Routine is great for kids when they have daily responsibilities and commitments. But if you want a real adventure, then leave the security blanket behind and head to Big Bear for undiscovered adventures. I grabbed my kids: Kyla (16), Cole (12), and Hudson (4) and we headed south. Big Bear is Southern California’s alpine mountain resort with altitudes range from 6,750 to 8,200 feet. Big Bear Lake offers 23 miles of accessible and sparkling shoreline.
It was a weekend filled with “firsts” for all of us. It was our first family road trip since my daughter had turned 16. It was a great excuse to get away and give her some driving experience….in the desert…on a straight road….with not much to hit.
Before the trip, it seemed like we were “disagreeing” about anything and everything: homework, being grounded, potty training, too many video games, what to eat for dinner, what movie to see, etc. I often felt like I was “forcing” my kids to hang out together and sad that they didn’t seem eager to do things as a family anymore. With the age gap, it’s often really difficult to find something that they all agree on (besides fighting). We needed a vacation. But not just a vacation…we needed a reconnection, a renewal of sorts.
The Big Bear Lake Resort Association mapped out our trip for us. I warned them we were coming, and they helped us plan activities that would fit the age range for each kid. It was as if they knew exactly what each of us would love.
When we rolled into town, it was nighttime, but we could immediately feel the sleepy, mountain hospitality oozing out of every pore. The kids stopped playing their games, got off their phones, and began to marvel at the old fashioned, small-town charm of this lakeside community. It was love at first sight.
Cole asked, “Mom, can we move here?”
Kyla snarked, “at least if you retire here, then I’ll come visit you.”
Even Hudson woke up and pondered, “Where is the Big Bear?”
WHERE TO STAY
When I told the kids we were staying at a place called ‘Grandpa’s Axe’, they were even more intrigued, and began to conjure up potential anecdotes of its origin. Truth be told, it was a private residence that we found through Village Reservations Service. When we arrived at the cozy cabin, the serene and tranquil environment was shattered with squeals of delight as they kids ran from room to room, excited to be in a real mountain cabin. Each new discovery lead to a higher pitched frenzy – including a fireplace and a Jacuzzi outside on the deck overlooking the San Bernardino National Forest. It’s actually quite a normal amenity to offer Jacuzzis on site or even in the rooms. This particular cabin was 3 levels and slept 6 people. It had cable television, wireless internet, a full kitchen, and all the amenities, including toiletries in the bathroom. It was a 5-minute drive from Big Bear Boulevard, quaint shops, antique stores, restaurants, and the Marina. There were even fresh flowers and snacks to welcome us. How did they know that Gerbera Daisies were my favorite?
One of my favorite things was the old lantern. I found it humorous, and ironic, that the kids had to use modern technology (iPhone, the internet, and YouTube) in order to find out how to operate an old fashioned lantern. They were proud of themselves for figuring it out. We promptly took it outside as we relaxed in the Jacuzzi after a long day.
For more options and places to stay year round, visit:
WHAT TO DO
We were all eager to start our adventures. I kept the entire itinerary as a surprise, so the kids didn’t know what was ahead. This kept them on their toes and ready for the next activity.
The first day, we had a quick breakfast, and then headed to the Marina. We actually flew over Big Bear Lake with Action Aqua Flight. This was, without a doubt, one of the coolest things we have ever done. The best way to describe it is that it’s like Iron Man. This brand new sport is called Flyboarding. It is surprisingly simple and safe, so even kids can do it (16 and up). We were, essentially, strapped onto a board similar to a snowboard that is attached to a jet ski via a long tube. There are also two tubes attached to your arms. The jet skis fueled the momentum that propelled us out of the water and into the air. Nolan Warriner and Anthony Vargas did a great job training us and operating the jet skis. We had a blast (literally). This was definitely a “first time” experience for both my 16-year-old daughter and I, and one we will never forget.
Next, we took a charter fishing trip for a few hours with Fish Big Bear. Our captain and guide was former professional fisherman, Curt Dills. If anyone could teach my kids how to fish – he was the man. Hudson, my 4-year-old, caught his first fish that day: a 10-inch rainbow trout. It was a proud and memorable moment for all of us. With multiple lines, good bait, and many years of experience from our guides – we had no trouble catching fish our quota of fish very quickly.
At this point in our journey, Dan McKernan, from the Big Bear Lake Resort Association, joined us. He was our gracious host (and rock star tour guide) who kept us entertained the entire time. There are many trails to explore in the area, but Dan chose to take us on the Castle Rock Trail. It’s just off Big Bear Boulevard, 1.2 miles east of Big Bear Dam with a small marker on the trail. As we hiked, he shared stories, legends, history, and wildlife trivia along the way. Did you know that you can eat a single pine needle from a white fir pine tree and it will give you a full daily dose of Vitamin C?
At one point, Hudson asked Dan “Are we at your castle yet? Because I’m getting fricking tired!”.
I don’t know many 4-year-olds who could hike and climb the 2-mile trek up and back, but he was a trooper. I was amazed at the agility and determination of all the kids and their natural love of climbing. It was truly an incredible bonding experience for our entire family. Together, we climbed rocks, shared water, swapped stories, celebrated each peak, and then reveled in the glory of reaching the summit together, atop the perilous rocks that create the famed ‘Castle Rock’. We marveled at the majestic view of Big Bear Lake and took a new family photo. Somehow, we all looked older, wiser, and stronger than we had just 24 hours prior.
The next morning, we went on a kayak tour at the Fawnskin Marina. This is a branch of the Southern California Mountains Foundation that supports youth development through conservation initiatives for forest and outdoor lovers. Being in a kayak was a first for 2 out of 3 kids, but they took to it naturally and paddled their own. They loved the ability to be right on the water and learn about the lake. We saw a beaver dam and looked for American Eagles as we paddled around coots and mallards.
Then we went to the Big Bear Discovery Center for an educational tour that included the chance to see many animals and even touch their skins. Where else can you pet a real grizzly bear? Or put your head in its jaws or play with its teeth? Or touch a raccoon pelt? These were certainly “firsts” for all of us.
Just outside is the New Discovery Nature Zone with outdoor activities for kids that include mining for gold, art projects with nature, finding natural instruments, and more. Cole and I enjoyed a brief respite on the giant web as Kyla and Hudson taught themselves a song on the outdoor xylophone.
WHERE TO EAT
We had dinner at Dynasty, an authentic Szechuan Cuisine restaurant. Barry, the owner, was a gracious host and made some great suggestions. He is always up for a challenge to make new, creative dishes even if they are not on the menu. They are the only restaurant in town that offers live Maine lobster and live crab. Hudson enjoyed his first chicken wonton there. We had to convince him that it was like a chicken nugget, but much better. We also told him the sweet and sour sauce was like Asian ketchup. He, thankfully, agreed – and loved it. Since he tried something new, the rest of us made a pact to try something we had never tried before. We chose the shark fin with crabmeat soup. Real shark fin is actually verboten in California, but they had the next best thing – and it was pretty tasty. Our unanimous favorite was the Walnut Shrimp.
We had breakfast at Grizzly Manor Café and enjoyed watching Charlie, the cook; flip enormous pancakes on the grill. If you are looking for a quiet, healthy, politically correct place to eat, then this is NOT the place. They have big food and a big attitude. There is a lot of local flavor – and that is just from the customers. Real pancakes, real bacon, real people, real fun. It’s the quintessential epitome of Big Bear. We all signed our names on Big Bear stickers and stuck them to the wall with the other collection. Hudson even challenged Charlie to make bear pancakes. It truly is the big diner with a big heart. You know it has to be good because they don’t even have a website, yet they always have a line out the door.
Free, fit and fun
If you are traveling with kids, make sure you pick up the Kids Adventure Stamp Passport from any participating vendor or the Visitor’s Center. As your kids visit each activity in town, have them collect a stamp. As they collect stamps, they can turn in the passport to get free activities and also qualify for a chance to win bigger prizes like ski passes or a free trip to Big Bear.
when I asked the kids what they liked best, Kyla appreciated the hospitality and community feel of the area. She said it was very welcoming and comforting. Her favorite activity was Aqua Flight. Cole’s favorite was the hike to Castle Rock and learning about nature and trees. He discovered that he loved rock-climbing. Hudson’s favorite was catching a fish and the hike to Castel Rock. He loved climbing rocks and hearing the stories of the area.
As a single parent, I appreciated the simple pleasures of a small town and the warm and inviting people. I felt like a local after one day and could find my way around town very easily.
With so many special “firsts” and great memories, there is no doubt that Big Bear will hold a special place in our hearts for years to come. There is a magical essence about this place that I know our family will treasure forever.
When it was time to go, I had a hard time prying the kids away from Big Bear, or from the multitude of huggable bears around the city that they had come to love. Two days was not long enough, we can’t wait to return!
Big Bear is located in Southern California off Hwy 18 and Hwy 38. It is less than a tank of gas from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or Fresno.
For more information, visit the Big Bear Lake Resort Association