Day trip: Big Bear Lake

Thrill-seekers and beach bums find common ground at this Southern California hot spot

Big Bear Lake fishing and swimming scene

Get your adrenaline pumping at Big Bear Lake by taking the plunge off granite boulders near China Island, or just set up shop in the sand at McDill Swim Beach for a lazy day in the sun.

Gina Sabatella

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Bloody Marys at B's Backyard Bar-B-Que in Big Bear, CA
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Castle Rock hiking trail at Big Bear Lake
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Time Bandit pirate ship lake tour in Big Bear, CA
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Getting to Big Bear Lake

  • Directions to Big Bear Lake

    The town and lake are about 60 miles east of Ontario via one of three winding mountain highways: State 18 (which runs through town), 38, or 330. bigbear.com

Why go: When summer scorches, the lake calls. Here's where to swim, fish, eat, drink, hike, bike, and talk like a pirate at Big Bear Lake, California.

How to find Big Bear Lake: About 100 miles east of L.A. Elevation with benefits: At 6,750 feet, it’s 15° to 20° cooler than the inland valleys.

Hollywood’s backlot: Big Bear has served as the set for hundreds of films.

What fish are biting: Trout, bass, and catfish.

Get up early: Or expect a line at Grizzly Manor Cafe ($; 41268 Big Bear Blvd.; 909/866-6226), where the chocolate chip pancakes are bigger than the plates.

Kathmandu cravings? Try the momo dumplings at the new Himalayan Restaurant ($; 672 Pine Knot Ave.; 909/866-2907). 

Afternoon pint: The citrusy Orange Blossom Amber at Big Bear Mountain Brewery ($; 40260 Big Bear Blvd.; 909/866-2337). 

Get a map: The Discovery Center (on North Shore Dr.; sbnfa.org or 909/866-3437) has hiking and biking info—and sells the $5/day Adventure Pass needed for trailhead parking.

Make it a weekend: If you're looking for a place to stay at Big Bear Lake, book a cute cabin at Pine Knot Guest Ranch (from $119; 2-night weekend minimum; 800/866-3446). Kids will love the llamas and bunnies; parents will love the in-room Jacuzzis.

Go ahead—take the plunge

  • Almost anywhere at Big Bear Lake is a good place to jump in. For maximum thrills, leap off the granite boulders near China Island—aka Garstin Island (at the lake’s west end; park along State 18). If you’re more into lounging, hang out on the sand with the friendly lifeguards at McDill Swim Beach (12–5; $5; 41218 Park Ave., near Meadow Park; 909/866-9700).

Afternoon hangout

  • Hit B’s Backyard Bar-B-Que for volleyball on the sand and dogs fetching sticks in the lake. Kick back on the bar deck with $3 mix-your-own Bloody Marys, pulled-pork sandwiches, and molasses baked beans. Warning: The homemade potato chips are addictive. $$; 350 Alden Rd.; 909/866-5400.

Be king of the world

  • Climb the 1.2-mile trail to the top of Castle Rock for a steep tromp with a big payoff: The path heads past giant conifers and car-size boulders to the ridge, where Castle Rock stands sentinel. Scramble to its turretlike summit for an eagle’s-eye view of the lake. The trail starts at State 18, 1.2 miles east of the dam; park in the roadside pullout and display Adventure Pass.

Calling all cooks

  • In the strollable downtown, you’ll find Copper Q, a new culinary-gadget store with a demo kitchen, cooking classroom, espresso bar, and to-die-for cupcakes. Browse dutch ovens, eco-friendly cutting boards, and Sophie Conran serving pieces. 645 Pine Knot Ave.; 909/878-4777.

Cruise by the lake

  • Rent wheels at Bear Valley Bikes (from $10/hour; 40298 Big Bear Blvd.; 909/866-8000). If you like to roll on skinny tires, stick to the paved, 2.5-mile Alpine Pedal Path, which hugs the North Shore.

Ride the trails

  • The single-track Grout Bay Trail is one of SoCal’s best intermediate mountain bike routes—a 12-mile loop that makes a roller-coaster ascent through the forest. Add on the 2 miles up Gray’s Peak for a peekaboo lake view. Park at Hanna Flat campground and display Adventure Pass.

Reel one in

  • Hopeful souls drop in a line from the shore, but renting a boat at one of Big Bear’s six marinas will better your chances. The summer hot spot is Trout Alley, on the lake’s west side, running from the North Shore to the dam and across the South Shore to Metcalf Bay. bigbear.com

Walk the plank

  • Any swashbuckler at heart will love a lake tour aboard the Time Bandit pirate ship (featured in 1981’s Time Bandits), a 1/3-scale replica of a Spanish galleon. Not sure you’ll like all the yo-ho-ho? No worries—the crew serves rum drinks. $19; reservations recommended; at Holloway’s Marina; 909/878-4040. 

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