By J.C. Thomas
Many SoCal residents are eagerly awaiting the arrival of snow in Big Bear, whether it’s by nature or machine. But with temperatures across California still on the warmer side, we’ll all just have to be patient. Real winter will soon hit the mountains, but there’s plenty of outdoor action to experience in Big Bear while waiting for the big freeze. This time of transition between seasons is a delight, with cooler mountain air and picturesque hints of fall foliage, yet plenty of sunshine and a full schedule of outdoor activities to consider. If you’re looking for an impromptu weekend away, we highly recommend these incredible attractions. (Most are available year-round and some are seasonal, so check the links for up-to-date details.)
Zipline Through San Bernardino National Forest
Action Tours, a local company based in the heart of Big Bear, runs a fantastic zipline course in the unspoiled wilderness of the San Bernardino National Forest. The approximately three-hour experience starts at Action Tours’ Big Bear HQ with a safety briefing, then it’s a short drive out of town and along beautiful, winding mountain roads by minibus. Getting to the zipline course from the main road requires a transfer into a Pinzgauer, a vintage Swiss Army vehicle capable of rumbling along rough, dusty forest roads.
Reach Action Tours’ station next to the first zipline – an easy, short starter line not too high off the ground – to suit up in a harness, helmet and gloves. You’ll meet a full team of friendly, expert guides who explain how to safely launch, ride and brake. The latter is an optional step given the course’s self-braking lines. Opting to brake by hand might allow for a somewhat more graceful landing, but during my own recent zipline adventure with Action Tours I found it didn’t make much difference and skipping it made it easier to relax and more thoroughly enjoy the experience.
The course starts at 8,400 feet in elevation, at a spot with sweeping views of Johnson Valley and the distant peak of Mount San Gorgonio, the highest mountain in Southern California. The nine lines range from 120 to 860 feet, and riders might reach speeds of 35 to 45 m.p.h. It’s truly a thrill. Some trepidation before the first few zips is natural, but you learn to trust the cables, the guides and system almost immediately. Adding to the childlike, perma-grin-inducing fun of flying at high speeds are sweet breezes, the squeal of the line and the otherwise impossible perspective of the coniferous trees and valleys below.
Throughout the adventure, guides are ahead, behind and next to the tour group. They handle all the tethering so that your harness is never not attached to the station or zipline. Most of our group were noticeably more nervous crossing the suspension bridge after the first zip than riding any of the lines. Further, the course is designed to progress gradually to the longer, faster and higher ziplines, easing you into the experience as you get increasingly comfortable. A professional photographer accompanies every group, so there’s no need to fuss with your phone.
Visit Action Tours to book a zipline tour or learn more. The tour is available year-round (weather permitting) for ages 8 and older. Weight restrictions apply. Wear closed-toe shoes.
See All of Big Bear by Segway
Another memorable Big Bear experience offered year-round by Action Tours is a Segway tour of the town, lakefront and forest. The company uses Segway PT vehicles with sturdy, heavy tires capable of traversing safely through snow, so these final frost-free days definitely allow for an easy, fun ride. The tour lasts about 2 hours and is suitable for riders 14 and older. No prior Segway experience is necessary.
A recent tour with family members was the first time on a Segway for all of us. I was nervous about operating the Segway but should not have been. Within just a minute or two of the introductory lesson behind the Action Tours HQ I had the hang of it and felt confident enough to hit the sometimes-hilly streets of Big Bear. For those unfamiliar with Segways, the operation is all about foot action. Some pressure on the toes sends the Segway smoothly forward; lean back a little on the heels to slow it down and stop. You steer by leaning to one side or the other. The machines are sensitive and it just takes a slight shift in weight to control their movement. The learning curve is short and the operation begins to feel natural and enjoyable very quickly. Time to hit the trail.
Our guide was not only an excellent Segway instructor, he also lent a relaxed vibe and vast wealth of local knowledge to our tour. A lifelong Big Bear resident, he related personal memories of the town and mountains in decades past while pointing out landmarks and describing the changing urban-meets-rural mountain landscape. He pointed out native flora ranging from roadside shrubs to towering pines, and showed us log cabins ranging from historic one-room structures to modern mega-mansion-like estates. The route, winding through the town, around numerous distinct neighborhoods and along the lakefront, gives a comprehensive overview of Big Bear. Thanks to the sprightly pace of the Segways, you cover a lot of ground and have a superb time doing so.
Action Tours’ Segway Tour is available year-round. Weight restrictions apply. Wear closed-toe shoes.
Conquer the Ropes Course and Race Go-Karts at Big Bear Speedway
Big Bear Speedway and Ropes Course invites you to race go-karts or conquer the 37 obstacles and bridges of its two-level ropes course. Why not do both?
The speedway is a 1/5-mile course with S-curves, F1-style barriers and a pro-inspired system of green, yellow and checkered flags for a genuine racing experience. They have 17 single karts and six double karts available, the latter with two steering wheels and brake pedals so kids can participate alongside an adult. All have hydraulic brakes and state-of-the-art engines that let you reach up to 30 m.p.h. As many as 11 karts can race at one time, but know you’re racing against the clock and not each other.
The ropes course features 37 obstacles over two levels, with varied underfoot fixtures suspended at 12 to 35 feet above the ground. The complex includes interconnected bridges, each with unique handholds and obstacles to cross. Some consist of ropes, others steel wires, with stepping stones, planks, rolling and rigid beams, plus a zipline to conquer. It’s a self-guided tour offered in 20-minute sessions. You wear a harness that connects at all times to an overhead hookup system, a network of girders that allows movement in any direction.
It takes some guts and physical investigation to traverse the entire system. Platforms that look solid might surprise you by wobbling; beams might roll under your feet; some courses have nothing to hold onto. It’s a challenge to anyone with even the slightest fear of heights, and the closest most of us will get to an “American Ninja Warrior” adjacent experience. It’s super fun for children and adults alike. Kids 42 to 48 inches can go on the ropes course with adult, while those 48 inches and taller can go alone.
The speedway offers snow play and glow tubing in winter – click here for current availability.
Alpine Slide at Magic Mountain
There is a lot to do at the Alpine Slide at Magic Mountain: the bobsled-inspired Alpine slide; a go-kart course with double-seaters available; an 18-hole mini-golf course with water features and bear obstacles; a summertime water slide; and the Soaring Eagle.
The Alpine slide is open year-round, and the only ride of its kind in Southern California. Take a scenic chair lift ride to the top, then hop into a self-controlled bobsled fitted with Teflon runners for a smooth ride. Pick one of two ¼-mile cement tracks, both with long straight sections for gathering speed and turns with high banked-sides. Children can ride with an adult. The Soaring Eagle is another thrill ride. Take a seat and get drawn back 500 feet to the launch tower, which catapults you back to the base at up to 28 m.p.h.
Click here to learn more and find money-saving packages.
Visit Big Bear Alpine Zoo
Families and animal lovers should definitely find time for a visit to Big Bear Alpine Zoo. It’s relatively small so you can see and learn about every animal inhabitant in a few hours, leaving plenty of time for other activities.
Don’t expect exotic creatures, as this is an establishment dedicated to alpine forest species. It’s one of only two alpine zoos in the nation, and dates back to 1959 when it started as a rehab facility for injured animals. In fact, Big Bear Alpine Zoo still runs a comprehensive rehab and release program. Ninety percent of the injured, orphaned and imprinted animals the zoo takes in are released back into their native environment.
Permanent residents at the zoo are the animals that cannot be released for their own safety. More than 85 species of animals and birds are represented. Among them are some big mammals including black and grizzly bears, mountain lions and wolves, which naturally attract the most attention. Hearing the wolves howl during feeding time is quite memorable. But don’t overlook smaller but just as interesting animals such as badgers, flying squirrels and several fox species, as well as impressive birds of prey.
Note that the zoo is moving in late 2019 to a new location.
Disclaimer: California News Press and its contributors received goods, services and/or other professional courtesies to facilitate this review. All opinions are those of the author.