Guide to Big Bear Lake, CA

A small town in San Bernardino County, California, surrounded by mountains and a vast national forest, along the shore of the same-named lake, Big Bear Lake is a popular resort destination. With a population of just above 5,000 residents, according to the latest count, this quaint place attracts a deluge of tourists weekend after weekend, year after year. It also attracts new residents who fall in love with some beautiful waterfront homes. On particularly busy weekends, the number of people staying in it jumps to a staggering 100,000. 

Big Bear Lake offers a much-needed break from the hustle and bustle of the city. As one of California’s biggest recreation areas, it offers various activities all year round. And there is something for everyone. You may like it so much that you may decide that Los Angeles has become a little too much and make it your permanent residence. Joking aside, if you do decide to leave LA for some place quiet, you won’t be the first to do it. The natural beauty, fresh air, and the opportunity to spend time outside exploring many trails undoubtedly sound enticing.

Things to do in Big Bear Lake

In the summer, you can enjoy camping, mountain biking, horseback riding, or hiking. When you get tired of all the excitement and walking, you can pick one of the incredible picnic spots. You can also go swimming, although you will have to choose one of the designated areas for this activity. And if fishing is your preferred form of relaxation, you will have to wait for the fishing season to begin. Finally, you can also rent a boat and take one of the scenic tours on the lake. 

Also, if you are more of a winter person, you won’t be disappointed either. Popular winter activities are available here as well. So, you only have to decide how you prefer to spend your weekend – skiing, sledding, or snowboarding. 

How did Big Bear Lake get its name?

The indigenous Serrano people lived in this area more than 2,000 years before Benjamin Wilson and his party arrived. They called the valley “Yuhaviat,” a Serrano word that means “Pine Place.”

But then Benjamin Wilson, accompanied by his 20-men posse, came to the valley and was stunned by an incredible sight. It was swarming with grizzly bears. 

Although, we should point out that the modern bear-inspired name didn’t refer to today’s Big Bear Lake because it didn’t exist before the early 1900s. Rather, it was intended for what is now known as Baldwin Lake. 

A tiny bit of Big Bear Lake’s rich history

At first, only the grizzlies and the Serranos populated the area. But then, the gold rush struck, and the population exploded. And while the people stayed there, the grizzlies haven’t been seen since 1908. Now, residents occasionally report black bear sightings.

How did the gold rush start?

Before Big Bear Lake became a popular resort, it was also viral among people determined to try their luck and get rich fast because this is where you came to mine gold. According to history records, William Holcomb, a bear hunter, was tracking a bear’s blood when he stumbled across a creek. It was just like any other creek, except it was gleaming with tiny flakes of something. It was gold! He did his best to keep it a secret and all to himself. But, as it usually happens, the word spread.

And so, a trickle, a person here and there, quickly turned into a stream of humanity rushing to turn their lives around, bringing families and populating the area. Much like you would schedule a move with SOS Moving LA to get here as fast as possible, they sat on their horses and slowly headed toward a brighter future.

Those were briefly the events of the period from 1860 to 1875. Now, we have some relics and derelict structures reminding us of the days of the gold rush and a valley named after Mr. Holcomb, right where he first caught a glimpse of a shimmering grain of gold. 

A few notable landmarks

While fishing is the most popular activity in the summer, drawing vast numbers of enthusiasts, nature is spectacular, and the lake is beautiful, Big Bear Lake hides a few more attractions up its sleeve. 

Big Bear Solar Observatory

Built in 1969 by the California Institute of Technology, this facility is now home to three telescopes. One of them is the biggest functioning telescope in the entire world!

Although visits are temporarily suspended due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Big Bear Solar Observatory organizes tours for the public free of charge. But, keep in mind that the capacity is limited to 16 people per group, so you have to make a reservation.  

Big Bear’s Treasure Island

Big Bear’s Treasure Island, aka Garstin Island, sits on the lake’s western banks, close to the dam. It is an island of granite rocks with a group of interesting buildings sitting upon them.

But what makes those buildings so interesting? It is some architectural details. And how did those buildings come to exist? Herbert H. Garstin, president and manager of the Bear Valley Mutual Water Company in the early 1900s, and his wife Maude loved this rocky peninsula. Then, they learned about the plan to build a higher dam, turning the peninsula into an island. They swiftly petitioned for a permit to build a home on the new island, and the government granted it. And so, the construction of Herbert and Maude’s little paradise began. Maude frequently traveled to China, so the design of the structures resembles the one style of Chinese homes.

Today, this is one of the nicest places to go for a swim, and you can swim up to the rocks. However, you mustn’t climb onto Treasure Island because it’s private property.

The Old Dam Keepers House

Although in ruins, this is still an iconic landmark in Big Bear Lake. The Old Dam Keepers House was built in 1890 and was home to more than a dozen keepers. The most notable one was Bill Knickerbocker, who came from Pennsylvania and became the first dam keeper.

Together with his wife and five children, they built a log mansion in 1920. The estate was converted into an Inn in the 1980s, but it suffered from decay until it was renovated and continued to exist as B&B until 2017. Today, it is a private residence with modern amenities.

When you see it, you may wish to explore some waterfront properties for sale and think about making Big Bear Lake your home. Or a permanent holiday destination.

Big Bear Lake – a popular filmmaking destination

The fact that many filmmakers chose Big Bear as a backdrop for their films only supports our statements of its natural beauty. Only some of the blockbuster hits made here are “The Last Of The Mohicans”, “Gone With The Wind,” “Little Bigfoot,” “Doctor Dolittle,” “Old Yeller”, “The Parent Trap”, and many, many more.

Final comments

If you decide to visit Big Bear Lake and match all the exciting stories you have heard and read about it to the actual location, remember that this is a popular tourist destination. So, particularly in the summer, make sure to book accommodation well in advance. Also, it tends to get warm during the day but chilly in the evenings and at night, so bring layers. In the winter, the accommodation situation may be better, but be sure to check road conditions as you may need snow chains. The best time to visit famous landmarks is early in the morning, as you will avoid crowds. Lastly, remember to stop and soak some breathtaking views and landscapes.

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