Driving to Big Bear Lake is a rite of passage not only for Angelenos, but for newcomers and visitors enamored by the idea of a quaint mountain town just a stone’s throw from the chaotic urban sprawl that is Los Angeles. Its proximity to the city makes it perfect for a spontaneous road trip — but not so fast. There are a few things you should know before you jump in the car and set off for this popular weekend escape.
1. Getting “up the mountain” takes longer than you might think
Looking at a map can be deceiving. It might seem like once you’re out of the tangle of SoCal highways that it will be smooth sailing, but that’s not exactly true.
Driving “up the mountain,” as regulars would say, can take a good hour — even when there’s no traffic to speak of, which is rarely the case with such a popular destination. Add in a weather event such as rain or snow and you’ll likely be slowed to a crawl.
Always plan for the trek there to take longer than you anticipated — but don’t get frustrated if you’re delayed. The scenery from the series of switchbacks is breathtaking and worth taking some time to admire as long as you’re not moving.
2. You won’t be alone on the road
Though Big Bear is definitely busiest in the winter, when Angelenos escape to its mountain peaks for their skiing and snowboarding sessions, this destination is popular year-round.
Weekends are an especially busy time, drawing as many as 100,000 people eager to soak in the area’s many natural treasures. That means you’ll need every ounce of energy and attention for the road, as you’ll be navigating alongside many, many other visitors who are just as anxious to settle into their quaint cabins or hit the slopes and hiking trails as you are.
3. Chains are required - sometimes
Locals aren’t the savviest when it comes to driving in snow, to say the least. And when a snowstorm suddenly hits, slick roads and steep inclines can spell disaster. For this reason, local authorities require that drivers have tire chains or other traction devices ready to go.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you should scramble to put on chains at the sight of the first snowflake. If your car has newer tires and four-wheel drive (and you have experience driving in the snow), you’ll likely be fine. However, having chains in your possession is always a good idea, since there are checkpoints at which you might be fined or told to turn back if you don’t.
Stressed out by the concept of adding chains to your tired? Here’s a handy guide that explains it in more detail.
4. Snow slows traffic to a crawl
We’ve touched on this above, but it bears repeating: snow can cause what should be an hour-long trek up the mountain to take as many as three hours or more.
Snow causes hazardous driving conditions, yet it’s the thing that inspires so many city dwellers to hop in their cars to escape to a winter wonderland. So not only is traffic slowed because of the weather, there’s an influx of people competing to get to the lake. That can turn what you envision as a half-day trip into an all-day commitment. Check weather reports often to have a better idea of what you’re getting yourself into.
5. There are many distracted drivers
Though it may seem strange to those of us who grew up in cold, snowy environments, some people embark on a mini-road trip to Big Bear simply to see the freshly fallen snow. Whole families come to admire the pillowy precipitation draped on those elegant evergreens, meaning they’re not in any rush to get anywhere specific, and they may not always have their eyes on the road.
It’s not uncommon to see cars suddenly veer off the road, causing drivers behind them to slam on their breaks and traffic to bottleneck. Leave plenty of space between your car and the one in front of you, and be alert. Always be prepared to stop in a split second.
6. Coming in the off season makes everything a little easier
If you’re not a fan of crowds and traffic jams, consider visiting in the warmer seasons that see fewer visitors. Though you may miss out on skiing and snowboarding, you’ll be able to enjoy hiking, swimming, kayaking, and an array of outdoor activities. You can enjoy clear skies and greenery in summer and the romantic change of the leaves in fall. In the slower seasons, hotels are in abundant supply, with much more affordable rates.
7. You’ll need to watch for animals
Driving from the city may have you primed to watch out for erratic drivers, but once you start up those winding mountain roads, it’s wildlife that will have you on your toes. Signs will warn you about deer, known to dart out in front of vehicles at exactly the wrong time. Dusk is when you’re more likely to see them — keep your eyes peeled, don’t drive too fast, and be ready to brake at a moment’s notice.
8. Getting gas before setting out is smart
It’s a generally understood concept that getting gas outside of a busy metropolitan area will save you money. But that’s not possible if gas stations are scarce where you’re headed. Be smart and gas up before you embark on your trek to Big Bear. That way you won’t find your tank on “E” if you end up spending more time in transit than you expected.
9. It helps to know if you have ABS
Not all cars perform the same in slippery conditions. If your car has an antilock braking system, you’ll have more control over your vehicle should you start to skid out on icy or snowy roads. If your vehicle is not equipped with ABS, remember that you can combat sliding by gently pumping (NOT slamming) your brakes to help them get some traction and keep them from locking up.
10. It’s worth it to rent a car that’s road ready
Simply put, certain kinds of cars are better equipped to handle the rigors of driving up a mountain than others. Your old clunker might be great for getting around town, but will it keep you from white-knuckling it in an unexpected weather event?
If your car has seen better days, it’s worthwhile to rent a newer vehicle that comes with everything you’d need to make the trip a breeze (ABS, newer tires, fuel efficiency, etc.). It’ll be a safer, more enjoyable trip for you and everyone in your crew.