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Weekend Escape: San Bernardino Mountains : Big Bear Pause : There are fall colors in Southern California, and boating and mountain-biking besides

November 12, 1995|JIM HOLLANDER | Hollander is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer

BIG BEAR LAKE — Don't let anyone tell you that Southern California doesn't have a real fall. My wife and I just returned from a weekend in the San Bernardino Mountains, and I'm glad to report that you don't have to pay hundreds of dollars to fly to New England to see the orange and gold hues associated with autumn.

Leslie and I have been to Big Bear several times in the spring and summer. For us, it's been a favorite quick getaway and a sort of sleight of hand on the imagination: We simply pretend we're in the Alps. For us, there was no added significance that we were going in October. We had planned to do some mountain biking one day and explore the lake the next.

We left on a hot, smoggy Friday afternoon for the 108-mile drive eastbound on Interstate 10 to San Bernardino, and the eventual hookup to California 18. As the pine forest enveloped us, it was hard to believe that just an hour or so earlier, we had been in a traffic nightmare created by an overturned big rig in Pomona.

The searing image of the truck's burned-out shell was soon replaced by rust-colored ferns and red-yellow leaves of cottonwoods, aspens and creek dogwoods. The lodgepole pines stuck out like tall green sentinels against the multihued backdrop. Even our noses told us that fall was everywhere.


We had reserved our usual cabin No. 5 in Big Bear Lake at the Hillcrest Lodge, where we've stayed before. It's not lakefront, but it's not waterfront prices either. For $76 we had our own comfortably furnished cabin, with a fully equipped kitchen, living room with fireplace and television, and a bedroom and bathroom.

The complex is small, with three cabins and nine motel units, and is next to the Queen of Siam Restaurant, down the street from Kim's Toys R' Used, which specializes in "pre-loved toys." There is an outdoor hot tub, barbecues and redwood decks.

After settling in, Leslie and I went to Chad's in the town's "village," the rapidly evolving commercial strip of quaint shops, restaurants and novelty stores. We had a beer and shot a couple games of pool while the jukebox's concoction of '60s blues and '70s heavy metal fought a losing battle with the televised baseball playoffs.

For dinner, we went to Madlon's, a white-linen restaurant about five miles outside of town in Big Bear City, that had been highly recommended.

In case you are not confused, let this muddle your sense of logic: Big Bear Lake is a city, and it is a lake. But Big Bear City is unincorporated San Bernardino County. Leslie and I pondered this absurdity as we dined on a couple of Madlon's specialties: I had the grouper with capers and sun-dried tomatoes; Leslie had the angel hair pasta with chicken. Despite its billing, my plate didn't have one caper, and Leslie's dinner would have been more aptly called pasta and chicken. But Madlon herself came around to all the tables to make sure we were all satisfied, and the effect was that we left happy and stuffed.

We were also tired, and with the 40-degree temperatures warmed by a three-log fire, we slept long and hard.

The following morning, after an All-American breakfast at the Hungry Bear Cafe, we took our bikes to the Snow Summit ski resort south of Big Bear Lake village. In summer and fall, the resort runs its ski lifts for mountain bikers. The bikes are hooked onto one chair, and you ride in the chair behind. It's a beautiful 20-minute ride up the face of the mountain, the lake glistening in the sun as you rise above it toward the 8,200-foot peak.

The sky chair is also popular with hikers, who buy a one-way ticket for $4.50. In addition, people can purchase round-trip tickets for $7, allowing them to visit the mountaintop restaurant and sun deck and ride the chair back. One-way fare for mountain bikers is $7, and an all-day pass is $18. Snow Summit operates the lift seven days a week through early October, and on weekends only until the first snow turns the resort back into a ski business. High-quality suspension bikes are available for rent.

We rode along the crest of the mountain on the route the locals call "skyline drive," a dirt road that combines moderate climbs with unparalleled views of the San Gorgonio Wilderness Area on one side and Bear Valley on the other. We had selected a 25-mile loop that took us by the world's largest lodgepole pine, beside a flaming orange and yellow alpine meadow.

The last part of the ride took us through a fern-carpeted forest beautifully accented in fall hues. You don't have to be on a mountain bike to experience this. Miles of small hiking trails meander among the pines and cottonwoods, and the relationship with bikers is mostly cordial.

Leslie had lost a highly contested game of eight ball the evening before, so she insisted on a rematch. After our ride, we went back to Chad's and duked it out on the green felt. It's not important, of course, who won. (I did.) But we did work up an appetite.

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