A Relaxed Mountain Retreat That Offers More Than Snow

Havens | Big Bear Lake, Calif.
A Relaxed Mountain Retreat That Offers More Than Snow

Jill Connelly for The New York Times
By SAM HOOPER SAMUELS
Published: February 29, 2008

About a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, Big Bear Lake has a resort town and 22 miles of shoreline.

 
ONE HUNDRED miles east of the smog, gridlock and vanity of Los Angeles, cupped high in the pine forests of the San Bernardino Mountains, sits Big Bear Lake, a glistening splash of fresh alpine water ringed by 22 miles of shoreline. A resort town of the same name hugs the lake´s south shore and offers a multiseason retreat.
Big Bear Lake, Calif.
 
Working families, pro athletes, retirees, show-business personalities and outdoorsmen from Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas come for the slow pace, the stunning scenery, the bald eagles and, yes, the occasional actual big bear. And, in winter, there´s all that snow – foot upon foot of it.

“We bought here for the snowboarding,” said Marlene Taylor, who, with her husband, Tim, owns a construction business in Escondido, Calif. Big Bear has two major ski areas, Snow Summit and Bear Mountain; the latter is especially popular among snowboarders.

The Taylors´ four-bedroom house, perched on a mountainside and with clear views of the lake, is their second vacation home in Big Bear. The first was modest, but as their resources and their family grew, they traded up to their current place in the chic Castle Glen district. For $850,000 in 2004, they bought into a neighborhood where steep, twisting roads are lined by expansive and expensive new homes that sit on acre-plus lots and cost in the low millions.

House size was important to the Taylors. They sometimes bring a crowd of friends up for the weekend, and often spend holidays with an extended family of children and grandchildren. “We´ve had 16 people around the table,” Mr. Taylor said.

Although known for skiing, Big Bear is a four-season destination, with water sports in summer, leaf peeping in fall, and hiking and mountain biking until the snow flies.

“Nowadays, we love it even more in the summer,” Ms. Taylor said. “We have three businesses, 100 employees, and sometimes work 50 to 60 hours a week. I relax here.” She says she takes as much pleasure in a board game, an evening of poker or a good book out on the deck as she does on the slopes.

If Big Bear suggests an attitude adjustment, it also requires an altitude adjustment. The lake is 6,743 feet above sea level, and the surrounding terrain rises up to about 9,000 feet. The thin air is a draw for elite athletes like the boxers Fernando Vargas and Oscar De La Hoya. After training at over a mile above sea level, athletes feel super-oxygenated and have better stamina.

For many, though, the allure of schussing, water-skiing or training for the ring takes a back seat to natural pleasures. “My wife´s not a skier,” said Kent Kitselman, a restaurant owner in Orange, Calif., who has been coming to Big Bear his whole adult life. “She just loves to sit on the deck, read and watch the squirrels.”

Mr. Kitselman bought his first place as a bachelor, a one-bedroom cabin on a tiny bacon-strip lot where he could sleep after a day on the ski slopes. Now married and with grown children, he has traded up three times to his current place, a three-bedroom log house on nearly three acres of pine forest. He paid more than $1 million for it last year.

The Scene

Among mountain resorts in Southern California, Big Bear Lake is considered the least exclusive and most family friendly. Lake Arrowhead, 25 miles to the west, bans certain water sports and has no public beaches. At Big Bear, access is easy, and formality and designer labels count for little.

“You wouldn´t be kicked out if you wore a tie to the best restaurant in Big Bear,” Mr. Kitselman said. “But you´d be one of the few.”

Most restaurants are decidedly low key, serving tired families a hearty meal after a day on the slopes, the trails or the water. The Grizzly Manor Cafe is a local favorite. Open for breakfast and lunch, its signature creation is “the Blob”: a heart-stopping combination of eggs, cheese, bacon and biscuits.

Stores are mostly utilitarian, with a Kmart and a grocery on the main strip. The Village, a small retail district, has a few boutiques that cater to tourists seeking clothing and souvenirs.

When the powder is good, a ski-party atmosphere pervades the town. Traffic can be intense. On a recent weekend after a perfect snowfall, cars were bumper to bumper along Big Bear Boulevard. Instead of a round of horn-honking, though, people piled out of their stopped cars for an impromptu snowball fight.

Pros

The weather in Big Bear Lake is reliably good. The sun shines more than 300 days a year; it´s so dependable that the town is home to the Big Bear Solar Observatory, which is operated by the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Much of the land that surrounds the town is part of the San Bernardino National Forest.

Cons

Shopping is limited. Locals make the 40-mile drive down the mountain to San Bernardino to visit Trader Joe´s or Costco. And because the local population is small, and tourists clear out during the week, Big Bear Lake does not support a large number of fine restaurants.

The Real Estate Market

Although Big Bear Lake proper is clearly defined along the south shore, there are neighborhoods all around the lake, both in town and in the surrounding unincorporated areas of San Bernardino County.

Properties range from condos that can run for less than $200,000, local real estate agents say, all the way to sprawling lakeside homes for seven figures. Shoreline properties bring a premium. The deeper the water out your door, the steeper the price you´ll pay. One recent sale that raised eyebrows was an 8,000-square-foot log house that went for $3.5 million last November. With six bedrooms and 11 bathrooms, its price was driven by its lakeside location.

The number of homes sold has declined in each of the past two years. But, said Mike Wochner, a local real estate agent, “properties that are priced well are still selling.”

There is some new construction, mainly homes of more than $1 million. Big Bear won´t overdevelop, though, for two reasons. There is a limit to how wide the town can spread because of the public parklands that abut it. And Big Bear Lake has a limited aquifer, and its remote location would make it impractical to pipe in water.

And there are entry-level deals. Sugarloaf is a charming neighborhood with a mix of small houses and cabins on tiny lots. There are gingerbread Victorian-style cottages side by side with rough log cabins and tidy Capes. Houses there often sell for around $300,000.

Another option for budget buyers is government-lease cabins. A colony of cabins built in the 1920s on government land sits mostly on the north shore. Buyers purchase the cabins, but not the land beneath, which must be rented from the government. Owners pay a lease of perhaps $700 to $1,200 a year, but pay no property taxes.

LAY OF THE LAND

POPULATION 6,169, according to a 2006 estimate by the Census Bureau.

SIZE 6.6 square miles.

WHO´S BUYING Families in search of an outdoorsy getaway, the occasional Hollywood celebrity looking for someplace to be a neighbor rather than a star, and a smattering of elite athletes who train at altitude.

GETTING THERE High in the San Bernardino Mountains, Big Bear Lake is about 100 miles east from the heart of Los Angeles, 145 miles north of San Diego and 215 miles southwest of Las Vegas. For those with their own private planes, there is a small airport in Big Bear Lake.

WHILE YOU´RE LOOKING The region abounds in lodges and bed-and-breakfasts. At the Black Forest Lodge (41121 Big Bear Boulevard, 909-866-2166; www.blackforestlodge.com), prices range from $65 for a standard room midweek to more than $300 a night for a cabin on a weekend.

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