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Big Bear Lake: A Guide to Swim-Bike-Run at Altitude

Posted Aug 22 2013 12:36pm
Great trail running, especially for hill-lovers ;)
It takes us, at the most, 2 hours to drive from OC to Big Bear Lake, which sits at about 6,700 feet and can take you up to ~8,440 feet. I love it. You get from SoCal's congested freeways to secluded wilderness, without much effort. I love the area too, such a quaint little mountain town especially in summer without all the skiiers an snowboarders. Almost everywhere you look, you can see cute little shops selling carved bears and fun mountainy things, or a ma'-and-pa'-kinda diner. I've really become a fan of going up to this area for training, and even after Ironman Tahoe (which inspired me to start training here), you can bet I'll still make my way up for fun trips when we can.

I've gone four times now since June, and I feel like I'm really getting to know the area well, especially some great places to swim, bike and run! So, for anyone who's near BB, I thought I'd share some details in case you want to head up there for the same.

Swimming

No matter where you swim in the lake, you are supposed to stay within 50ft of shore to be safe from boats and stuff. Also, my most recent trip I had an escort with me for extra safety, aka my mom paddling on a surfboard. But beware- if you do that the person on the board (or any watercraft) must have a permit and life vest. We got in trouble cause we had neither and had to quit early. Bummer.

Also, try to swim early, as the wind picks up around 11 am, and makes for some tough swimming- unless you like that kinda thing :)

China Island. Note the cool beach area.
Where to swim? I mentioned on a previous post about swimming at China Island, on the south-east end, right after you hit the lake on the 18. So far, my fave place to go. It's a quick little trail hike down, and then you have a nice little sandy area with some rocks to lay your stuff while you swim. China Island is neat, too. The lake is a bit deeper in this area, so you avoid the weeds and gross stuff on the bottom, and the water also feels and looks a bit nicer and not so mucky. Below you can see a glimpse of the little trail you hike down...


Alternatively, there are other spots to swim. We once tried starting from the north-west end of the lake, which is easy access if you park on the bridge (road name: Stanfield Cutoff) where you'll see lots of fishermen. Honestly, I didn't like this place as much -- the water was very murky with algae and the weeds got pretty thick and close to the surface, to the point where you're swimming through muck and lake grass. It may be "clean" but it's still gross.
View from bridge if you're coming from town.
Parking on bridge; that beach is where we swam from.
It was not that great.




Wherever you swim, there are ample buoys that line the perimeter of the lake, so it's easy to know where the 50ft boundaries are, and makes for great practice for sighting and holding a line.

~~~

Biking

If you want big long climbs and higways with very few traffic lights/stops, Big Bear has you covered. And it's not just big-ass hills -- there are some flat areas, smaller rolling hills, etc. During summer, you can also bet on dry heat and afternoon winds. Now, I haven't mountain biked up there yet, but there is plenty of that too and MTBer's everywhere. So this is just about road-riding. It's a lot of fun and diverse. Our third trip we really got a good taste of everything and did the most riding he have so far -- about 100 miles over two days with about 8,000 ft total elevation gain. Pretty awesome!

Riding around the lake is a good, relatively easy place to start. It's about 20 miles, and flat/rolling hills mostly. Nothing crazy. I like riding on the north side better -- less traffic, more scenic and more rollers. Usually we do a lap as a warmup, then...

Onyx Summit, the highest mountain pass in Southern California. This is the "main" climb for cyclists to do. It starts east of the lake, where the 18 hits the 38 -- you hang a right on the 38 and go for it! (Btw- The 38 is the road you take to get to BB "the back way" if the 18 is too sketchy.) From the intersection it's about 8 miles to the summit, but it's really ~7 miles of actual climbing. The grade isn't too crazy, like a 4-5% average, but some parts are steeper while some parts ever-so-slightly seem to flatten out for nice relief. In comparison, I think Mt. Laguna in SD is harder. There's about 1600ft elevation gain climbing Onyx (with no downhill), starting ~6,800ft and ending at ~84,40 ft. You really start feeling it after 7,500ft, but the more often you do it, the "easier" it gets in terms of the altitude feeling. It takes be just about 40 minutes to make the climb, averaging 200-210w overall. Then the decent is fun, and good practice at going fast for a looong time.
On the 38, about to start the Onyx climb.
At the summit, good feeling or relief always! #bettydesigns
There's also the option of descending past Onyx, which we tried on our last trip. It's nice! We only went down 3 miles before turning around to come back up. I think the climb is a tad bit harder than Onyx overall, averaging 5-6% for 3 miles with fewer "flattish" areas.

View of the desert as you leave the mountains and descend.
Other cool areas? Well, maybe cool is the wrong choice of words. You can take the 18 north-east of the lake into the high desert toward Lucerne Valley. You take the 18 out, which is mostly a gradual incline that eventually leads to a big downhill into the desert. The scenery drastically changes from pine trees to, well, whatever survives in the desert. You hit a sign that warns of a steep decent for 5 miles. Unfortunately the "steep decent" really only lasts for ~2 miles then it kinda flattens out. Make the decent for a couple miles (or more- I kinda want to explore farther in the future), and turn around to ride back up (are you gathering that we have sick minds and like the self torture of going down only so we can turn around and climb?!). The grade on this one is a bit nastier than Onyx, and it's even hotter in the area. It's about 7% average based on my calculations from garmin, with definite steeper sections. Surprisingly, we encountered very nice drivers in this area who gave us shoutouts of encouragement rather than honks and F-yous, to which I'm more accustomed. After making that climb, you can take Baldwin lake road (you'll hang a left) and that's a nice recovery section with new, super nice roads. That road then turns into Shay, and eventually leads you back to Big Bear Blvd.

Wind. Unless you start super early, expect wind as of about noon! We've tended to started our rides late, and by the end it's howling. So far it's always been a headwind riding westbound and a tailwind eastbound.
Map of one of the longer rides we've done.
That covers the main roads you have in BB, each of which you can take for even longer for mega rides. The one direction I didn't mention is going west and back down the 18, but that's sketchy because it's the main road everyone drives up, there's not much of a bike lane, and it's extremely curvy roads. Nah. I do think they hold an organized ride up that road, though, which would be an epic day of climbing.

I also want to do this ride one day.

~~~

Running

Ah, running, my love. And boy do I love to love and hate it at altitude :) I'll admit, I have yet to run more than 10 miles in Big Bear in one run, but it'll happen one day. Of course, you can run on any road around town, but here are a couple recommendations.

For a flatter asphalt path with a scenic view, take the North Shore Trail. You can park for free by Vons or on the Stanfield Cutoff bridge area (and avoid paying fees at one of the nearby lots on the north shore!), and from there it's a quick jog north and then hang a left onto the trail. Can't miss it. If you hit the 18 highway, you've gone too far. I'm actually not sure how far the trail really goes, but I've run an out-and-back on it for 6 miles total (t-run). I think it goes another mile or two before turning back into the main road with cars. It is really a great little trail, and there are always people walking an jogging, but there's ample space and it's not too congested. My 6-mile run only had ~200ft elevation gain. And this is at ~6,700ft btw.

Running on the trail. Scenic, right?
Again, parking on the bridge, and the trail starts right up
from here to the left, across from that building.
Map of the North Shore Trail. Note the dark line - that's how far it
really goes, and I failed to go all the way this time.
Then there are trails. This could go on forever, as there are a million and a half great trails to explore in the area, but so far I only have one I can speak of from experience, and that is the 2N08 or Knickerbocker Trail, from which a bunch of other trails branch out. Knickerbocker starts in a neighborhood area south of the lake, past The Village, after a short drive up either Pine Knot Ave. or Knickerbocker Road. It's obviously a popular trail, as the cross country team was out running when I did it this week, as well as hikers. It is steep to begin with for ~2 miles then flattens out a bit and is mostly rolling hills -- at which point you're running at about the 7400-7600ft level. I did 4 miles out, hanging a left at ~3.5 miles on the 2N17 when the road forked, then 4 miles back. It's all fire road so not too technical, and very beautiful, with great views of the lake in the beginning. Almost a perfect run for me, except, stupid me: I rolled my ankle on a rock. Dummy.
View of the lake from about the highest elevation you get on the trail.
Map of our run, the dark lines are other run-able trails.
Note Snow Summit on the bottom right. Doing that next time!
Entrance point of Knickerbocker Trail (2N08).

This area is also where the hold the Endure the Bear trail runs (everything from 5k to 50k I think). The route will take you all the way to Snow Summit peak, which is about 8,000ft. Next time I go back, I'm going to do that... I'll probably do the 15k or 30k route, which you can check out here . I was actually going to do the 15k this past week, but got mixed up on the route and then after rolling my ankle decided to to do anything too crazy in case it started hurting worse.

My friend Ryan Denner, who knows this area very well, also recommended the Cougar Crest/PCT trail on the north end. Sounds interesting! You can find many more trails on Strava and Map My Run.

That's it, for now, for swim-bike-run tips! And last but not least...

Eating

Food. A must if you're kicking arse in las montanas! If you're looking to be super healthy, I suggest bringing your own food and staying in a cabin with a kitchen (or packing a cooler if it's just a day trip). There are plenty of bar/tavern/mountain-style places with typical American fare and plenty of pizza joints, but there aren't that many health-oriented restaurants from what I've seen (including on Yelp/Google), and the "good ones" look a little pricey and possibly just open for dinner. And during summer, open hours may be even more limited? That said, there looks to be some better places in The Village area, with more opening. I want to try  this one .

Grocery-wise, there are only two main stores: Vons (the better of the two) and Stater Bros. That said, I usually stock up on groceries before leaving so I'd have all my organic, grass-fed, healthy stuff for our meals, down to quality cooking oils to avoid food that may promote inflammation. Plus I love being in a little cabin cooking the mountains -- adds the the experience!
Cooking in the cabin, post-workout, in my "sexy" outfit.
#110PlayHarderCompression
Our infamous burger night spread.
Oh yea, and this DOES exist. Good, not great, brews though.
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