High above the north shore of Big Bear Lake, Amber Woodyard, a local guide, stands on one of her favourite trails. The air is fresh, clean and cool, scented by the pine forest that sweeps downhill toward the still, blue water. The view is breathtaking: in the distance, she points out the contours of Mount San Gorgonio, known locally as Old Greyback, the highest peak in Southern California. In the foreground the heavily forested hillsides look much the same as they would have done to this land’s early explorers. But the most remarkable thing about the view is not so much what we can see as what we can’t: a freeway. Take a look in any direction, and from here, it’s hard to believe that the bad-tempered, traffic-clogged arteries of Los Angeles are even on the same planet, never mind less than 100km away. I can’t hear a thing.
“The wilderness is what attracts people here,” says Woodyard, as her dog, Carly, scampers around her well-worn hiking boots. “It’s just so beautiful, and yet so close to LA. Where else in the world can you wake up by the beach and be up in the mountains in the afternoon?”
I can’t think of many. And so you’d think this remote mountain idyll, just a couple of hours’ drive from downtown LA, would be well known to Angelinos. Except it isn’t, not really. To most LA residents, Big Bear Lake is known as a ski resort. But thanks to better accommodation options and new and improved trails, the area has found a growing, year-round allure with urban escapees looking for a serious outdoors disconnect. I’d left my home in downtown LA to find that most un-LA of qualities: peace.
Woodyard and I met earlier that morning. The idea was to hike part of the 4,265km, Mexico-to-Canada Pacific Crest Trail which cuts through Big Bear. As we start along the path, she explains that, despite its remoteness, humans have made their home here among the trees for thousands of years. The first known inhabitants were the native Yuhaviatam (a Serrano word meaning “people of the trees”). But it wasn’t until 1845 that the area was given its modern name when a frontiersman named Benjamin Wilson went on the hunt for outlaws who’d been raiding ranches in nearby Riverside. His journey led him into the San Bernardino Mountains, which, at the time, were overrun with grizzly bears. As much a warning as a description, the name Big Bear Valley stuck.
As we continue east along the trail, snaking between pine trees, Woodyard points out Holcomb Valley to the north. It was there, in 1860, that a prospector called William Holcomb discovered a creek filled with flakes of gold while tracking a wounded bear’s blood trail. Holcomb was known as “the best sharpshooter west of the Mississippi” and had been encouraged to use his skills to hunt bears by his fellow prospectors who were in need of meat. He killed so many that he earned the nickname Grizzly Bill. But it was that chance discovery of gold in the backcountry that sparked Southern California’s largest gold rush, which lasted into the 1870s. In 1883, the valley was dammed and Big Bear Lake was formed.
If you know where to look, there are still remnants of the Gold Rush era scattered around the valley. In fact, while the recently opened Noon Lodge just outside Big Bear Lake Village has given the area its first proper destination hotel, it’s the 19th-century Old West cabins that have brought Big Bear its new Insta-allure. For good reason, it turns out: set in a private, five-acre ranch, my home for the weekend was as close to time travel as I’m ever likely to come. Built in 1870, it is, according to its owners, the oldest wooden building in Southern California, and, legend has it, was moved here from the long- defunct town of Doble by horse-drawn wagon in 1915 by a Swiss woman who lived here, alone, until 1988. She’d bought the house for $25.
It’s worth a bit more than that now. Even so, at $99/night (via Airbnb), it’s a bargain. After finishing our day’s hike, I return to the cabin just as dusk falls. The only sound I hear as I sit on the porch is a squirrel darting under the old outhouse. At around 2,100m above sea level, even in spring there’s a pine-fresh chill in the air. As the stars slowly appear between the trees, I imagine how those early prospectors might have felt as they searched among prowling bears for the prize among the pines.
Sadly, as I learned the next morning, men like Grizzly Bill hunted the California Grizzly to extinction by 1922. There are still bears in Big Bear, though. Or so says Bob Cisneros, the curator at Big Bear Alpine Zoo, a 20-minute drive from the cabin. “The California Grizzly is extinct and will never come back,” he explains, matter-of-factly. Even so, in the 1930s, the California Department of Fish and Game decided to translocate black bears from Yosemite. There are now around 400 of them on the mountain and 40,000 in the state. “So, we still have those moments when man meets animal.”
With sightings rare, the most reliable way to see a bear is at Bob’s zoo which is home to four: Zuni, Hucklebeary, Hollybeary and Pooh Bear. Even so, there are plenty of opportunities to see wildlife in its natural habitat. “We have a large bald-eagle population, as well as golden eagles, grey foxes, bobcats, mountain lions, ravens and Steller’s jays,” says Cisneros. “There’s a ton of birds here that you just won’t see in the city.”
The Big Bear Alpine Zoo is only a couple of miles south-east of Big Bear Village. With a population of just over 5,000, it’s a regular stayover for hikers attempting the Pacific Crest Trail but also weekend walkers who come for the area’s 100-odd miles of trails, many of which, like the new Skyline Trail, popular with mountain bikers, are only open in summer (or, as it’s increasingly known here, “adventure season”). There are a couple of good places to eat, such as down-home roadside diner Thelma’s and Local Tropicali, which does excellent Hawaiian poké bowls. The place has a character all of its own, and many businesses have wooden bear statues stationed outside to mark their territory. Outside the sheriff’s office, a bear in uniform stands guard.
Ron Van den Broeke is a brewer who moved to Big Bear from Rancho Cucamonga to help start the Big Bear Lake Brewing Company in 2014. The brewery has been a big hit with both townspeople and visitors. “People love us,” says Van den Broeke, taking a sip of his own blonde ale. “The water here is perfect for brewing. We make 590 barrels a year. And that’s all drunk right here on site,” he says, with a satisfied grin. “We make it just for us.”
But doesn’t he miss city life? Why Big Bear? “Well, look at it!” he says. And as he gestures toward the blue skies and pine trees, the faint smell of beer and wood-smoke in the air, it does feel like a silly question. But it’s also the people, he says, who live without the nine-to-five drudgery of downtown LA. “In the city it’s all bustling and hustling. People go to drink to get away from work. But people up here are already away from work – so everyone’s in a good mood.”
And then there’s the fishing. Taking Ron’s advice, on my last morning I follow fly-fishing guide Terrence Tinucci to a spot on the Santa Ana River. We’re on the hunt for brown trout, and Tinucci has come armed with an incredible array of lures which he hand-makes himself to look like local flies and other insects. “Fly-tying in itself is a very interesting artform,” he says. “We’re mimicking nature using hair, fibre, furs and feathers.”
I’d left downtown LA to find that most un-LA of qualities: peace
Tinucci has been fly fishing for 28 years. He tells me he’s studied freshwater biology and entomology, which means he knows which specific insects will be on the river at any given time of year. Once he’s strung some seasonally appropriate bugs on my line, we pull on our waders and head to the river where Terrence teaches me how to cast the line, moving it delicately across the water with one hand. “Put the other behind your back,” he advises, “like a sophisticated English gentleman.”
The river is crisp and cool as it makes its way down from 2,700m towards the Pacific Ocean. The aroma of wild peppermint mingles with the smell of the blackberries that grow along its banks. The only noise is the tranquil sound of running water splashing over rocks.
“This is what it’s all about,” says Tinucci. “Getting in tune with nature. When you’re here you’re not thinking about your chequebook bouncing or your bills or any of that,” he says, looking into the horizon. “Everything else goes away. You’ve escaped.”