Having grown up in Utah, there was never any need to travel outside the Intermountain West to find a new recreational lake to play in. As I look back on my childhood, I remember fishing with my grandpa and my dad on many Saturdays at Mirror Lake in the Uintah Mountains, or at Starvation or Strawberry reservoirs.
As a teen, I loved water skiing at Flaming Gorge or Bear Lake. And then there was Lake Powell, which was the favorite destination of my church youth group where any number of activities could be enjoyed. Whether it was exploring ancient Native American ruins, jumping off cliffs into the water or midnight swims off the beach, Lake Powell was my personal favorite too.
When my wife, bred and raised on the West Coast, suggested we try something else last summer, I was a little skeptical. But for the sake of sustaining marital bliss, I agreed, and we took our children to the mountains of San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California.
Less than a two-hour scenic drive from my wife’s family home was our destination, Big Bear Lake. With a population of just over 5,000, the year-round resort town swells to more than 100,000 people on many weekends during the year, so I figured there had to be some attraction there, right?
Near the end of our drive up the canyon, my first impression was that Big Bear looked a lot like Jackson Hole or Banff, Alberta. Tall pines and other trees gave me the feeling of seclusion and peace. And then the shimmering water of the lake in the morning light came into view as we crossed a dam and I realized just how spectacular, and different, Big Bear, Calif., was.
In the shadow of the dam I saw a series of small, odd-shaped buildings on a rock island in the lake. Not much bigger than outhouses, my wife, Kim, told me that what I was seeing was China Island (the correct name is Garstin Island). On top of the giant boulders is a series of wonderful Oriental style buildings that were built in 1911 by Maude Garstin. The kitchen is one building, and each of the bedrooms and other living spaces are in separate buildings. Attainable only by boat, the cabin is pretty strange but still really cool in its own way.
Several types of watercraft, including what looked like a pirate ship in the distance, dotted the water in all directions. Motorboats and sailboats, as well as jet skis and paddle boats, were everywhere.
I became very interested in what else I might see.
Before we arrived at our lodging just outside of the village, we passed an alpine slide on the right and a large marina on the left. Cut into the trees above us were the groomed trails of a ski resort. Several miles away, at the opposite end of the lake, I could see a strange white building that resembled a robot with a giant eye. I couldn't begin to guess its purpose, but I hoped to find out.
Our cabin, nestled between several cabins for rent, was just on the outside of the village. Within a five minute walk was a movie theater, multiple restaurants and shops and a fabulous ice cream shop. Within a 10 minute walk was the shore of the lake.
I had to admit we were set for the weekend with all the comforts of home, yet in one of the most beautiful mountain settings I'd ever seen.
The pirate ship, I found out the next day, was the actual one-third-scale prop from the 1981 movie "Time Bandits." Remember the ship that was strapped to the bald giant's head when he walked out of the water? Yep, that was it. The boat is now used for pleasure tours around the lake, and yes, we did participate.
I guess Kim had been on it a lot previously because the crew recognized her. The captain entertained us on the cruise by firing his small canon at a competing tourist paddle boat. We also stopped in a small bay surrounded by large summer homes, one of them owned by Mel Blanc Jr., who came out on his deck and spoke through a megaphone as Bugs Bunny to us. Meanwhile, we heard the history of the lake, the boat and the village.
There is nothing quite as refreshing as a swim in a mountain lake. Big Bear was no exception. Although it took me several minutes, and the making of several commitments to my kids, I eventually submerged myself enough to swim out to a giant inflatable slide a few hundred feet from the beach. Yes, a literal beach with sand; something Californians can’t do without. Before the lifeguards allowed us to make the journey, they tested our swimming ability and made sure we wore life vests. There is nothing more invigorating than a dip in melted snow.
I found out the strange white building I mentioned before was a solar observatory. I never found out if it welcomed visitors or not, but it was interesting to see from a distance.
Big Bear was named for the numerous grizzly bears that were present when the lake was first explored by Benjamin Wilson in 1845. Up to that point, only the Serrano Indians had occupied the area for the previous 2,000 years. Bears can still be seen if you hike on one of the many trails that course through the mountains.
You never know what you might see at Big Bear. Numerous movies and television shows have been filmed there, including episodes of "Bonanza" and "Lassie" as well as movies such as "Paint your Wagon." Many of the lakeside summer homes are owned by celebrities whom you could find yourself standing behind in line at the Kmart.
During the weekend we spent there, there was a dune buggy gathering. The kids enjoyed keeping track of how many they could spot throughout the village parking lots and on the roads. Big Bear also has a museum, a performing arts center, a golf course, a zoo and a terrific Discovery Center, where you can pan for gold, throw hatchets, make crafts and go canoeing.
For eating out at breakfast, I'd highly recommend the Grizzly Bear Cafe. The cramped and busy setting was well worth the enormous breakfast we ate. No kidding, the pancakes were bigger than the dinner plates they were served on and came in lots of delicious varieties.
Whether it’s the alpine slide, a frigid dip in the lake, a walk through the tree-shaded village or a cruise on a pirate ship, visiting Big Bear was an extremely rewarding adventure, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Thanks for opening my eyes, Kim!
Chris A. Hale is an aviation maintenance technician for a major airline who has traveled extensively with his family. In his spare time he writes novels inspired by places he's been. Find out more about his books at www.Chrisahale.com