Mini Venture – Big Bear Winter Drive

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Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

Today I wanted to get out and renew my Annual National Parks Pass for 2016 which meant I was going on a winter drive to get a new one. One of the great benefits of living in the Mojave Desert is knowing how close it borders several of California’s mountain ranges, particularly the San Bernardino mountain range. During the winter, this becomes one of my favorite local mountain destinations. It is home to many beautiful mountains communities including the popular city of Big Bear. The drive there is only an hour via Highway 18 from Victorville and in the winter, it can often be a pretty tricky run. Chains are a must if you plan on going up the back way after a heavy snowfall. I was personally up for a day venture to Big Bear and lucky for me, there were no chains required this day.

“The town of Lucerne is the crossroads for the drive to Big Bear.”

San Bernardino Mountains

The San Bernardino Mountains are a high and rugged mountain range in Southern California in the United States. Situated north and northeast of San Bernardino and spanning two California counties, the range tops out at 11,489 ft (3,502 m) at San Gorgonio Mountain, the tallest peak in all of Southern California. The San Bernardinos form a significant region of wilderness and are popular for hiking and skiing.

The mountains were formed about eleven million years ago by tectonic activity along the San Andreas Fault, and are still actively rising. Many local rivers originate in the range, which receives significantly more precipitation than the surrounding desert. The range’s unique and varying environment allows it to maintain some of the greatest biodiversity in the state. For over 10,000 years, the San Bernardinos and their surrounds have been inhabited by indigenous peoples, who used the mountains as a summer hunting ground.

Spanish explorers first encountered the San Bernardinos in the late 18th century, naming the eponymous San Bernardino Valley at its base. European settlement of the region progressed slowly until 1860, when the mountains became the focus of the largest gold rush ever to occur in Southern California. Waves of settlers brought in by the gold rush populated the lowlands around the San Bernardinos, and began to tap the mountains’ rich timber and water resources on a large scale by the late 19th century.

Recreational development of the range began in the early 20th century, when mountain resorts were built around new irrigation reservoirs. Since then, the mountains have been extensively engineered for transportation and water supply purposes. Four major state highways and the California Aqueduct traverse the mountains today; these developments have all had significant impacts on area wildlife and plant communities.(Source: Wikipedia)

“I stopped at the Stanfield Cuttoff and took notice of how the entirety of Big Bear Lake was frozen.”

“The guardrail had some pretty fantastic icicle action happening.”

Big Bear Lake, CA

GPS Coordinates: 34.2448° N, 116.9376° W
Big Bear Lake was inhabited by the indigenous Serrano Indians for over 2,000 years before it was explored by Benjamin Wilson and his party. Once populated by only the natives and the grizzly bears, from which the area received its name, the population of the Big Bear Valley grew rapidly during the Southern California Gold Rush from 1861 to 1912. Grizzly bears were not found in the region after 1908. Today, there are black bears in the region since their introduction in 1933, and they are sometimes sighted in residential areas.

A trip to Big Bear Lake from San Bernardino took two days on horse-drawn coaches. Kirk Phillips was a local who took a trip to New York City and saw the world’s first bus line. This inspired him to create the world’s second bus line from San Bernardino to Big Bear Valley using White trucks with several rows of seats. This made it possible for the villages to grow and for Big Bear Lake to become the first mountain recreation area in Southern California.

Many people traveled to enjoy recreation on the lake, however, another major draw was the natural hot spring. Emile Jesserun bought 40 acres (16 ha) of land that included the hot spring and built the first major resort in Big Bear, the Pan Hot Springs Hotel, in 1921.

This resort was followed with others that strived to be the best by creating a country club atmosphere complete with the amenities required to lure the Hollywood celebrities of the time including Cecil B. DeMille, Shirley Temple, and Ginger Rogers.(Source: Wikipedia)

“The setting sun combined with heavy winter clouds brings out some fantastic hues.”

Cruising through Downtown

Once I arrived in the downtown region off Pine Knot Ave, it was time to find a parking spot and head over to the Big Bear Visitor Center. Renewing my National Parks Pass came at a single fee of $80 bucks. It’s a great deal with as often as I venture to National Parks and it also doubles as an “Adventure Pass” which allows you to park on many of the mountain roads here in Southern California without getting a citation. As I walked in to the Visitor Center, I was bummed to learn that they don’t carry the passes anymore. They said I would have to visit the Discovery Center across the lake, but they were not open on a Tuesday. I thought that was a rather strange day to be closed, but It just gave me a reason to head up here again in a few days. I didn’t want to make this trip a waste, so I took a stroll through the snow covered downtown area.

“These fire pits are set up every couple of blocks and come in very handy when you need to warm up a bit.”

“The architectural facade of these shops combined with snow all over the ground made me feel like I was in the Bavarian Alps again.”

It was time to go home and see if I could catch some of that golden hour magic along the way. Even though the roads were mostly clear of heavy snow, there was the occasional patch of black ice, which can get pretty hairy if you’re not paying attention and hit it at a good speed. Fortunately I’ve had enough experience with these dangers that I can spot them just about anywhere except when the black ice is covered by fresh snowfall, that’s when it gets unpredictable. The drive back was proving to be full of many photo opportunities so naturally it became a “stop, shoot, drive” kind of trip.


Getting past the Baldwin Lake area, Highway 18 ascends for a brief moment before starting the big, windy descent down to the Mojave Desert below. If the sun is just right and there aren’t many clouds in the way, the peaks and terrain that form the Rodman Mountains Wilderness Area come into view with an extremely beautiful contrast of shadow and golden light. If you know where to look, you can even see the Avawatz Mountains which sit just southeast of Death Valley or if you look east on a particularly clear day, you can even see that 12,637 ft (3,852 m) giant, Humphrey’s Peak, an impressive 300 miles (483 km) away in Arizona.

“The sun blasts it’s golden light on the Rodman Mountains Wilderness Area in the Mojave Desert.”

“A spectacular sunset paints the skies behind the San Bernardino Mountains shot from Lucerne Valley.”

I didn’t get my National Parks pass, but the trip to Big Bear was absolutely worth the it. The drive there and back never gets old, especially in the winter time when the snow has dumped all over the peaks. I will be heading back again and getting my pass now that I know where to go.

Until the next travel blog, remember to get out there and “Shoot the Planet!”



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