My first experience driving a badass Jeep Wrangler 4×4 over impossibly rugged terrain near Big Bear Lake, California, can only be described as “crazy fun.” Being a novice driver in such an ungainly and powerful vehicle, it took a while for my confidence to reach a point where I could loosen my death grip on the steering wheel, but that came to a screeching halt when we confronted a boulder the size of a large refrigerator blocking our way in a narrow ravine. Thanks to detailed instructions from our leader, Desi, the owner of Big Bear Jeep Experience, in a few heart-stopping minutes we lurched to top of that formidable obstacle. I breathed a sigh of relief and noted a brave smile on my wife’s pale face. As we bounced off that behemoth and proceeded over the mountain back to town, I couldn’t help thinking that this off-road journey was in many a metaphor for our journey through life with seemingly insurmountable obstacles that we overcome with our strength and determination. A less philosophical thought came to me at the end of our three hour adventure: this was one of the more exhilarating excursions I’ve done in a long time.

Named after the grizzly bears that formerly roamed the area, Big Bear Lake sits at 6700 feet elevation in the San Bernardino Mountains, providing a cool refuge only a couple of hours drive from Los Angeles. Halfway up the curvy, four-lane road, we gazed at an ethereal panorama below us, with a soft, white layer of clouds clinging tightly to the bottom of the valley as the snow-capped San Gorgonio mountain thrust itself 11,500 feet into the aquamarine sky.

Although a majority of visitors come during the winter months, each year more are coming to Big Bear during the summer season, not only for lake activities, but also for mountain biking, horseback riding, zip lining, hiking and of course, four wheeling. “Big Bear offers some of the best mountain biking trails in Southern California,” explained Johnny Lopez at the Big Bear Visitors Bureau. Being avid hikers, we asked him about the area’s hiking trails, and from dozens of options we selected three nearby hikes of varying length and difficulty. Our favorite trail, the Cougar Creek Trail, led us to the famed Pacific Crest Trail (known as the PCT). As we marched along the 1.9 mile trail, a couple of lost PCT hikers accompanied us back up the trail, sharing stories of their triumphs and trials. Like a siren song, their tales planted in my mind the possibility of my hiking at least part of the 2650-mile PCT next year—a 65th birthday celebration.

Man-made Big Bear Lake shimmers in blue beauty among the pine-clad peaks, but we were surprised to see that despite record rains elsewhere in California, the lake’s low water level persisted, leaving many homes’ boat docks stranded far from the water’s edge. In late May the lake was still too cold and windy for swimming or kayaking, but the folks at the Pleasure Point Marina assured us that by mid-summer the lake’s boaters, water skiers and swimmers would enjoy comfy, 70-degree water.

Given the variety of activities in addition to those on the lake, my wife and I had no problem getting our next adrenaline rush by strapping on helmets and flying through the air on the new, nine-line, three-hour zip-line course. As if that wasn’t enough excitement, I followed up with a mountain bike cardio blitz on one of the countless trails around the area while my wife explored assorted downtown shops. When I finished my ride, the manager of Goldsmiths Sports asked if I would like to test-ride one of their new electric bikes–I’m glad I did because it was a blast, effortlessly propelling me around their huge parking lot at over 25 mph.

We finished our summer sojourn to Big Bear Lake by panning for small gems and assorted minerals at the Gold Rush Mining store, followed by a sumptuous dinner at the upscale Black Cat restaurant. What we discovered during our visit is that the next time we’re looking for a fun summer escape, Big Bear Lake is a great option for full throttle action or just chilling in the mountain air.

Doug Hansen is a travel writer and photographer in Carlsbad, CA. See more photos and articles at www.HansenTravel.org or Instagram @doug6636.
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IF YOU GO:
BIG BEAR VISITORS Center: 630 Bartlett Road; 800-424-4232; www.BigBear.com

Big Bear Jeep Experience: 42011 Big Bear Blvd, Ste A; 909-420-5828; www.bigbearjeepexperience.com
Action Zipline Tours: 41693 Big Bear Blvd, Ste A; 909-866-0390; www.ActionZiplineTours.com
Lodging: Gold Rush Resort Rentals, 40016 Big Bear Blvd; 800-363-8303; http://www.bigbearrentalcabins.com/
Bike/Snow Sports Rentals: Goldsmiths, 42071 Big Bear Blvd; 909-866-2728; www.GoldsmithsSports.com
Dining: The Black Cat, 560 Pine Knot Ave; 909-878-0401.