By the time we left that morning, it was almost 10 o’clock. In Newport Beach, the fog had already swooned and faded. On the road, temperature manifested itself as a neon dashboard figure remaining surprisingly still as we made our mountain ascent. Seventy degrees, unchanging. Big Bear is best known among Newport Beach locals as a wintry destination, coveted for its proximity from sand to snow. In the span of a two-hour drive, palm trees turn to pine and the landscape looks refreshingly unlike the postcards of Southern California sold along the boardwalk. Visitors ski, snowboard, surf the fresh powder. They drink hot cocoa and remember what it’s like to have seasons separate the year.
But this was early November before the ski lift even thinks about cackling and we—my dad and I—decided to go there anyway.
Maybe the best parts of Big Bear are the autumnal corners unexplored, the ones with no price tags or crowds. Once you get into town, it costs nothing (save a few miles in gas) to get there, if there’s even a there to be gotten.
During off season when the mountain is closed, parking is easy around Big Bear Lake. Find the East Boat Ramp and steer your car into any of the empty concrete slots (and there are dozens to be found). Walk the lake path, breathe the smog-less air. The colors in November are deeply golden, with burnished leaves mingling against alpine rows of evergreens. Across the lake, slow-sloping hills are sprinkled with wooden chateaus, and it’s no wonder the Sister City of Big Bear is found in Abtenau, Austria. Abtenau is a European skiing destination with a path-lined lake, just like Big Bear’s, called the Gosausee.
The restaurants and shops in Big Bear are quiet but open. Big Bear Lake Village is yours for the touristy, t-shirt taking. Although even if the stores sell campy Big Bear mugs, there’s an atmosphere to the rows of boutiques that’s more authentic than it is vacationist.
Arguably the best destination to end your off-season day is Big Bear Lake Brewing Company, a low-key eatery just one block from the village. Big Bear Lake Brewing Company makes its own brews on location and even adds them to dishes like chocolate porter brownies or the beer-cheese dip that accompanies warm, Bavarian-style pretzels. The brewery is dog-friendly on the patio and human-friendly everywhere else.
At sunset, when even the wilderness was too shadowy to explore, Big Bear Lake Brewing Company proved for us a fitting final stop. My dog ate bacon while we sipped IPAs, joking with the waiter about the sharp twists of the one-lane road.
“That’s just part of the fun in getting here,” he said. “It’s definitely a wild ride.”