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SW Aviator Feb/Mar 2001
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Fly Away to Big Bear

Story and photos by Mark Swint

I love to fly. I love to have fun. I especially love to fly to fun places! However, having scoured the Southwest for fun and interesting flying destinations to visit, I have come to realize that many spots are strictly seasonal. They are either too hot for summer or too cold for winter – fun in their season, for sure, but what about the rest of the year? Yep, what we need is a really, really great year round spot - one that works for the whole family. Well, I think I have finally found the perfect place, and I am anxious to tell you about it. Just fifty minutes away from Las Vegas in my trusty Baron, even closer from the Southland basins in Southern California, and a pleasant journey from Arizona and New Mexico, lies the Big Bear Lake and the City of Big Bear.

Situated high in the San Bernardino Mountains, just west-northwest of Palm Springs and up the hill to the northeast of San Bernardino, California, Big Bear has been the exclusive playground of Californians for years. However, since the town has a fine airport I think it’s just waiting to be discovered by the rest of us who appreciate the Southwest. The Big Bear City Airport (L35) sits at the east end of Big Bear Lake at an elevation of 6750 feet. At that altitude a foray to Big Bear provides welcome relief from the summer heat of the valleys below, as well as a winter playground for skiers and others who enjoy the snow in the winter.

One recent afternoon, with temperatures in Las Vegas hovering around 108 degrees, my family decided we needed to find some cooler air. A trip to Big Bear seemed the perfect choice. It was relatively close, outside of any burdensome Class B airspace, and it was beckoning us with its 75-degree highs and clear crisp mountain air. Off we launched, and within the hour we were crossing the ridge into Big Bear Valley. Instantly, the scene changed from bleak desert to spectacular forested mountainsides and crystal clear mountain air. The approach to Big Bear airport has to be one of the prettiest in the country. And oh, the smell! I think that is the first thing I noticed after landing at Big Bear. It has long been recognized that smells are the most provocative conjurers of past experiences, and whenever I smell the heavy yet refreshing scent of Ponderosa Pine in the air it instantly takes me back to my childhood and the many pleasant hours I spent in the woods.

From its discovery in 1845 to the present, the Big Bear Valley has grown in popularity and size. Today it boasts over a hundred resorts and hotels, along with countless restaurants and a wide variety of other treats for the weary traveler. And best of all, its central location puts Big Bear within easy reach for the weekend pilot from almost anywhere in the Southwest.

It wasn’t always so however. Settlers first discovered the Bear Valley in 1845. At that time it was an isolated high mountain valley reached only by an arduous journey from the Southland Ranchos below. Benjamin Wilson, the son of a wealthy rancher, and a bunch of his buddies made the trip up the mountain in pursuit of some Indians who had been raiding cattle from the ranches below. As the young men came over the south ridge, through the heavy pine forest, they found a swampy meadow filled, not with Indians but huge Grizzly bears! The sight was mesmerizing and they quickly forgot about the Indians, spending the day, instead, roping and teasing the anguished bears. Sadly, at the end of the day eleven bears lay dead and young Ben Wilson had given the valley the name it still bears to this day.

Nothing more occurred in the valley until the gold rush of ’49. As miners rushed to the lands farther north in the state, a few made their way down south. By 1855, enough miners were working claims in the hills around Bear Valley that the State geologist was moved to investigate the area. Sure enough, some gold was being recovered, but the area was hampered by a shortage of water. The small creek in the valley was too far from the claims to be of much use. Nevertheless, in 1859 Jo Caldwell and his crew began placer mining at the site where the creek tumbled down to join the Santa Ana River.
The mining was slow, with only $7 or $8 a day being recovered. However, word of Caldwell’s meager success spread, and by late that year the hard working men were joined by Bill Holcomb and his partner Jack Martin. Luckily for the ragged miners, Bill was an excellent shot and, while little gold was found that winter, he managed to keep the group supplied with fresh game. The next spring, when mining got underway in earnest once more, Bill and Jack had little success, and soon became discouraged. They were about to call it quits, having looked in all the geologically promising spots. However, before leaving the area, Bill decided to do some bear hunting and, to that end, he crossed over into Bear Valley. What he found impressed him enough to describe it in his journal. He writes:

“I took my gun and strolled northward to view the country, and ascending to the summit of the ridge that divides the waters of the Santa Ana River from the waters of the Mojave River, and looking down from the eminence in a northerly direction, a distance of about 2 miles, there I discovered a most beautiful little valley. I gazed in wonder and delight at the beauty and grandeur of the scenery spread out to my view.”

Bill and Jack decided to prospect this new little valley, so they gathered up a few supplies and grub and headed up over the hill. As they came into Bear Valley they found a “monster Grizzly,” which Bill promptly shot and wounded but did not drop. They pursued the big bear throughout that afternoon, but night soon cut short their efforts. Early the next morning they set out once again to find the great beast. The tracking took them across a quartz ledge that, upon examination, revealed traces of gold. They immediately forgot about the bear, and gathered up some samples of the dirt that they could take down to the stream and pan. They did indeed find gold, and as they looked further, they found more and more promising deposits. By that July Holcomb Valley, as it was now called, was swarming with prospectors, and soon buildings and mills went up. A wagon road was constructed from San Bernardino, and the town of Belleville was created. Within a year, Belleville was the center of southern California’s largest gold rush. That November, the new town of Belleville lost an election race to San Bernardino for the county seat by only two votes.

Much gold was to be taken from the Big Bear area, but by the early 1920’s most of the mining activity was played out. By that time however, a few resorts had sprung up in Bear Valley. The construction of a rock dam in 1884 had created the largest mountain lake in Southern California. Fish had been stocked in the lake in 1887, and Big Bear became an exotic hideaway for the few brave enough to make the difficult journey. With the construction of a much-improved toll road a few years later access improved, and other resorts sprung up. However, real growth didn’t occur until the movie industry got involved. The rugged hills and verdant forest and meadows were perfect for filming westerns. Soon, early film pioneers such as Bison Studios, The Essanay Film Company, and the Lasky Studio of Paramount Pictures were cranking out movies. Even Cecil B. DeMille made a few pictures there. The movie crews used the resorts during filming, and helped boost the local economy. The movies brought much needed publicity to the Big Bear valley, and with it came more people. More roads were constructed, and by 1920 a “101-mile Rim of the World Drive” took tourist all over the valley and connecting sights.

Enough of the history of the area! Let’s see what there is for us to enjoy in Big Bear these days!

The most predominant feature of Big Bear is Big Bear Lake. In 1884 the original 42-foot dam created a lake of 1800 acres and 25,000 acre-feet of water. In 1912 a new dam was constructed, bringing the depth up to 72’ with 23 miles of shoreline. This increased the area of the lake to 2500 acres and raised the volume to 75,000 acre-feet. Today, though the water is highly controlled and coveted, the surface of the lake is designated as public use, and is host to boaters, sailors, jet skiers, water skiers, and fisherman all season. Sadly though, there is a prohibition on landing seaplanes on the lake.

The allure of Big Bear is not limited to just water activities. There is the Magic Mountain resort, where the whole family can have fun, and the town is full of artsy galleries and shops for browsing. For the more athletically inclined, there are miles of hiking trails all around the hills. The U.S. Forest Service has built a beautiful Discovery Center on the north shore of the lake to provide education on the area, and more details of the numerous hiking trails. Horseback rides for all levels of riders are commercially available, and you can even take overnight camping trips on horseback in the summer. Additionally, there is a Solar Observatory just down the road from the center that is open for daily tours. With over 300 days of sunshine per year in Big Bear the observatory stays busy.

Big Bear is also home to several beautiful winter resort areas. Snow Summit Ski Resort and Bear Mountain Ski Resort sit just up the road from the town of Big Bear, and Snow Valley Ski resort is between Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead to the west. They also have chair lifts open in the summer for those pleasant afternoon rides to the top of the hill. The views are breathtaking.

One of the most interesting things I noticed while exploring the town of Big Bear was all the bears! Not the wild Grizzlies that have been extinct in the area since early in the twentieth century, but the proliferation of wooden carved bears that have nearly overrun the town. Everywhere I went there were wooden bears. Bears in front yards, bears in front of businesses holding up signs. Bears on the top of flagpoles and bears scattered around in various random places. I used a whole roll of film taking pictures of wooden bears, and I was amused by some truly creative and very artistic creations.

The area is accessible year round. The roads are well maintained, and aggressive plowing keeps the lighted, 5,850-foot runway 8-26 open all year. The elevation warrants some attention when flying in, as the over 6700 foot altitude can generate some pretty high density altitudes during the warmer months. Pattern altitude is 8,000 feet, and be sure to check in on Unicom 123.05. The good news is most planes are more capable than we think, and a trip to Big Bear just might help expand our flying envelope somewhat. I saw smaller Cessnas and Pipers as well as a few lower powered homebuilts based on the field. With care and planning, most planes can safely make their way into and out of the airport. The approaches to both ends of the runway are open and unobstructed, and the valley is wide enough for a normal pattern. The runway runs east and west, and the only instructions are to turn left 10 degrees after takeoff to the west to fly over the lake on climb out. As always, being noise sensitive will be appreciated by the locals.

Though we just spent the day, a weekend trip - or longer - would be justified, and is definitely in my future. With good flying weather year round, numerous romantic Bed & Breakfasts and other fine resorts to visit, you be the judge of how long you want to stay, and just how much fun you want to have when you visit Big Bear California.

The Big Bear Airport is uncontrolled but busy. Unicom is attended during the day and pilot controlled lighting keeps it open all night. Fuel is available from a self-serve pump, and the prices were the best I have found anywhere in the last year. The airport is on the Los Angeles sectional at N34.15.81 W116.51.26. For more information, you can call the airport office at 909-585-3219. The Barnstorm Restaurant on the field is the finest restaurant I have ever seen on an airport. Most of the upscale clientele are locals, and the food has the Gourmet’s touch.
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The material in this publication is for advisory information only and should not be relied upon for navigation, maintenance or flight techniques. SW Regional Publications and the staff neither assume any responsibility for the accuracy of this publication's content nor any liability arising fom it
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