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36 Hours in Big Bear Lake, California: An Off-Season Day Trip

Nilza lived in Pasadena, California, where she enjoyed adventuring as far as she could around SoCal on her days or weekends off.

Seasons of Big Bear

Though a drought-prone state, California still has its fair share of inland water attractions and sights. This past June, my boyfriend and I took a day trip to explore one of those inland water beauties, Big Bear Lake.

Nestled in the San Bernardino Mountains, this small seven-mile lake draws visitors year-round. Big Bear has two peak seasons, winter and summer. During the winter peak, December through February, Big Bear is known for its cabins and skiing. Once the snow melts away and the spring brings along beautiful flowers and greenery, the lake becomes the focus for locals and visitors alike. The summer peak season for Big Bear runs July 1st through Labor Day.

Regardless of the season, Big Bear offers a quaint and easy-to-navigate downtown area called The Village, with shopping, bars, restaurants and a movie theater. Staying true to its name, Big Bear is littered with statues, carvings, and pictures of bears you will not be able to keep count of.

One of the many gorgeous views on the drive to or from Big Bear via CA-18.

One of the many gorgeous views on the drive to or from Big Bear via CA-18.

Lodging in the Off-Season

As a Southern California resident, I have year-round access to many of the cities and places that attract tourists to the Golden State. This allows me the convenience of visiting places during off or low seasons to save money and avoid the overcrowding that can occur during a peak. As a general personal travel preference, I enjoy spending the night wherever I take a day trip to, as driving from one place to another in California often takes longer than anticipated. Traffic can easily suck the energy out of you, serving as a buzzkill before you even begin your small getaway. If possible, make your day trips a true 24 hours to enjoy and explore as much of your getaway as you can.

The biggest benefit to visiting Big Bear in the summer off-season is the variety of inexpensive lodging. I recommend a simple Google search with the keywords, "Big Bear cabins" or "Big Bear hotels" to discover lodging. If you enjoy using Airbnb, you will find that searching "Big Bear Lake" as your destination produces a range of charming homes and cabins. Both Airbnb and Google can help you find options for solo travelers, couples, or groups.

Google led me to find the very affordable, adorable, and family-managed Oak Knoll Lodge & Cabins. The property consisted of 15 cabins that ranged in occupancy size and amenities. When traveling to the mountains, I enjoy the aesthetics and coziness of a cabin, so I was thrilled to find a spot at a reasonable price (under $90). One great amenity included in most of the cabins at Oak Knoll Lodge & Cabin is the kitchenette area and full-size fridge. Though Big Bear offers plenty of eateries to try, the option to cook your own food or store snacks and leftovers is a plus.

Cabin number six at Oak Knoll Lodge and Cabin.

Cabin number six at Oak Knoll Lodge and Cabin.

Our small cabin was the perfect size for two!

Our small cabin was the perfect size for two!

Exploring the Village

Once we settled into our cabin, my boyfriend and I immediately went to explore the downtown area known as The Village. Our first priority was food as we were hungry from the drive. Due to spotty cell phone service, we were unable to Yelp or Google potential places to eat. Instead, we decided to be adventurous and walk around downtown until we found a restaurant that appealed to our appetite. Though The Village was a walkable 1.3 miles from our cabin, we utilized the ample and free public parking located behind the downtown's visitor center.

If you check The Village's directory, you'll find over a dozen places to eat. Every couple of steps you take in the small downtown area will lead you to food or shopping. For lunch, we ate at Fire Rock Burgers and Brews for specialty burgers. I picked my lunch entree solely off the fact that my burger came topped with mac and cheese and barbecue sauce. Though the food was good, we wish we had made it a few more steps down the sidewalk to try the highly rated 572 Social Kitchen and Lounge.

Once our hunger was satisfied, we walked around leisurely instead of on the hunt for food. If you're more of a planner or like to know what is in the area, the Visitor Center is a great stop to get more information and a map of Big Bear. At a leisurely pace, the entire downtown loop takes less than 20 minutes because of its small size. However, a loop around downtown is full of diversions when you have art galleries, souvenir shops, and clothing boutiques that will attract your attention.

Lunch at Fire Rock Burgers & Brews.

Lunch at Fire Rock Burgers & Brews.

Nighttime in the Village

As we explored the downtown area, it was easy to note the bars and sole club, AV Nightclub. If you're 21+, plenty of bars offer live music or pool to enjoy with a drink in the evening hours. Keep in mind that Big Bear is relatively rural, making common luxuries like the rideshare apps Lyft and Uber sometimes inaccessible. Cell phone reception is very spotty in this mountain town—even if you get the app to work, you may discover there are no available drivers. Thankfully the original rideshare, taxis, are accessible and active in the downtown area, so you'll have a safe way to get back to your lodging.

Though the nightlife appeared to be picking up as shops closed down for the evening, my boyfriend and I opted to go to the local theatre to watch a newly released film. Between the drive up to Big Bear, and our afternoon exploration, we decided a relaxing evening with a movie and rest was plenty entertaining.

Kayaking on Big Bear Lake

With a full night of rest, I was ecstatic to wake up the next day to explore the lake. Even before arriving in Big Bear, I was set on enjoying the lake by experiencing some type of water activity. Using our cabin's Wi-Fi, we utilized Google to explore lakeside activity options.

Surrounding the lake are plenty of little shops that offer rentals for kayaking, paddle boarding, paddle boats, fishing gear, and bikes. Even without access to Wi-Fi and Google, a simple drive along Big Bear Boulevard will lead you to find shops offering any lake activity you could be interested in. The large signs advertising these activities are hard to miss.

Getting ready to take the kayak into the lake.

Getting ready to take the kayak into the lake.

We ultimately picked a random rental shop next to Boulder Bay Park for a kayak rental for two that ran us $35 for an hour. True to its name, the park offers access to a part of the lake where an island of boulders sit, beckoning your exploration. Thanks to our kayak rental, we kayaked the few feet needed from the shore to arrive at the edge of the island of boulders where we climbed the rocks to get a higher view of the area.

Though June may bring to mind thoughts of warmth and summer, in the mountains of Big Bear you need a jacket or sweater for the cool lake breeze and 60-degree weather. While kayaking I sported a sweater and jean jacket to keep warm. Kayaking across the small area closest to Boulder Bay gave us spectacular backyard views of the houses that are lucky enough to be right on the lake.

For a small area like Boulder Park, a 30-minute kayak rental will suffice, but we enjoyed taking our time rowing and sometimes just floating. If you like to swim (mind you the water is chilly in June), Boulder Bay Park is one of the many access points to enter the lake for swimming as boats are not allowed in this area. If you prefer to enjoy the view of the lake, there is a fenced dock for you to walk or picnic tables to enjoy a meal or snack.

36 Hours in Big Bear

After a slight workout from kayaking, we ended our Big Bear adventure with ice cream in the Village Sweet Shoppe. For a Sunday, we were surprised to encounter such a busy and bustling downtown. Even in the off-season, Big Bear attracts people to come explore its small but lively town. Big Bear's summer off-season was a beautiful day trip, so I can only imagine what it might have to offer during the peak of a snowy winter or warm summer.

Questions & Answers

Question: When is the off-season for Bear Lake, California?

Answer: Spring off-season is considered from April to June. Then, the off-season for fall is between September and October.

© 2017 Nilza Marie Santana-Castillo