Trip Report: Big Bear Mountain Ski Resort 8
By Kevin Rice, Guest Author

If someone says Los Angeles to you, what comes to mind? Beaches, palm trees, sunshine and smog are probably good bets. But if I said mountains, pine trees, crisp mountain air and snow you’d probably think I was crazy. But it turns out that both of these things can be true for Los Angeles, because LA is actually quite close to some very large mountains that have enough snowfall in the winter to support skiing, even if it is in the 60’s down in the city.

Big Bear Mountain Ski Resort and its closely related cousin, Summit Ski Resort, are located in the majestic San Bernardino National Forest, due North (and slightly West) of the City of Angels.

Depending on precisely where you are staying in the very spread out LA megalopolis, getting to one of them could be anywhere from a one to three hour drive. The last part of the drive is on a small two-lane road in San Bernardino Mountains, mountains that on a good clear day winter day are plainly visible from LA itself.

As I was on business in LA the week before a previously planned ski trip out West, I had my skis with me, which helped justify an excursion to the local resorts. This is not the first time I’ve been in this situation but I’ve always nixed it previously as being too much trouble to be worth it. But for some reason, this time around I decided to give it a go.

As I was leaving my hotel for the resort, a last minute phone call for directions revealed that it is often wise to buy lift tickets in advance as Big Bear often sells out for the day. Luckily the resort representative thought this day would not be a problem, so throwing caution to the wind, and a map across my knees, I drove off towards the big mountains.

The drive itself was about 110 miles from hotel in Anaheim, which is well south of “LA” the city. Because of the twisty mountain road I mentioned earlier, it took slightly over 2 hours to reach.

As I got to the Big Bear Lake area (which is right below Big Bear Mountain), I had already passed numerous mountain vacation homes, several smallish towns, and a winter “tube” park. This is a very popular recreation spot for Los Angelesians, and I was not alone.

As I turned into Bear Mountain Resort, I noted the close by entrance to Summit Ski Resort, and a few miles back another smaller resort whose name I didn’t quite catch through the window. I’d selected Big Bear Mountain simply because it claimed to have more “expert” terrain and longer runs than Summit. It should be noted that the same company owns both.

Pulling into the resort main road, I saw satellite parking about a half-mile away being serviced by open flat bed trucks with the skiers all standing -; pass.

Finally at the main resort area, there seemed to plenty of paved parking, although some is permit only, and it was very full. I cheated and went right to the front empty spots, parked, bought a “half-day” lift ticket for $30 dollars and plied for information. It turns out that the permit parking lies right next to a nearby non-permit side row so I moved the car 20 feet, threw my stuff and headed for the nearest lift.

At the bottom lift area, the snow seemed dry, fluffy and promising. Not consulting the map, I gleefully made my way down some short but steep blue diamond runs and found myself in the middle of the board park facing the large half-pipe with no where to go. Whoops. With as much aplomb as I could muster I skied down the middle of the thing and headed to another lift. No one seemed to notice my poor planning.

At the top of a new peak, the wind was noticeable and it was here that I discovered what I think is probably the “big issue” with the area -; ice. The top was very icy and wind-blown hard-pack. It was quite challenging to set any sort of edge for several seconds from the top before finding softer snow and this was disconcerting to say the least.

Back at the bottom, I decided it was time to check the large resort map behind the main lift in the middle of things. Got anything without ice, please?

After staring at it for awhile, it seemed clear that Big Bear Mountain Resort is larger with more varied terrain than many of close by DC resort areas. The mountains are higher at around 9,000 feet of elevation, and while I am guessing, it probably snows more too. Having said that, there’s plenty of snow making equipment to be seen and the ice seemed to confirm, in my mind, the presence of the infamous “freeze/thaw cycle” -; you know where it gets really warm during the day, and then everything freezes up rock solid when the sun goes down…

While contemplating these things, I oriented myself on the main resort map. I had started off on a lift called the “Goldmine” and skied down some blues that dumped right into the snowboard park. After that, I’d ventured farther to the right to the much longer “Big Bear High Speed Quad” which put me atop the “Gold Mine Mountain.” It was here that I discovered the ice and wind, as I skied down some combination of blue and black runs that started off as “Claim Jumper” and ended at a flat green at the bottom.

After studying the map a few more moments, I’d decided to try the other main lift, Access Express High Speed Quad, which was to my left facing the mountain. It services a beginner’s area but connects to another lift, Bear Peak, that services the highest part of the resort called Bear Peak Mountain. There is another lift somewhere in the middle which I’d missed that went back to another mountain called “Silver Mountain” with some blues and short double-black diamonds.

I recalled from the website that Bear Peak is home to the double-black Geronimo which is the longest run in the resort. It sounded really promising.

Taking Access, I skied down through the beginner sections, which were very flat. There was actually some nice fluffy snow about 1-2 inches deep on a unbelievably short blue run called “Six Shooter” proceeding the greens just off the lift -; but it couldn’t have been more than a few second’s ride and was intriguingly disappointing. As I continued to warm up, I could see Geronimo off in the distance coming off a high peak. It looked somewhat daunting.

Again, it was somewhere at this point that I realized something was different than what I am used to -; snowboarders seemed to be everywhere. Actually it wasn’t just that they were everywhere, they are everywhere in the Mid-Atlantic too, but I was in the distinct minority with my skis! As I looked around to pick out skiers, I noticed that in fact there were hardly any to be found. The place was one giant snowboard park!

Finally warmed up, I made my way over to the Big Bear Peak lift via the Access Express beginner’s lift area. At the top, I dallied some and took in the view, which was stupendous. To the west and south lay Big Bear Lake and to the east were some even larger snow capped mountains -; there was a sign with a name and elevation data, “San Gorgonio Mountain, Elevation 11,502 feet.”

The air was crisp and clean; the stiff wind was bracing, if not a bit chilly. But I soon was no longer able to come up with other things to do; I skied down the short connecting trail to Geronimo and peered over the edge. I took a few snaps, put a blind-fold on, smoked a last cigarette (figuratively speaking of course) and stepped off into oblivion, “Geronimooooooooooooooo…”

Actually I am greatly exaggerating. The run was similar in incline to “Drop In” at Whitetail and about two to three times as long. Perhaps its great difficulty lie in the icy patches over parts of it but other than that I felt it had been oversold.

At the bottom I discovered another connecting trail to a duplicate drop -; “oh, there’s more?” -; but then I was at the bottom of the Bear Peak Lift again. From here, I then connected this to “Six Shooter” via a flat connecting trail, and this dumped me right out onto the greens and the bottom lift in the beginner area. It made for a long run, which was more disappointing than exciting, but it did have great views.

In the end, the question is -; was it worth it? I think the answer is no. Even though I enjoyed myself overall, especially the commanding views of the surrounding mountains, the skiing was really not that good. Perhaps my expectations had been too high. But I felt that the runs were short and choppy, and the often icy, hard-packed, wind shorn tops disconcerting. Perhaps if I had tried the other peak, I’d have found something more enjoyable, but I stayed where I was.

So if you are in LA and really want to go skiing, (and driving eight hours to Mammoth is right out) then perhaps this will scratch your itch. Or try Summit Resort right next door, perhaps it’s more skiable. I’m curious myself and would like not to feel compelled again without good cause!

Related Links

Reader Comments

John Sherwood
February 26, 2002
I've had simmilar experiences skiing some of the southern New Hampshire ski areas--better to drive the extra miles and go to a big VT resort.
February 27, 2002
Thanks for the article Kevin. This was just in time. I'll be in LA in two weeks and was interested in going to Big Bear. Maybe now I'll try Summit or drive a little farther to Mt. Baldy or Shasta. I'll let you know.
February 27, 2002
Roy, Big Bear and Summit both have websites. I probably should've included them in the article.

I've also found this website valuable for resort weather trends.

Have a good time!
February 27, 2002
Enjoyed your report. When I was a young kid I lived in LA area for three yrs, but never skied at the local areas. My older siblings did and I used to wonder what I missed. Sounds like terrain is potentially bigger than what we have in local DC area, but snow conditions just as iffy, maybe worse. I have heard that when the snow is good those local LA areas are mobbed beyond belief.
Steve T.
March 5, 2002
Good article, Kevin! I skied Snow Summit at Big Bear Lake (1200 ft. vertical) in March, 1999, also after a business trip to Costa Mesa, CA. Had a great fun time! Good snow coverage for early spring, some slushy conditions when the sun came out, challenging terrain park, varied trail network for all skill levels, several challenging blues and (double) blacks (using the "Western rating system"). I was just getting into some more advanced skiing myself that season, so falling down into piles of soft wet snow did not faze me in the least. On one of my favorite trails (The Wall under lift 6), the P.A. system played classic rock -- good motivator for a 50 year old skier like myself! Not real crowded on the Sunday I went. Friendly staff. Would definitely go back if I were in the area, but in colder weather.
March 8, 2002
If I'm in LA again next winter, I'll bring my skis and try one of the other places. Maybe I can surf in the morning, and ski in the afternoon! ;-)
March 11, 2002
Well I'm in LA, and against your advice, I went to Big Bear. Since it had a "26 to 56 inch base", and Snow Summit was boasting an 8 inch base, I went to the Bear.

Your definitely in California with 1 skier to every 10 boarders. The few skiers I did see were sporting straight skis and step in boots (I didn't see anything post 1990 equipment).

Conditions were ok considering what were used to on the east coast. In the morning it was spring corn. By noon, it was mashed potatoes as the sun was brutal. I used by Saloman snowblades and actually had some fun through the terrain parks (your right, their aren't many runs without jumps and halfpipes).

It was great to go ski but it's not on my list to get back soon. So I left early and went to the beach to watch the sunset. 9000 feet above sea level to sea level in one day. Kinda weird.
March 14, 2002
Roy, I hope my negitive thoughts didn't influence you too much! LA is one of the few areas of the world I can think of where you can go skiing in the morning, and surfing in the afternoon (or vice-versa). And that's pretty cool!
So thinking about it that way, you did something unique! I'm right behind you next time I go out there in the winter time! ;-)

Ski and Tell

Snowcat got your tongue?

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