As California mitigates health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, some travel restrictions may remain in certain communities. Call the local and regional tourism offices to learn more about the restrictions in your intended destination. Thank you for reading, and stay safe.
Summer is officially over, so it's time you get inspired by the fall foliage and prepare for an autumn adventure in one of the Golden State’s most popular getaway destinations. Follow the call for freedom in the Sierra Nevada, where the quaint mountain towns of Mammoth Lakes and Big Bear Lake are preparing for the next holiday season. But before you start packing your favorite California-made snacks for the road or book your stay at one of California’s top ski resorts for an early white Christmas, you may need to decide which destination will leave you the most satisfied and revitalized.
Big Bear vs. Mammoth can be a tough decision. While skiing is one of the most fun activities in late fall and winter, both destinations offer much more than sweet slopes. With miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails; an abundance of fishing spots and watersports; and of course, world-class skiing and snowboarding; these serene getaways provide plenty of outdoor activities year-round. When it comes to Mammoth Mountain vs. Big Bear, here’s what you need to know.
Big Bear and Big Bear Lake
This unique mountain community has a rich history. Big Bear was initially inhabited solely by the indigenous Serrano people and grizzly bears—the animals that gave the area its name. But the valley’s beauty was eventually found by treasure-seekers, who settled in Big Bear following the discovery of gold in 1855. The ensuing rapid population growth led the town to become one of the best ski spots in SoCal. In 1912, a dam was built and Kirk Phillips initiated the world’s second bus line from San Bernardino to Big Bear Valley, making the mountains and lake more accessible to all.
Let the two-hour drive from Los Angeles along State Route 330 surprise you. Driving past Running Springs to the very heart of San Bernardino National Forest, you’d never expect the sudden change in scenery that foreshadows the Big Bear adventures you’re about to witness. The urban, palm-lined streets of SoCal give way to alpine terrain covered in green forests of conifer Coast Douglas-fir, Ponderosa pine, white fir, Jeffrey Pine, and lodgepole pine. Prepare for mountains, wildlife, and seclusion amidst nature—although grizzly bears no longer roam the woods, black bears and bald eagles have been spotted here.
Things to do in Big Bear
It seems like Big Bear has it all—fishing, water and winter sports, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, tours, golf courses, campgrounds, restaurants, entertainment, and shopping. With so many activities and only a limited amount of time, make sure you have a clear itinerary that allows you to check off the items on your Big Bear bucket list.
First, check in to your Big Bear Cool Cabins vacation rental—there are over 350 houses, cabins, and condos to choose from—and make your stay feel just like home. Then, embark on a three-hour private fishing trip with Big Bear Charter Fishing for professional guidance on trout and bass fishing in Big Bear, and admire the sun setting over the lake as another day comes to a close. Head to Santana and Mavericks on Big Bear Boulevard to enjoy stunning views from the outdoor patio while feasting on American, Mexican, Chinese, Italian, or French cuisine. Whether you’re craving macaroni and cheese, filet mignon, poulet à la crème, or teriyaki chicken, there's a dish for all taste buds. Stroll through Big Bear Village’s streets before making it an early night to rest and prepare for all that’s about to come.
Start the next day with a thrilling adrenaline boost by flying through the forest with Action Tours. Strap into the harness and experience the famous Big Bear zipline at speeds up to 35 miles per hour. Catch glimpses of Johnson Valley and Mount San Gorgonio, trek along a teetering suspension bridge, and enjoy an off-road excursion. Reach heights of 45 feet while rope climbing, and feel how all your worries disappear as you distance yourself farther from the ground.
Before you know it, it’s time for lunch. Grab a quick bite of Asian cuisine at Dynasty before mountain biking through Big Bear. With a full stomach and recharged mind, head to Goldsmith's Sports to rent your electric, full-suspension, or downhill bike and experience the mountain trails of San Bernardino National Forest. Hop on the ski-lift that takes you 8,200 miles up to the Snow Summit of Big Bear Mountain Resort, and experience downhill tracks like never before.
After an adventurous day, refuel with a protein-packed dinner at The Bone Yard Bar and Grill—from sandwiches and burgers to ribeye steaks and everything in between, meat lovers will be in seventh heaven. For a more intimate setting, book a table at the Sweet Basil Bistro. Savor sizzling garlic shrimp with tomato basil relish or ricotta cheese ravioli and topped with a creamy basil pesto sauce, pine nuts, and fresh tomatoes. You best save space for a scrumptious tiramisu.
Tucked away on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, in the heart of Inyo National Forest, the quaint town of Mammoth Lakes welcomes you year-round. Similar to Big Bear, the community saw an influx of settlers with the discovery of gold in the region and the establishment of a mining company; but once the mine closed, the town's settlement shrank to a population of 10. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that Mammoth Lakes began to bloom, bringing tourists and lumberjacks to the tranquil forests surrounding today's popular ski resort. (If you're less into ski resorts, worry not: Mammoth Lakes is one of California's top lake camping destinations during the warmer months.) Thanks to the lack of development, Mammoth Lakes has maintained its pristine nature and is ready to be discovered anew.
The scenic drive to Mammoth is a part of the journey. From NorCal, follow Highway 395 or Highway 120 through Yosemite National Park, making sure to set aside time to sop along the route and admire the Eastern Sierra region. You can also opt for the gently winding road of Highway 108, which leads you through lush forests and vast valleys. From SoCal, you may take Highway 395 and pass through mountains and ancient glacial lake beds on the way to your new favorite escape. (Route 395 is also a popular detour for travelers from the north who are rewarded with the breathtaking power of the Travertine Hot Springs.)
Things to do in Mammoth
After the scenic drive, recharge with a lunch and coffee break at Stellar Brew. Order a gluten-free sandwich or toasted bagel stuffed with two fried eggs, house-made cilantro pesto and cream cheese, fresh tomato, and spinach. Or, opt for a bowl of açai—blended with bananas, blueberries, strawberries, kale, spirulina, and cinnamon—topped with in-house granola, chia seeds, banana, and honey. Order a cup of locally roasted fair trade organic coffee to-go, and make your way to Mammoth Ski Resort.
Regain full mindfulness while hiking along popular Mammoth trails. Explore the numerous pathways of the two-million-acre Inyo National Forest, venture off to witness a spectacular natural wonder called the Devils Postpile, or backpack the Sierra Nevada to follow in the footsteps of mountaineer John Muir. You can also take the scenic gondola ride up to the 11,053-foot Mammoth Mountain peak for dramatic vistas before hiking the easy, five-mile Mammoth Mountain Trail back down.
After the San Joaquin River Valley’s rewarding views have satisfied your wanderlust, check in to the Sierra Nevada Resort and Spa to treat yourself to a full day of rejuvenation. Make yourself comfortable in your very own Fireplace Suite before heading down for a relaxing deep-tissue massage at the spa. Let the day come to an end at the on-site Rafters Restaurant, where dinner is served amidst the majestic Mammoth Lakes ambiance. Remember to look up at the night sky—the stars will be dancing just for you—as you walk back to your room for a good night’s sleep.
Regardless of the weather, every new day welcomes new adventures at Mammoth Lakes. If the ground isn't quite snowy enough for a friendly ski race against your friends, the Via Ferrata is an alternative mountain activity you can’t miss out on. Challenge yourself to overcome bridges and iron rungs devised along the rugged sides of Mammoth Mountain, and take a breather to admire the untouched wilderness. From the six routes available, your guide will lead you on the one that most suits your skills and guarantees an unforgettable experience.
Savor a hearty hunch at the Bistro East Restaurant (located in the Snowcreek Athletic Club), where Japanese cuisine meets the laid-back mountain lifestyle of Mammoth. Next, stop by Get Outdoors 365 to rent a bike, and then hit the mountain trails that will make your heart race and adrenaline rush through your veins. Bike the Lakes Basin without even breaking a sweat—with your specialized electric mountain bikes, there’s no mountain too high and no valley too low—mount an action camera to your helmet to remember the life-changing journey long after you’ve returned home.
You may also like
From quirky motels to giant food sculptures, these strange roadside attractions in California belong on your bucket list....Read more
Celebrate the season by exploring the best places to see the stunning fall foliage in Southern California....Read more