Big Bear Lake is a popular vacation spot for the hordes of human beings who live in Los Angeles, which means the joint can get pretty jammed up. But if you time it right, there are endless excellent roads and dirt trails to drive on while you enjoy the clean air you can only waft 5,000 feet above sea level. Here’s why you should check it out.
(Full Disclosure: The Nexen Tire company put me up in a hotel, gave me some food and paid the Big Bear Jeep Experience tour guides to show us around some of the area’s off-road trails for a day. I’ve also been quite a few times on my own.)
Where It’s At
Big Bear is about 100 miles east of LA, which means it’ll take you somewhere between 90 minutes and five years to make it from the city to this spot, depending on traffic. (I joke, but only barely. It could be as much as six hours depending on what day and time you’re making the journey.)
Most of those 100 miles are just a slog across suburbs, but once you get on Route 330 up and out of the valley where everybody lives and works, the road gets steep and winding and interesting almost immediately. You’ll invariably get stuck behind a Buick Park Avenue with its left blinker on, so relax and enjoy the view or be aggressive about those rare passing lanes.
When you catch Route 18, the trees give way to some vast swaths of open land, which confirms you’re officially clear of Smog City, and shortly after that you’ll be in Big Bear’s tiny village. From there, you have your choice of mostly mediocre restaurants and what really makes the area interesting: dirt roads spiderwebbing all over the area, some of which turn into seriously challenging off-road trails.
What To Drive
Something low and light will be rewarding to zip around on the main roads around town, like Routes 18 and 38. There are solid paved driving roads in and out of Big Bear, but you’re going to need something with four-wheel drive and meaty tires to really see The Good Shit.
Actually, that’s not totally true–I once brought a Mercedes-AMG GLS63 on performance tires as robust as rubber bands and had no trouble getting to a few great lookouts on some fire roads. There really is an abundance of unpaved-but-relatively-smooth dirt routes which would be wild fun in any car you didn’t mind putting a few rock chips in. But the really exciting driving around Big Bear is low-speed and extremely steep. That means you need four-wheel drive, low range, and very good tires.
And what a nice transition that is to the Nexen Roadian MTX tire, which I’m professionally obligated to mention, since that was the ticket that took me to some of my new favorite spots in the region last time I visited.
This is a mud terrain tire. While there’s not a lot of mud in Big Bear, because there’s not a lot of water, which you’ll be reminded of every time you catch a glimpse of the disconcertingly low shoreline of the lake, there are sharp rocks and loose surfaces. Both of which I was able to scramble over in a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon JK on a set of these tires in a 35-inch diameter.
We crawled up some very steep, sheer rock faces and dragged a convoy of Jeeps over miles of sharp rubble without popping anything or slipping much, so, I guess these tires must be half decent. Especially considering the fact that our entourage included some folks new to the idea of “picking a line” or off-roading with any sense of self-preservation.
Big Bear is not quite as nationally renown as Moab, Utah or the Rubicon Trail up north. But it’s been a hub for off-roaders for decades, because not only are there miles of light beginner-friendly routes; there’s hardcore shit that will give you goosebumps at 3 mph.
I saw that “goosebumps” line in a Jeep ad when I was a kid, and thought of it while I watched this tough old TJ hustle its way up over this rough mess of “road” just barely off one of Big Bear’s main streets.
The best thing about an alpine forest is the way it smells.
Coming out of the smoggy soup of Los Angeles into an array of trees is nice enough to instantly reverse-age you a few years; the air just seems so smooth and clean so high above sea level.
If you ever needed an excuse to take the doors off your Jeep, the ambient oxygen in Big Bear is it.
I already mentioned that Route 18 and 38 are pretty fun for canyon carving cars, and everybody else can’t really go wrong just taking off into the woods and following some dirt paths. You can always turn around if the road disappears completely or you get low on gas.
For adventure driving, check out Smarts Ranch Road from the northeastern corner of the lake. It’s a long, rough track that you can ride all the way from Big Bear to Joshua Tree. It’s too bumpy for a car, but a stock Jeep or one of the better items from Land Rover’s lineup wouldn’t have too much trouble as long as you kept your speed down. My father and I ran it in a 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and had a great time, plodding along at a pretty modest pace.
Even something like a Suburban or a body-on-frame pickup, with four-wheel drive and decent rubber, could get it done. But if that’s about where your rig’s capability is at, you’ve probably got a three to four-hour ride on your hands. Be ready for some small technical sections, but most of the really tough stuff can be bypassed.
If you are looking for off-roading that’s a little more hardcore, you can head north up route 3N69 also known as Gold Mountain. That track gets interesting almost as soon as you leave the pavement; with huge axle-twisting ruts and very steep rock piles you have to fight your way up.
I know this because that’s where the Nexen team sent us to try out that tire I mentioned. With air pressure reduced to right around the high teens, climbing the organic Aggro Crag of hard stone required careful wheel placement and a very disciplined application of throttle and brake.
Follow that deep into the forest and eventually you’ll have to drive across a dry pond of arrowhead-sharp stones which, amazingly, the Roadian MTX tires did without any poppage.
All along this route you’re looking at trees, but there are some pretty cool perspectives of the town below when you get a break in the canopy.
After you’re at the top of the hill, coming down is just a matter of managing your truck’s momentum and soon you’ll be on a shingly fire road you can scream down back into town. Just don’t forget that your tire sidewalls are vulnerable to flying rocks when your air pressure is low.
Besides the basic issues you can always need to be thinking about off-road, you’re going to want to be aware of just how harsh the sun can be in Big Bear during the summer. Pack a lot of water and sunscreen, and definitely leave your roof up if your Jeeping in the middle of the day. Or at least where a big ol’ sombrero.
Weather can be a factor in the winter too, if, say, you’re driving up from LA in a car with summer tires. Don’t forget, it does snow up there. Speaking of which, I have not been wheeling in Big Bear in winter but I’m sure it offers a whole new dimension of ridiculousness. I can’t even imagine how you’d climb technical rock sections covered in snow, but it sounds like a pretty exciting challenge. I’ll, uh, wait until somebody else loans me their truck to try it.
Regardless of what you’re driving though, the most annoying challenge you’ll probably face in Big Bear is traffic. There aren’t a lot of roads and the village is tiny, so you can jammed right up behind swarms of Angelinos if you roll up on a holiday weekend.
Oh yeah, and bears. There are bears up there. Don’t feed them.
If You Go
The best thing about driving around Big Bear Lake is that it’s pretty much impossible to have a bad time. Even if you do get stuck in some of that slow traffic I warned you about, at least you can roll your windows down and soak up the smell of mountain air.
Trail maps are pretty much available in every gas station, and since most of the off-road routes are actually forest roads, you might find that they’re even on your GPS. Oh, but do download maps if you plan on using your phone for navigation. You won’t get much signal in these woods, even in 2018.
Big Bear’s a particularly prime spot for newer off-roaders or folks looking to safely find the limits of their 4x4, since there’s just so much variety and so many gentle routes to warm up on. But even the easy roads feel like huge adventures, despite the fact that most don’t stray terribly far from town.
Come for the clean air, stay for the awesome driving, come back because there will always be some tracks left to explore.
Road Reviews is a new story series we’re developing to highlight the best drives in America. Got suggestions? Let us know.