Big Bear Lake
5 Star Route / Ridden & Reviewed by JoshV
Note: This is a 5 Star Route, meaning that it is a highly curated, premier riding route.
The Big Bear Lake area revolves around outdoor recreation, and after this ride you’ll understand why! Named after the grizzly bears that used to abound in the area and nestled in the northern section of the San Bernardino National Forest, this route begins in the wilderness north of the lake, near the town of Fawnskin. Here you’ll climb on brilliant white sand gravel until you “bear” east where the road gets a bit questionable – stretches of sand that will have you skating, followed by a chunky, rocky road. However, fear not! The testy terrain will give way to a welcome paved descent that will lead you through the charming tourist town of Big Bear and into view of a beautiful of the lake. Enjoy the sights and sounds, and perhaps stop for a brew and a bite at one of the many restaurants on your way back to the start!
Adventure / Gravel Route
– Lollipop: 23 miles / 1500 ft gain
– Surface: ~ 50% gravel, 10% paved bike path, 40% paved road
– eBike Friendly: Yes
– Location: ~ 1 hour, 50 minutes east of Los Angeles, California
– Published: November 2020 (updated January 2021)
Technical Difficulty & Risk [what this means …]
Moderate–. Due to the rough stretch on Holcomb Valley Road (miles 5 to 11) and the moderately chunky nature of the rest of the gravel/dirt portion of the route. Cell service is hit or miss no matter where you are in Big Bear Lake. However, one is never far from a campground or other civilization.
When we like to ride this …
This route should be ideal from April through September. We (my wife and I) rode it in July, and the Poodle-dog Bush was in full bloom!
Serrano Campground, at the intersection of the CA-38 (N. Shore Drive) and N. Shore Lane (east end). There is parking just off the side of the road. Flush toilets and water available in the campground.
Lat / Long: 34.262175, -116.911408
Depending on where you are staying in Big Bear, you can really pick this route up anywhere in town and ride it either way – clockwise or counterclockwise.
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Big Bear Lake is a very popular tourist destination in the San Bernardino National Forest and a welcome refuge from the summer heat for residents of sunny Southern California (2-hour drive), Las Vegas (3 ½ hours), and Arizona (5 ½ hours). The town, lake, and forest have something for everyone: camping, hiking, kayaking, boating, off-roading, and, of course, biking: mountain, road, and gravel. Snow Summit is a winter sports destination that operates as a downhill bike park during the summer months. The town revolves around outdoor recreation.
The indigenous Serrano people inhabited big Bear Lake for over 2,000 years before Benjamin Wilson and his party explored it. Once populated by only the natives and the grizzly bears, from which the area received its name, the Big Bear Valley population grew rapidly during the Southern California gold rush from 1861 to 1912. Grizzly bears were not found in the region after 1908. Black bears were introduced into the area in 1933 and remain today. [Wikipedia]
An excellent starting point for this route is near the Serrano Campground right next to the intersection of the CA-38 (N. Shore Dr.) and N. Shore Ln. (East end). There is parking just off the side of the road where you can pick up the route on the Alpine Pedal Path. My wife Blair and I rode this route clockwise, but it could certainly be enjoyed counter-clockwise as well (I’ll touch on the differences below).
The bike path will intersect N. Shore Lane, and you’ll need to jump on the CA-38 for a quarter-mile, which can be dubious, but there is a decent shoulder that will take you to Polique Canyon Road (2N09) and the first dirt of the route [~ mile 1.3]. The climb begins immediately, and you’ll gain nearly 800 vertical feet over the next 2.2 miles. At the apex [~ mile 3.6] is the Polique Canyon Pacific Crest Trailhead. Up to this point, the terrain is brilliant white sand gravel with some loose rock chunk and a stretch of pavement during the steepest grade (thank you!).
Looking south from this portion of Pacific Crest trail, you see not only Big Bear Lake but also Mount San Gorgonio, the highest mountain in Southern California. To the north of this segment of the trail, you will find views of Holcomb Valley, part of the historic gold country of San Bernardino. According to bigbearcountry.com, more gold was taken out of Holcomb Valley per square mile than anywhere else in Southern California. The popular television show Bonanza was also filmed in Holcomb Valley. [Mountain Hiking Site]
Continue on 2N09 for another mile and a half [~ mile 5.3], at which point you’ll turn right on Holcomb Valley Road (3N16). In another mile and a half [~ mile 6.7], you’ll come upon the Belleville Cabin, a lasting remnant of the ghost town of Belleville.
Belleville, California was a gold mining boomtown in the San Bernardino Mountains. The settlement grew up rapidly following the discovery of gold by William F. Holcomb in early 1860. Belleville was named after Belle, the first child born in the new town. It was a busy mining town for ten years, but it was virtually abandoned before the end of the 19th century. [Wikipedia]
From here, the terrain turns a bit nasty – you’ll encounter stretches of sand that will have you skating, which will give way to chunky rock. Tires with a bit of extra rubber would be ideal for this couple mile stretch. The true descent begins at ~ mile 8.3. At mile 10, we came out of the forest where the views opened up, and we encountered beautiful fields of “Poodle-dog Bush.”
Turricula parryi, Poodledog Bush is a show stopper when it flowers. This is one of the largest fire following wildflowers. It does not compete well with grass seeding after fires. If there is a brush fire in your area that has not been seeded with grasses (or other weeds), keep your eye out for this plant. You will probably never see it in a nursery. [Las Pilitas Nursery]
A fun descent on some welcome blacktop [~ mile 11] follows, and you’ll begin bearing west back towards Big Bear City [~ mile15.5]. Maneuvering through Big Bear City, you’ll spend a very short time on CA-38 and generally weave through side roads lined with charming cabins before reaching the lake itself [~ mile 20.5]. Cross the bridge and pick up the Alpine Pedal Path, enjoying the beautiful lake along the home stretch to finish at the Serrano Campground!
I tackled this on 43mm Panaracer Gravelking SK’s. Airing down on the gravel and dirt portions would certainly be appropriate, then airing up once you hit pavement again.
I recommend a red blinky light as there is some traffic along the route, particularly through town.
Food / Water
There is a myriad of places to stop for food and fuel in Big Bear Lake, on the southern portion of the route.