There’s probably nobody in Big Bear Lake that Jim Lyons doesn’t know, and probably no one who doesn’t know him.
The local historian, off-roader, search-and-rescue commander and trail angel is at the wheel of a 12-passenger, military-style vehicle from Big Bear Off-Road Adventures. We are hanging on for dear life, screaming and laughing as he plows over bumps and through puddles, courtesy of last night’s glorious storm, complete with thunder, lightning and hail.
Lyons is showcasing the back roads north of the lake and we are drinking in magnificent views of water, snow-covered mountains, the desert below, and vast green valleys that Hollywood finds irresistible for film and television. As we lurch along, Lyons entertains us with tales of Big Bear’s history and the people who made it colorful. Some involve hundreds of gold miners from the mid-1800s, and though they are long gone, there still is evidence of a tenacious few who continue the quest. Lyons points out the white posts that mark their claims. It’s all a bit more civilized today than during the California Gold Rush, when claim jumpers could be found swinging from a nearby tree.
The Big Bear Lake region is generally synonymous with winter sports, but spring, summer and fall in this mountain paradise offer a myriad of activities for all ages.
Kids and adults alike will enjoy the Big Bear Discovery Center, staffed mostly by volunteers from the Southern California Mountains Foundation. Indoors is a collection of stuffed forest animals and birds — all died natural deaths — including one very impressive grizzly bear. Plenty of visitors will see them because “the San Bernardino National Forest is the most visited national forest in the U.S.,” says Meredith Brandon, who teaches kids about the flora and fauna of the area.
Outdoors is the Nature Discovery Zone, an “adventure space” designed to reconnect kids with nature with areas for climbing, crawling, building, digging, playing music, and even resting, although it’s hard to imagine 2- to 7-year-olds doing much of that.
Many kids today are not in touch with the outdoors, Brandon explains, so the Zone is here to show them all the possibilities.
Back in the off-road vehicle, we near the end of our ride when Lyons stops to help some “through-hikers” on the Pacific Crest Trail, which parallels the north shore of the lake. He hauls two large, plastic water jugs to hikers who are giving their feet a break under a tree. They began their journey in mid-April in Campo near the Mexican border, and plan to finish the 2,627-mile trek at the Canadian border by November 1. It will take 20 miles a day and new shoes every 600 to 700 miles.
Two of the hikers join us for the ride into town, where they’ll find a hostel bed and ample food.
“I’ve already lost about 10 pounds,” says one, who doesn’t look like he can afford it. “We’d never make it if it weren’t for guys like (Lyons).”
We also can brag that we’ve hiked the Pacific Crest Trail — for about two hours.
Dan McKernan, outdoor aficionado and marketing director for the Big Bear Lake Resort Association, led us on a nature hike earlier that yielded encounters with vibrant wildflowers, wondrous views (plenty of these in Big Bear), and a blue-tailed, Coronado skink. The critter was freed, but not before he laid his tiny teeth into McKernan’s finger.
Which reminds me … We are hungry. Our group gathers at the Himalayan Restaurant in Big Bear Village where we decide to share six or seven Indian and Nepalese dishes. Each is flavorful, unique and perfectly seasoned. Bonus for me: most are gluten-free. Owner Keshar Bhandari gets a resounding “Yes!” when he inquires whether all is good.
For information about activities, dining and lodging at Big Bear Lake, visit bigbear.com, or call (800) 4-BIG-BEAR (800-424-4232). Stay two or more nights at a participating lodge and get a gas card worth $50 to $100, and qualify for a drawing for a $500 gas card.