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Big Bear Lake in Winter
Courtesy of Big Bear Mountain Resorts

5 surprising reasons to visit Big Bear Lake in winter

With plenty of groomed runs and terrain parks at Big Bear Lake’s two alpine resorts, Bear Mountain and Snow Summit, it’s easy to see why skiers and boarders head here when the snow flies. But this appealing alpine destination in the San Bernardino Mountains, the easy escape for Southern California snow lovers, also has plenty of off-slope ways to get out and play. “It’s really magical here when the snow falls, and there’s plenty to do beyond the ski mountains, inside and out,” says Dan McKernan of the Big Bear Visitors Bureau.

His top five picks of things to do at Big Bear Lake during the winter months? Take an adrenaline-pumping ride on a series of zip lines high above the San Bernardino snow trails, or check out the Soaring Eagle, an amusement-style two-at-a-time ride that starts at the base of the Alpine Slide at Magic Mountain and will make you feel like you are soaring over Big Bear Lake (open year-round). If you prefer to get your speed thrills earthbound, race innertubes down a hill or take a bobsled-style sled down an alpine slide.

Bird watching for wintering bald eagles is great this time of year; you can help out a local conservation effort by spending an afternoon jotting down your sightings, or simply visit the Big Bear Alpine Zoo to see a few of the magnificent birds closer up than you can in the wild. 

Hikers can become engrossed in nature while snowshoe trekking along the miles and miles of trails devoted to that contemplative activity. However you choose to spend your day, end it with a delicious meal of mountain-hearty food in Big Bear Lake Village. Read on for help in planning a winter trip to this Southern California mountain town.

 

A wintering bald eagle at Big Bear Lake
Amanda Richter/Getty Images

See Bald Eagles

See Bald Eagles
Join a conservation effort in Big Bear Lake to help these regal birds

According to locals, people are often surprised when they come to Big Bear Lake and see bald eagles flying around. But the majestic birds of prey are a fairly common sight here during winter; the San Bernardino Mountains actually has the largest wintering population of bald eagles  in Southern California. To learn more about them, visit the Big Bear Discovery Center, in San Bernardino, or the Big Bear Alpine Zoo at Moonridge, which houses two rescued bald eagles, Alaska and Valentine. The zoo doubles as a rehabilitation facility that offers injured, orphaned, and human-imprinted wild animals a safe haven temporarily or permanently, on a per-case basis.

If you really like the idea of seeing eagles, consider joining the San Bernardino Winter Bald Eagle Count, an annual volunteer-supported effort that’s been held at Big Bear Lake and other San Bernardino locations since 1978. Volunteers are stationed at select vantage points in proximity to five lakes, for one-hour stints, over a period of four months, from December to March. No registration is needed; orientation is the morning of the day you’d like to participate. Then just show up at the designated location at the start time with a pair of binoculars and a way to keep track of time. You’ll be able to help out by recording bird sightings and any observations about the birds’ behavior, and be richer from the experience; see a bald eagle dive for fish in a snowy wonderland, and you’ll never forget it.

Insider tip: If participating in the Winter Bald Eagle Count, remember you’ll be standing still, outdoors, in winter weather. Be sure to dress appropriately.

Zip line ride near Big Bear Lake
Courtesy of Action Tours Big Bear

Big Bear Zip Line

Big Bear Zip Line
Zoom over and through snowy forests

For an over-the-top outdoor experience, take flight on a zip line near Big Bear Lake. You’ll fly as high as 85 feet above the forest floor—the sweeping views of the snowy scenery are unbeatable as you slice through the brisk mountain air. The year-round safari-style ride offered by Action Zipline Tours lets you clip in, then zoom along nine separate lines ranging from 120 to 860 feet. The longer you spend speeding down a line, the faster you go, so that by the time you clip in to the longest line, you’ll (safely) reach speeds of up to 45 miles per hour! The zip lines operated by Action Zipline Tours are the only zip lines built according to San Bernardino County Building and Safety codes and certified by the state of California, so you can get in on the fun knowing that safety is the top priority.

By the end of your three-hour adventure, you’ll be a zipping pro. You’ll also get an extra boost of adrenaline crossing an above-it-all suspension bridge, testing your agility and balance while strapped into a safety harness. All gear and instruction is provided as well as an off-road ride in the Action Zipline Tours safari vehicle to the site, which is located two miles into the forest. Weather conditions have to be right for zip lining, so be sure to call ahead for reservations, and visit their website to get details on what to wear and height, weight, and age requirements.

Another option: the Soaring Eagle, an amusement-style two-at-a-time ride that starts at the base of the Alpine Slide at Magic Mountain. After settling into your gondola-like seats, you’ll be towed upward and backward 500 feet to reach a height of 100 feet before being catapulted forward on an arc that will make you feel like you are soaring over Big Bear Lake.

 

A snowshoer in Big Bear Lake
Ocean/Corbis

Take a Snowshoe Trek

Take a Snowshoe Trek
Discover winter beauty in the San Bernardinos

Put yourself in the midst of snow-covered nature with a tranquil snowshoe trek in Big Bear Lake. Pack a picnic lunch (think hearty sandwiches and hot chocolate in a thermos) and trek on snowshoes over Big Bear’s network of beautiful trails—the easy Town Trail at the Snow Summit Ski Resort at Big Bear is a local favorite. (Try Goldsmith’s Ski and Board RentalsPotter’s Mountain Sports or Blauer Rentals for gear rentals, maps, and trail recommendations.)

Other local spots include Rim Nordic, which has groomed trails for both snowshoeing and cross-country skiing as well as rental equipment. From Lake Arrowhead, east toward Fawnskin, on the banks of Big Bear Lake, Blue Diamonds mark routes that are part of the Forest Service road system. This means they are closed to vehicles during the winter season, and thus make for a great snowshoe experience if you prefer wider paths free of underbrush and trees. The San Gorgonio Wilderness lends itself well to snowshoe trekking, and for ease of access, it’s hard to beat the well-marked trails on the north side of Highway 38. The staff at the Big Bear Discovery Center will be able to offer additional tips on places to go; while there, check out the exhibits, weekly programs offered, and calendar of events held at their outdoor amphitheater.

If you’re new to the sport or you would just like to explore with an experienced guide, consider joining a trek with Action Tours Big Bear. Three-hour snowshoeing tours, best for ages 10 and older, are customized to match your interests and abilities. All gear is provided. 

Innertube Racing at Big Bear Lake
Courtesy of Greg Zook Photography

Race Inner Tubes & Sleds

Race Inner Tubes & Sleds
Big Bear snow parks offer lift-assisted sledding and tubing, day and night

For a lot of people, the winter scene around Southern California’s Big Bear Lake may be the first snow they have ever seen—and the first chance they’ve had to go tubing and sledding. You’ll see every shape and size and age person, from little kids to grandparents, whooping and hollering as they bounce down the region’s snow-park hills on inner tubes or swoosh down in sleds. Chairlifts and Magic Carpet lifts—which resemble a moving sidewalk, only these go up hills—make it easy to ride back up to the top and do it all over again.

At Big Bear Snow Play, zoom down a hill that used to be the Rebel Ridge ski area, and is now the site of the longest snow-tubing runs in Southern California. They also have ample snow-making machines, so as long as it’s cold enough, there will always be plenty of snow and the lanes remain open after dark on Friday and Saturday nights. For after-dark fun on weeknights, try the Grizzly Ridge Tube Park, at Snow Summit ski resort, which has lighted runs and tubes labeled as “high-speed”—if that’s a good thing! (Children must be at least 42” tall to ride a snow tube by themselves.) As the first resort located west of the Mississippi to host the Winter X Games, Snow Summit has plenty of winter-sports cred.

At the Alpine Slide at Bear Lake’s Magic Mountain, whoosh bobsled-style down a winding flume; it’s the only place in Southern California that offers visitors a chance to navigate their own true bobsled, with Teflon runners and ball-bearing wheels, down a quarter-mile, high-banked cement track. There’s a tubing hill too, open for daytime and nighttime sessions.

 

Himalayan cuisine at Big Bear Lake
Liz Clayman/Offset

Try Big Bear's Himalayan Cuisine

Try Big Bear's Himalayan Cuisine
Warm up with authentic dishes and homemade spices

Mountain cuisine of the highest order is served up at Himalayan Restaurant, one of the most inviting and popular restaurants in Big Bear Lake. Tables fill up fast in the longtime standby, and little wonder: dishes from the Nepalese and Indian Himalayan regions such as palak aaloo (silky pureed spinach leaves and bite-size potatoes sautéed with onions, ginger, garlic, and homemade spices) and lamb makhni (tandoor-cooked lamb prepared with tomato-saffron and a curry cream sauce) are outstanding and come in rapid fire out of the small kitchen. It's a homey, relaxed setting—ski parkas and snow boots are welcome—and the staff is friendly and will happily guide you through the menu and suggest dishes. If you or members of your group are vegetarian or vegan, this is the perfect alternative to the burger and pizza places in Big Bear Village, as many of the dishes are vegan- and vegetarian-friendly.

Be sure to order a selection of naans (garlic, onion, cheese, and more), which receive especially enthusiastic reviews, and don’t miss the mo-mo, Tibetan flour dumplings stuffed with meat of vegetables and served with homemade achar dipping sauce and chutney. The house lemonade is also not to be missed—made with ginger for an extra flavor twist, it’s perfect for imbibing on the outdoor patio in the summer. Indian beers and mango lassis (yogurt shakes) are also offered, which round out the authentic Himalayan vibe. And do strike up a conversation with your server; some of the staff has summited Everest.