The West's BEST LAKES

California Lakes

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  • Ski lifts carry summer mountain bikers up slopes above Big Bear.

    Slopes above Big Bear

    K.C. Thomas

    Click to Enlarge

BIG BEAR LAKE 

The breeze picks up and, as the kayak rounds the appropriately named Windy Point, the stillness of Grout Bay on Big Bear Lake turns into an insistent chop that occasionally breaks over the bow.

It's a bumpy ride but well worth it for the panorama of Big Bear Lake it provides. There is the blue expanse of water, a shoreline rimmed with pines, and high above it all the great mass of San Gorgonio Mountain.

Big Bear Lake is a relatively recent presence in the San Bernardino Mountains - created at the end of the 1800s to store water for the burgeoning citrus industry around Redlands to the southwest. While the lake still plays its water storage role, today it is probably best known as a vacation spot. Within two hours of San Diego, Orange County, and Los Angeles, it has long been a quick mountain getaway for Southern Californians.

It remains a casual place, more knotty pine than mahogany - even though for generations Big Bear has been a second home for many Hollywood stars who first discovered it when they came up for filming.

Then again, you don't have to be a star to live like one in Big Bear. After the kayaking trip, you can, for example, check into the Windy Point Inn on the lake's north shore. Huge picture windows open up to the lake, and there are even views from the sauna.

The temptation is to while away the day out on the deck before taking a sauna later in the afternoon. But there are wildflowers in the mountains, walks along the lake, and a nearby gold country to explore. There's no need to settle for the bare necessities of life, not with all these essentials. - Matthew Jaffe

Big Bear Lake is 60 miles northeast of Los Angeles. For a visitors' guide, contact the Big Bear Lake Resort Association (800/424-4232 or www.bigbearinfo.com).

Area code is 909 unless noted.

LAKE FUN: Big Bear Discovery Center. This interpretive facility conducts guided outings, including paddling trips on summer weekends. 40396 North Shore Dr.; 866-3437.

BOATING: For kayaking and canoeing, we prefer the less congested north shore. Well-protected Grout Bay is the site of Captain John's Fawn Harbor & Marina ($10; 39369 North Shore Dr.; Fawnskin; 866-6478), which rents kayaks, canoes, and surf bikes. Other boat rentals are at Big Bear Marina (866-3218), Holloway's Marina and RV Park (800/448-5335), North Shore Landing (878-4386), and Pleasure Point Landing (866-2455).

FISHING. The lake holds trout, bass, catfish, and bluegill. A California fishing license is required.

MOUNTAIN BIKING. Ride with your bike up the ski lifts at Snow Summit Mountain Resort, and garner great lake views as you pedal your way back down. Bike rentals available. Day lift passes $20; (888) 786-6481.

SWIMMING. The best swimming beach is Meadow Park Swim Beach off Big Bear Blvd. on Park St., on the south side of the lake. There's a lifeguard and a nominal fee.

DINING: Mozart's Bistro. In a beautiful chalet-style structure, Mozart's serves a delicious hard cider-glazed pork entrée. 40701 Village Dr.; 866-9497. North Shore Café. Great salads and sandwiches by day and a more ambitious French menu on Friday and Saturday nights. 39226 North Shore Dr. (State 38); 866-5879.

LODGING : Alpenhorn Bed and Breakfast. Most rooms have spa tubs and gas fireplaces. From $149. 601 Knight Ave.; 866-5700, (888) 829-6600, or www.alpenhorn.com. Windy Point Inn. This modern inn offers sweeping lake views. From $135. 866-2746 or www.windypointinn.com.

In Lake County about three hours north of San Francisco, this is the biggest natural lake entirely within California (we share Tahoe with Nevada). Clear Lake offers swimming, sailing, waterskiing, and bass fishing; it's also popular among seaplane pilots, should you have a seaplane handy. Lakeport and Clearlake are the lake's main settlements. Clear Lake State Park and Anderson Marsh State Historic Park both preserve lands once used by the Pomo Indians; Anderson Marsh holds its annual blackberry festival on August 11 and 12; for information call the park at (707) 994-0688.

Area code 707 unless noted.

LODGING: Lake Point Lodge, Clearlake Oaks: 40 rooms from $60; 998-4350. Skylark Shores Motel Resort, Lakeport: 45 rooms from $75; 263-6151.

CAMPING: Campsites are available at Clear Lake State Park: $12 per night. For information, call 279-4293; for reservations, call (800) 444-7275.

CONTACT: Lakeport Regional Chamber of Commerce: 263-5092. Lake County Visitor Information Center: (800) 525-3743. - Peter Fish

Gold Lake is part of Lakes Basin - a region, northwest of Lake Tahoe, of gray craggy peaks and small, pleasing, mirror-smooth lakes. Getting reservations here can be tricky - the area is deservedly popular among Bay Area vacationers. Be persistent, aim for a midweek or post-Labor Day visit, and you'll be planning your next trip here about one minute after you arrive.

LODGING: Gold Lake Lodge: from $150; (530) 836-2350.

CAMPING: Lakes Basin Campground has 23 sites; (877) 444-6777.

CONTACT: Eastern Plumas Chamber of Commerce: (800) 995-6057. - P.F.

At the very end of State 168 in the Sierra Nevada 70 miles northeast of Fresno, Huntington is one of the lakes created by Southern California Edison's hydroelectric dams. Its artificial origins aside, this is a classic Sierra lake: pine-fringed, pretty, and high (7,000 feet). Fish for trout, hike to nearby Rancheria Falls, and stay up for views of the star-filled night.

LODGING: Lakeshore Resort: from $78; 6195 Huntington Lake Rd., Lakeshore; (559) 893-3193. Condo rental through Shaver Lake Vacation Rentals: from $145; (800) 422-4102.

CAMPING: Many campgrounds available; contact Sierra National Forest (below).

CONTACT: Sierra National Forest: (559) 855-5360. - P.F.

About 25 miles west of Big Bear, this is the San Bernardino Mountains' other great lake - a blue oasis 5,106 feet high. Lake Arrowhead has a somewhat exclusive air - the lake is privately owned, its waters not easily accessible to day visitors. Still, you can cruise the lake on the paddleboat Arrowhead Queen, hike into the San Bernardino National Forest, or hit Lake Arrowhead Village for shopping and dining.

LODGING: Bracken Fern Manor Country Inn: from $80; 815 Arrowhead Villas Rd.; (909) 337-8557. Lake Arrowhead Resort: 177 rooms from $139; 27984 State 189; (800) 800-6792.

CAMPING: North Shore Campground: 27 sites; $12; (877) 444-6777.

CONTACT: Lake Arrowhead Communities Chamber of Commerce: (909) 337-3715 or www.lakearrowhead.net. - P.F.

What to say? With 191 square miles of water and 72 miles of shoreline, this is the largest alpine lake in the nation, and one of the most popular vacation destinations in the West. North and south shore both have their charms. Choose a midweek visit to avoid some crowds; opt for a post-Labor Day visit for fewer crowds and lower prices.

LODGING: Great range of choices; for listings, contact: Lake Tahoe Central Reservations: (800) 824-6348. Lake Tahoe Incline Village & Crystal Bay Visitors Bureau: (775) 832-1606. Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority: (530) 544-5050 or (800) 288-2463. South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce: (530) 541-5255.

CAMPING. For national forest campgrounds, call (877) 444-6777; for state parks, call (800) 444-7275. - P.F.



LAKE TAHOE





LAKE ARROWHEAD





HUNTINGTON LAKE





GOLD LAKE





CLEAR LAKE





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