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In the footsteps of miners with minors in San Bernardino

With the Fourth of July weekend almost upon us, here are half a dozen car trips throughout the Golden State. The staff of the Travel section road-tested these journeys, staying at unusual inns, finding the best local fare and soaking up the sights and scenery. Here's where to hit the highway for an old-fashioned vacation off the beaten path. Pages 12-14.

June 29, 2003|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

Big Bear Lake — Big Bear Lake

WE weren't looking for a grand adventure. Just a small one -- the kind that might appeal to a 3-year-old and an 11-year-old. We weren't disappointed.

The route was Rim of the World Scenic Byway, a 175-mile round-trip jaunt from San Bernardino that officially begins in the desert scrublands of the Cajon Pass and climbs steeply to crisscross the spine of the San Bernardino Mountains.

The hilltop part of the route is slightly more than 100 miles and links some of Southern California's best-known mountain communities, including Crestline, Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake. Along the way, it follows trails and rutted wagon routes used for centuries by adventurers of all stripes -- explorers, horse thieves, settlers, miners, loggers.

Ethan, 3, and Dylan, 11, were part of an extended family group that took to the hills for a weekend in early June, along with a couple of dogs, three adults and an infant. We began where the Scenic Byway starts: Mormon Rocks, 19 miles north of San Bernardino in the Cajon Pass, just west of Interstate 15 on California 138. The sandstone formations, called hogbacks, are easy to see from the road. They were used as a backdrop for TV cowboys; later they appeared on the old "Star Trek" TV series. The pockmarked rocks received their name from Mormon pioneers who camped nearby in 1851. We admired the landmark, then turned east, climbing into the mountains on California 138.

To the west we could see a long freight train laboring up the hill; we reached the Cajon Pass Overlook just in time to watch the train rumble by below us. A historic corridor stretched in front of us: The Old Spanish Trail passed this way in 1830; Santa Fe laid railroad tracks here in 1885. The significance of the spot didn't impress the boys, but the train did.

Our next stop was at an overlook above Silverwood Lake, a state reservoir and recreation area where we watched ski boats glide across deep-blue water. The road then began to climb sharply, and the chaparral and manzanita were replaced by tall pines. Here and there we saw dead or dying pines -- victims of the bark beetle infestation that has killed thousands of trees in the San Bernardino National Forest.

At Crestline (about 11 miles), we turned left onto California 18. We looked for rim-of-the-world views of the San Bernardino Valley from this skyline route along the edge of the mountain range. Alas, June gloom hung across the basin. It was clear and sunny where we were, cloudy and gray below.

We stopped for sandwiches at an aging roadside cafe and visited the Sky Forest Ranger Station, where we purchased National Forest Adventure Passes ($5 per day or $30 per year). The passes are required in San Bernardino, Angeles, Los Padres and Cleveland national forests (www.adventurepass.org).

Next came two highlights of our trip: the National Children's Forest and Keller Peak Lookout. About half a mile east of Running Springs on California 18 is the Deerlick Fire Station, where children staff a tiny museum and information center on weekends. Five miles up a paved side road (Keller Peak Road, 1N96) is the Children's Forest, replanted by kids after the devastating Bear Fire of 1970. The forest has an accessible three-quarter-mile nature trail, picnic tables and clean restrooms. It was a pleasant and easy walk, even for our 3-year-old.

Nearby is Keller Peak Lookout -- the day's greatest adventure. The lookout tower, perched on a rocky outcropping at 7,882 feet, required a scary climb up 27 steep ladder-like steps to the glass house where volunteers watch for fires. The valley and mountain view was dazzling and dizzying -- or was that just the climb? (The lookout is open to the public 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from Memorial Day until the first snowfall.)

We were hitting our stride. Our next stop was Big Bear Lake and the Majestic Moose Lodge, where we found cute cabins, fireplaces, lawns and a playground, a heated pool and affordable prices. There was even a dogs-are-welcome policy. Our cabins had kitchens and outside barbecues.

We tackled the homeward section of the drive the next afternoon, winding past the lake, eventually connecting to California 38, a less hectic, heavily forested route to the valley floor. Unfortunately, the bark beetle plague is evident here too.

Our last stop was tiny Jenks Lake, about a mile from Barton Flats. It's a pleasant place to picnic; the boys watched people fishing.

"How did the trip rate?" I asked our young adventurers as we loaded back into the car after lunch.

"That was fun," Dylan said.

Little Ethan didn't talk, but he gave me a big hug. I think he liked it too.

Majestic Moose Lodge, 39328 Big Bear Blvd., Big Bear Lake, CA 92315; (877) 585-5855, fax (909) 866-7576, www.majesticmooselodge.com. Doubles from $89; one-bedroom cabins from $109.

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