5 Things I Learned While Driving to Big Bear Lake

Millions of people visit Big Bear Lake, California every year for skiing, tubing, fishing and relaxation. I recently had the opportunity to take my first trip up the mountain, and as a person who used to live in the mountains of Virginia, I felt prepared for the trip.

I was wrong.

As I made my way around the first few bends, I realized I was in much more of a mountainous adventure than I originally expected. I learned a lot about personal confidence during the conversations I had with myself as I climbed, climbed and climbed some more. No two mountain trips are alike and I realized that a little preparation would have better equipped me for what to expect. Here are five things I learned while driving to Big Bear Lake.

driving to big bear lake
The 29 mile drive takes about 45 minutes to an hour to conquer on a non-snow day.

You’re Going to Be Driving for Awhile

You don’t truly realize how big the mountain it is until you cruise around the first curve and the surrounding mountains reveal themselves. The 29 mile drive takes about 45 minutes to an hour to conquer on a non-snow day and may take hours when snow is on the ground and chains are on your tires.

You will be traveling among drivers that take the mountain daily and cruise along with ease.  I found myself questioning the patience they channel when they find themselves behind a newbie like me, who’s driving the speed limit and constantly checking my GPS to see how many more miles I have left to go. Thankfully there is a solution when you get tired or need a break. Turnouts. Use the turnouts to pull off of the road and regroup. This is also a good opportunity to switch drivers or get some fresh air.

Traveling Tips:

  • If traveling with kids, it may be best to stop for a potty break just before you start up the mountain.
  • You may experience areas where you have no cellular reception.
  • Get gas before you start up the mountain. (I didn’t notice any gas station directly on the road until I reached Big Bear.)
driving to big bear lake
The road to Big Bear offers some amazing views.

The Curves Are Real

The drive up to Big Bear is not for the faint of heart. After the first three curves you may think you have it under control but the highway is full of windy, sudden and sharp turns.  As you pass the 3,000-foot elevation sign, things get real. If you love race car driving, this is not the moment to try out your Daytona qualifying speed, as many of the curves may sneak up on you. When traffic seems to be approaching faster than you from behind, this is another time you should use the turnouts. It’s ok to allow the turnouts to become your new BFF.

It’s best to try not to hug the center line when handling the curves, as the person coming around a corner from the opposite direction may be doing the same and cause a disaster if both parties attempt to over correct. Keep your eyes on the road and limit distractions. This is important to remember as you take in the views around you.

The Views are Amazing

The road to Big Bear offers some amazing views. The mountain peaks and deep valleys will be something you will never forget.  If you become distracted by the views, pull off of the road at the next turnout and take in the moment. The turnouts are the perfect place to capture pictures of breathtaking snowcapped mountains, streams and rivers you encounter on the way up the mountain. On a clear day you get mountain views as far as the eye can see. If you look closely you will also notice houses tucked away on the side of the mountains.

Note: If taking photos, don’t wander too close to the edge, several of the turnouts don’t have railings.

You’ll Encounter Other Towns

While Big Bear may be your destination, the drive up the mountain surprises you with the appearance of a few other small mountain towns on the way.

The most prominent you’ll encounter will be Running Springs, shortly after reaching the 6,000-foot elevation mark. Running Springs is a resort town that offers activities like skiing and snowboarding in the winter and fishing during the spring. Running Springs is the home of Snow Valley Mountain. Much like Big Bear, Running Springs is a tourist destination.

driving to big bear lake
On a good day, you will be able to experience the mountain from above the clouds.

You Can’t Be Afraid to Go Above the Clouds

There is no doubt that the drive up to Big Bear Mountain is beautiful, but for those not accustomed to driving the mountain, you may have a misunderstanding of exactly how high you may be traveling. While most of the actual climb is gradual, you will experience moments of ear pressure and popping. If you have a fear of heights, try not to fret as you casually drive past the 3,000-, 4,000- and finally 7,000-foot elevation signs on the way up.

On a good day, you will be able to experience the mountain from above the clouds. Literally! Clouds can settle between the mountains and may cause some limited visibility but also provide the perfect photo opportunity once you get above them.

There were times on my drive that I contemplated turning back and trying again the next day but I’m so glad I didn’t. The drive up the mountain is well worth the white knuckles and sweaty palms when you get your first view of Big Bear Lake. The crisp air and beautiful surroundings will quickly replace any other thoughts you had about the 29-mile drive to get there.

Now that you’re prepared for your trek up the mountain, it’s time to make your reservation for a cozy cabin or hotel room at Big Bear Frontier. Make your reservation today!

7 Replies to “5 Things I Learned While Driving to Big Bear Lake”

  1. Which way did you drive up there ? Did you go the back way – off Hwy 18? Or the front way? I will be going off of Hwy 18 and I heard it’s not as scary

  2. If you take 330 to 18 then there are gas stations but that is when you’re in Running Springs. If you take 38 up, arguably longer but a smoother ride then there’s a gas station in Mentone and the final one being in Angelous Oaks albeit very high priced, but it’ll get you up the mountain to a cheaper one. Taking Lucerne to 18 is also very switchback in one area as you climb the mountain very quickly, so expect 20 mph turns and lower.

    Glad you enjoyed our mountain range, she’s a mess to get up but truly something when you’re here!

  3. If you take 330 to 18 then there are gas stations but that is when you’re in Running Springs. If you take 38 up, arguably longer but a smoother ride then there’s a gas station in Mentone and the final one being in Angelous Oaks albeit very high priced, but it’ll get you up the mountain to a cheaper one. Taking Lucerne to 18 is also very switchback in one area as you climb the mountain very quickly, so expect 20 mph turns and lower.

    Glad you enjoyed our mountain range, she’s a mess to get up but truly something when you’re here!

  4. Thank you for all your comments greatly appreciated. Heading to Big Bear from San Diego, next week. A bit concern with the drive

  5. Planning a trip up to Big Bear over the 4th of July . Any route suggestions & places to visit or things to see & do ?? I would appreciate any advice you’d like to share .
    We are in our 60s & love concerts, outdoor sightseeing excursions & unique shops . Not into water activities.

    1. Hello Cindy! We suggest to avoid the 330/18 route during the holiday weekend, and to try and use the 38 through Redlands or the 18 through Lucerne Valley. You can check road conditions through our website here as well: https://www.big-bear-cabins.com/weather.html. As far as things to do, we have many other articles on our blog regarding some fun things to do and sights to see in Big Bear! The Village in Big Bear is full of unique shops to visit. We also suggest checking “Visit Big Bear” for any possible activities planned for that weekend (events will not be listed too far ahead of time due to any changes with Covid). There are also several trails that passenger cars can take through the mountains for some great scenic views- you can pick up trail maps from the discovery center. We hope you have a wonderful trip to Big Bear!

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