who isn’t interested in a yoga class where goats walking under and around you for the duration of your time there? If you’re lucky, they might even climb on your back while you work your body into multiple stretches. Goat yoga at Bear Valley Farms is meant for all levels, beginner to advanced, so it’s a great activity for the entire family!
Experience the beauty of Big Bear from a great vantage point – on horseback! Horseback riding will give you more time to explore and enjoy the scenic beauty that surrounds. To all my non-hikers, this option is for you! You can opt-in for hourly, half-day, sunset, and even overnight rides. One of the most popular choices is the sunset rides, where you ascend to the top of a summit to enjoy the scenic sunset views.
Big Bear was put on the map in the 1990s as the ultimate mountain biking mecca when it hosted a variety of national mountain bike races. Renowned for its top-quality terrain (some may even say it rivals the best of the best in the world), Big Bear has a network of more than 100 miles of trails and Forest Service roads to satisfy riders of all ages and skill levels. If you’re a mountain biker, check out Skyline Ridge. Snow Summit also turns into downhill mountain biking trails in the summer.
Even if you’re not a mountain biker and want to get out there on a road bike, there are various running/biking trails encircling the lake that will make for an excellent excursion.
Summer in Big Bear is the best time to camp and if you love camping, you can’t miss it! Popular campgrounds include the Serrano Campground in the San Bernardino Mountains on the north shore of Big Bear Lake, and the Holcomb Valley Campground, which is more isolated and situated even more north. If those campground reservations are unavailable, consider Pineknot Campground, which has a bit more availability than the other two.
Exploring the forest roads in Big Bear in your own vehicle and on your own time is fun, but if you’re not interested in going with your own car, try a guided off-roading tour. Big Bear Jeep Experience allows you to explore the ridges, canyons, and meadows of the beautiful San Bernardino Mountains in fully equipped Jeeps. You will even have a lead guide that stays in contact with your group during the entire tour.
SCAVENGER HUNT ACROSS TOWN
Urban Adventure Quest offers a smartphone-guided, walking scavenger hunt through The Village. You’ll solve puzzles with clues and complete challenges, all while learning local history and fun facts. Start at the Big Bear Lake Visitors Center whenever you want and play at your own pace.
BIG BEAR ROPES COURSE
This aerial adventure features more than 42 obstacles including suspension bridges, wide-open gaps, cables to scramble across, and more. The Sky Rail Zipline adds an exciting element for those who wish to zipline as well. The cost is $12 per person per round, and is located at 42825 Big Bear Boulevard along with Big Bear Speedway and Big Bear Snow Play.
Escape rooms are popping up everywhere, so why not in Big Bear too? If you’re into problem-solving with your friends under time pressure, this activity is for you! With three different adventures in one location, Big Bear Escape Room specializes in high-tech escape room experiences.
BIG BEAR RESTAURANTS AND NIGHTLIFE
Big Bear Lake Village has got a good number of restaurants ranging from casual to fine dining so just walk around and pick your favorite or visit The Village’s website for a list of restaurants, bars, shops, and other offerings. A casual and convenient place to check out is Big Bear Lake Brewing Company, a lively restaurant with an on-site brewery. If you’re looking for more nightlife, check out AV Bar & Nightclub and The Cave, a concert and comedy venue.
Not into rugged nature activities? Big Bear Mountain is also home to a nine hole, par 35 golf course for those who prefer to spend summers on the green.
SEASONAL EVENTS IN BIG BEAR, CALIFORNIA
- Bald Eagle Celebrations (Jan/Feb)
- USASA Halfpipe (Mar)
- Fishing Season and Farmer’s Market Opens (Apr)
- 1st Annual PubFest (May)
- The Big Bear Lake Grill & Chill (May)
- Summer Wine Walk (Jun)
- Big Bear Lake PaddleFest (June)
- Summer Concerts at The Cave (Jun – Aug)
- Music in the Mountains Concert Series (Jun-Sept)
- July 4th Party at the Summit (July)
- Big Bear Cycling Week (July)
- Chili Cook-Off (July)
- Tour de Big Bear (Aug)
- Big Bear Lake Brew Festival (Aug)
- Big Bear Lake Fall Troutfest (Sept)
- The Village Fall Wine Walk (Sept)
- Oktoberfest (Sept/Oct)
- Big Bear Lake Comedy Festival (Nov)
- Christmas in the Village (Dec)
- New Year’s Eve Torchlight Parade (Dec 31)
ESSENTIAL TRAVEL TIPS FOR BIG BEAR, CA
TRANSPORTATION/LODGING IN BIG BEAR
- During peak winter and summer seasons, make sure to book accommodations ahead of time.
- Big bear is 2 hours from Los Angeles, 2.5 hours from San Diego, and t 3.5 hours from Las Vegas.
- From LA, the most direct route is Highway 330. This is an extremely curvy and mountainous road. If you get carsick easily, you may want to sit in the front seat or take some motion-sickness medicine beforehand.
- You can avoid the mountainous roads by driving up I-15 to Victorville, then coming down CA-18. This will add roughly 30 miles to the drive.
- Travelers can opt for the longer (but often less congested) Highway 38: a scenic route that meanders through the Redlands.
- Travelers visiting from Las Vegas and other high desert cities, take Highway 18. (This option also has the least amount of mountain driving
- Give yourself plenty of time to drive. Mountainous and curvy roads always take longer, and if there is snow on the ground, you’ll need even more time.
- Flying into Big Bear? The closest airport is Ontario International Airport in San Bernardino
WEATHER AND CONDITIONS IN BIG BEAR
- Big Bear is at 7000′ altitude. The altitude ensures things never got too hot at Big Bear, and the area is known for having 320+ days of sunshine.
- Summer temperatures have an average high of 77 and low of 45. Winter has an average high in the mid-40s and lows in mid-20s.
- If you visit in the winter, check road conditions. Many back roads require high clearance, 4WD, and snow chains.
- If it’s your first time using snow chains, practice putting them before leaving. You don’t want to get stuck in the middle of the mountains googling how to put on chains with limited service!
- Bring layers! During the warmer seasons, it can be warm during the day but drop to pretty cold temperatures at night. Also worthy to note, the higher you go in elevation, the colder it gets.
- Even on a cloudy day in the winter, don’t forget to wear sunscreen. The atmosphere is much thinner at this altitude and can lead to severe sunburns if you’re not careful.
ACTIVITIES AT BIG BEAR
- If you’re looking to camp at Big Bear, like many other camping sites in California, your site should be reserved in advance through the United States Forest Service. Popular options include the Serrano Campground in the San Bernardino Mountains and the Holcomb Valley Campground.
- If you’re looking to fish in Big Bear, aim to go during the spring, when the lake is teeming with rainbow trout and bass.
- Visit easily accessible spots early in the morning to avoid crowds.
PLACES NEAR BIG BEAR, CA TO VISIT
- Joshua Tree National Park (72.4 mi east, 1 hr 35 min)
- Palm Springs (81.8 mi southeast, 1 hr 40 min)
- Idyllwild, CA (83.8 mi south, 2 hrs)
- Los Angeles (96.6 mi west, 2 hrs)
ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST FOR BIG BEAR, CA
Aside from the usual clothing and toiletries you’d pack for any regular trip, here are the things I’d recommend you not leave home without on your Big Bear vacation:
- License and registration | This is a no-brainer, but always good to check you have all documents before it’s too late and you get too far away from home. Do NOT leave home without them. They are road trip essentials!
- Spare Tire | In addition to carrying a spare tire with you, don’t forget to check your current tire conditions before you set off as well.
- Roadside Emergency Kit | You never know what kind of car trouble you may encounter on the road. This kit contains 42 roadside emergency components, including jumper cables, an aluminum flashlight and batteries, 2-in-1 screwdriver, duct tape, poncho, cable ties, bandages, towelettes, and zipper-lock bags.
- Trunk Organizer | With any road trip comes lots and lots of stuff to pack. Keep your road trip essentials organized with a trunk organizer. Not only will this make it so much easier to find what you need, but it will also lead to more space in your trunk for you to pack other necessities.
- Smartphone UV Sanitizer and Charger | Our phones gather all the grime and bacteria we touch throughout the day, and then they are stored in warm, dark places like purses and pockets, which make for great breeding grounds for bacteria to grow. They are the third hand we never wash, but should! Using a UV sanitizer such as PhoneSoap on a regular basis will help keep germs and illness at bay.
- Flashlight | You never know when you’re going to be stranded on the road at night, out hiking late, or even exploring a dark cave. Leaving a flashlight in your car can really come in handy when you’re faced with unexpected situations.
- Umbrella | An umbrella, particularly a wind-proof umbrella, is crucial when traveling to destinations with varying/unpredictable weather. If you have an umbrella with you, then it means the rain can’t stop you from enjoying your trip and exploring the outdoors.
- Travel Pillow | If you have room in the car for a regular pillow, I find that they are the most comfortable for long car trips. If you need a more portable option, this memory foam travel pillow works well not only for car travel but also for camping!
- Travel Blanket | For all your napping needs–especially if the driver likes AC and you’re trying to snuggle up for a nap. This one is packable so it won’t take up very much in your car.
- Slip-on Sandals | Slip-on/slip-off sandals are a must for that extra comfort while sitting in the car. This allows you to make lots of stops without having to go through the process of putting your sneakers/boots back on.
- Portable Cooler | Coolers are a must for any road-trip. Not only will you be able to keep beverages cold and refreshing, but you will also be able to keep perishables fresh. A portable hard cooler will allow you to pack picnic lunches, bring cheese and jams, and more. If you’re looking for the best cooler technology out there, the Yeti Portable Cooler is top of the line, with ColdCell Insulation that offers superior cold-holding compared to other soft coolers.
- Swiss Army Knife | A multi-tool is great to have in any car, regardless of if you’re going on a road trip or not. It can be useful in so many situations! There have been so many instances where I’ve needed to cut something or open up hard-to-open packaging while away from home, and this has been a lifesaver.
- First Aid Kit | It’s always good to carry a first aid kit around with you when traveling. Road trips make it easier to do this since all you need to do is toss it in the trunk! Note: This is not the same as the roadside emergency kit.
- GoPro | Capture all those awesome action/adventure moments with a top-of-the-line action camera. Your regular camera or iPhone won’t be an option if you’re engaging in action sports like mountain biking, rock climbing, or whitewater rafting. For water sports, you could always get a waterproof case, but GoPro has time and time again proven to be the best for underwater photography.
- Hiking Boots | If you plan on hiking, bring well broken-in boots with good ankle support and good traction. My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort, which is extremely important if you want to prevent blisters from the start.
- Hiking Socks | Make sure you have a good pair of cushioned wool hiking socks. For extra toe protection and to prevent blisters from developing from skin-to-skin contact, go with a pair of Injinji toe socks.
- Adventure Sandals | Tevas and Chacos are my go-to brands for multipurpose summer sandals. If you’re planning on spending some time on the river or at the lakes, you should definitely consider getting adventure sandals — they’re comfortable for long-distance walking, safe for submerging in water, and super durable.
- Waterproof Rain Jacket | A lightweight waterproof rain jacket is critical for any outdoor adventure. Since these weigh virtually nothing and are so easily packable, I recommend you carry one with you whenever you head outdoors. Depending on the weather forecast and chance of precipitation, I’ll either go with a rain shell or a puffier windbreaker. Despite the options I have here, one thing is for sure— I’m never without some sort of outer layer. My top recommendations are Marmot Men’s PreCip (for men) and The North Face Women’s Venture 2 Jacket (for women).
- Puffy Jacket | You’re going to need layers in the mountain areas of California. The coastal, forested, and high desert climates of the west coast brings chilly evenings year-round, even on warm summer days. You have a lot of options here, but I personally have the North Face Thermoball, and it’s kept me warm throughout my many years of outdoor adventuring!
- Daypack | I’m a fan of the Deuter ACT Trail 30 Hiking Backpack. It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
- Laundry Bag | Summer and/or outdoor activities = lots of sweaty, smelly, dirty, and worn clothes. Don’t soil your entire travel bag by mixing worn clothes with your unworn clothes! Definitely bring a laundry bag to separate your clean clothes from your dirty clothes to maintain the utmost freshness.
- Hat, Bandana, or Buff | Sun protection is key for any outdoor destination. Keep the sun off your skin with a fancy sunhat, bandana, or a Buff. All three can be used to shield your neck or forehead from the sun. As a bonus, bandanas and Buffs can be used as headbands to keep hair and sweat off of your face. Soak your bandana or Buff then put it on your head, face, or neck for a quick cool down.
- Travel Towel | These are light and quick-drying, which is exactly what you need when you’re hopping from a river or lake to a car. This one here is a great option.
- Travel Clothesline | This is a small and portable clothesline that allows you to hang up your wet clothes almost anywhere. I’ve found that it’s really handy whenever I have wet bathing suits or towels that need to be air-dried. I love it for its multi-purpose functionality!
- Dry Bag | Another multi-purpose item on the list! Dry bags are completely necessary for keeping your dry belongings (clothes, electronics, money, etc)… dry. Don’t set foot on a kayak, boat or canoe without putting your stuff in a dry bag. Trust me, it’s better than ending up with a phone or camera submerged in water in the case where the boat tips or something. It’s also super handy for carrying around wet bathing suits and towels. Or even doubling as your laundry bag!
- Insect Repellent Lotion | Mosquitos love hot climates, so I would definitely recommend packing insect repellent with a high DEET percentage if you’re traveling in the summer and plan to be on the water. Sawyer makes some really great bug repellent products, and they’re travel-friendly too!
- Hand Sanitizer | Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
- Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross after a hike but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
- Headlamp / Flashlight | Being able to find your way through the wilderness in darkness is essential, so you should always carry a light source with you, even if you don’t plan on staying out past sunset. An LED headlamp allows you to hike hands-free and is my preferred source of light. FYI, the flashlight on your smartphone is not an adequate substitute– the light is not bright enough, plus it’ll drain your battery life, which may be critical in an emergency. Always carry extra batteries.
- Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures, GPSing to all the great breweries and eateries… the last thing you want is to be stranded with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
- Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated throughout the day with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. I love the packability of these bottles!
- Medications | Motion sickness pills for those windy roads, painkillers, anti-inflammatories, etc.
And with that, I hope you have a good idea of what’s on your list of things to do in Big Bear. Wishing you a wonderful summer Big Bear trip, jam-packed with all the coolest activities!