By Julie Pendray
BIG BEAR LAKE, Calif. — After hiking about 200 miles from Campo at the Mexican border over Laguna and San Jacinto mountain ranges and sweating through the desert under their reflective umbrellas, Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) hikers must sigh with relief when they see Big Bear Lake. At 7,000 feet, the popular recreation area is like an oasis surrounded by boulder-studded bays among pines. PCT hikers don’t have time to take advantage of all that this area has to offer but for other travelers Big Bear is a stunning vacation spot with great restaurants and bars, theater, a solar observatory, campgrounds, weekend getaway lodges, high-end resorts, ski areas and opportunities for just about every sport that exists.
The lake, set in San Bernardino National Forest, is about 7 miles long and 1 mile across at its widest point. It can get confusing when referring to this area because Big Bear Lake is the name of the small city (6.5 square miles), whereas adjacent Big Bear City is an unincorporated area of about 32 square miles. The lake is about 25 miles northeast of the city of San Bernardino.
I drove to Big Bear from Idyllwild, a mile-high town considered Big Bear’s little cousin in the San Jacinto Mountain Range above Palm Springs. To beat the heat of going through the desert, I arrived at Big Bear in the wee hours. Watching the sun rise over the lake was a cool, serene way to begin my journey into the Heart of the Pacific Crest Trail Towns where hikers re-supply.
The ascent up Highway 330 seemed to take forever but gradually I became aware of yellow broom for miles along the roadsides. The sweet subtle fragrance in the dark was a heavenly distraction, as were eventual signs to sweet sounding locations like Fawnskin and Deer Lick.
This season, PCT hikers are getting rides from the desert or they’re busing into Big Bear because of an area that’s closed due to wildfire recovery. Normally, they exit on the North Shore of the lake, at Cougar’s Crest Trail. Most hikers stay at Big Bear Hostel or Motel 6 in the city of Big Bear Lake.
I was happy to see a business card on the Big Bear Hostel bulletin board for NourishingJourneyPCT.com The web site belongs to licensed dietitian Anna Herby who completed a thru hike of the PCT as a vegan. I met her when she passed through Idyllwild.
“Youngblood” (alias P. J. Coleman) is a 19 year old from Richmond, VA., turned buffet connoisseur, who described for me how he traveled to Big Bear after hiking through Idyllwild. He said that after eating chicken fried steak that was “to die for” at The Red Kettle in Idyllwild and hosting a birthday bash of more than 20 people at Idyllwild Inn, he hiked over the San Jacinto Mountain Range and down into Cabazon, near Palm Springs. He checked in with trail angels Ziggy and the Bear. (Note: these angels are no longer operating as of 2017). Ziggy and the Bear provided camping space, water, shade and free WiFi and accepted hiker packages. They’d been doing this since 1996. Their home, called Whitewater Trail House, was near mile 210.8 on the PCT. (Idyllwild is near mile 179 mile).
My interviews with this season’s PCT hikers who’d passed through Big Bear ironically happened at Mammoth Lakes Post Office. I identified them by the tell-tale tanned faces with white patches around the eyes, windblown hair and slender, tired appearance. Above and beyond that, however, was the dead give-away of this piece of information in the conversation among the group.
“I’m gonna head straight to the buffets at South Lake Tahoe!”
Starving PCTers for sure, I thought.
Youngblood told me that after he’d visited Ziggy and the Bear, he made a beeline for Morongo Casino’s buffet in the desert. Then he got a ride to San Bernardino and a bus up the mountain to Big Bear Hostel. His new friends with him at the Mammoth Lakes Post Office told me they all did the same. They arrived at Big Bear at different times and they didn’t know each other until they met on the trail. They included: Faraday Borg, 22, of Norwich, VT; Annie “Oakley” Trumble, 26, of Melbourne, Australia; and Nicholas “St. Nick” Boam, 24, of Vancouver, WA. They all started at Campo at the Mexican border somewhere between March 30 and the third week of April. In Idyllwild, some enjoyed “cheap margaritas and one dollar tacos” during a snow storm, while another who came through later relaxed in “nice weather” at the state park campground. I talked to this group in mid-June and they told me they were among the first wave of PCT thru-hikers to arrive at Mammoth Lakes. To get there from Big Bear, they reconnected with the trail up Interstate 10 at Onyx Summit, they said.
While in Big Bear, some of these hikers stayed at trail angels’ homes. Boam said he usually stays with angels. He connects with them via Facebook or the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA). Youngblood arrived in Big Bear at night and left the next day, he said. Borg said she picked up a warmer quilt that she’d had shipped to the town. All of them said they got back on the trail as soon as possible.
Boam told me, “Big Bear is larger than Idyllwild but it still has a sense of community.” He said he loves the sense of community in the small re-supply towns. “People seem to really care about each other.” The city of Big Bear Lake has a population of about 5,000 (2010). Idyllwild has about 3,800 year-round residents.
Young PCT hikers tend to be extremely thrifty. I asked this group how they were funding such a long excursion. Most thru hikers take at least five months to do the 2,650 miles.
“I worked my ass off!” they said in chorus. “And saved!”
Borg said she took a semester off school and worked as a nannie. The others stayed “mum” on their source of income.
One place where PCT hikers in Big Bear get more bang for their buck is Grizzly Manor Cafe. The hikers rave over it on Facebook. It’s not difficult to see why, when you see the plates being transported to the tables. Actually, you can’t see the plates under the pancakes because America’s favorite breakfast simply overflows. This was my first stop in the town. I got there at 6:30 a.m. and the place was already nearly half full of locals. I ordered biscuits and gravy with eggs and “real bacon.” Naturally, I had to get a box to go and even my cat, waiting in the shade in my car, got a bit of the bacon.
At Grizzly Manor, it isn’t just the size of the portions that appeals. This place is a hoot.
Just as in Idyllwild, sometimes the cafe owners’ friends help staff when the place gets busy. Retired Air Force General Jack Briner argued in jest with another local about their duties. “I don’t make the coffee, I just pour it.” Briner’s graduation portrait from officer school adorns a wall and the cafe uses mugs from First Mountain Bank, where he was president. The mug slogan reads, “If you don’t know First Mountain Bank, you don’t know Jack.”
“I call this place Grizzly Cheers,” Briner told me. “The waitresses are sassy here.”
Grizzly Manor was one of the winners on Travel Channel’s 101 Places to Chowdown, the locals tell me. Owner Jayme Nordine summed up the place in this video clip: “We do have a lot of attitude. We try to make everyone part of the family.” He and his wife, Tracy, put out water for hikers at the PCT trailhead, one local said.
While in Big Bear, I was hosted at Dancing Bear Lodge owned by Cindy Carter. It was a cozy, quiet respite from the heat. This beautifully decorated home has three bedrooms, two living areas, a wood fireplace, a big dining table and a well stocked kitchen. I soaked in the bathtub like it might be my last time to do so. It was heavenly after long walks around town on hot days. As I settled in for two nights, I began to go through everything I’d brought with me, thinking, “I’ve got way too much!” One of my friends said, “It’s just like you’re a PCT hiker! I bet they all feel like that!”
Other sentiments of mine must mirror some of the hikers’ feelings after the first few hundred miles: “I must be crazy for doing this. How can I afford to do this? …..”
Now as I write, I’m more than halfway through the journey that takes PCT hikers through three states to the Canadian border. Just like the hikers I’ve interviewed over the past three seasons, I’ve encountered a lot of support and a lot of “good energy” on this adventure of mine to describe the towns where they re-supply. Just as the hikers have felt, the journey has restored my faith in humanity and in myself … and in something greater than myself.
I have more memories of Big Bear that I want to share, so please check back in to read my next piece in which I describe my visit to Snow Summit ski area. Then follow my travel up Highway 395 to Mammoth Lakes.
Copyright to Julie Pendray and SpecialsNotOnTheMenu.com