It had been a while since my friend Ethan and I had gotten together for a proper outdoor adventure. The pandemic and other life commitments had gotten in the way. Still, over Memorial Day this year, we planned a get-together with a “bike glamping” adventure at Big Bear Lake, a manufactured body of water roughly 100 miles east of Los Angeles.
A route was researched, which Ethan, an avid hiker, backpacker, and peak bagger, extended with some side trips to tick some high points off the Sierra Club Hundred Peaks Section Peak List. We were not really in the mood to rough it this time, so we rented an Airbnb in Moonridge, a neighborhood of Big Bear, up on the southern slopes above town.
We got dropped off by Ethan’s wife a little over the halfway mark of the ride northeast of the lake, down the road of the local garbage dump/waste management area. The plan was to ride back to our accommodation on day 1 and start the 2nd part from our rental the following morning. After a heavy snow winter, the weather conditions were close to perfect, with sunny, cloudless skies, and temperatures climbing into the high sixties.
We eased into the ride by warming up on North Shore Drive for a bit before a swift and short downhill brought us to the entrance of Cactus Road, one of many dirt roads in the area popular with ATV and UTV drivers. Carefully we descended the rocky and sandy track to the bottom, crossing a parking area where we bumped into the vehicles of a local adventure outfitter.
Smarts Ranch Road took us southeast and would be our main path through this semi-desert environment, dominated by Joshua Trees, very much rideable with our mountain bike setups, however with some pockets of deep sand which caused us to belt out the occasional swear word.
About six miles into the ride, it was time to look out for a side spur that would eventually function as the starting point for our first (and, as it turned out, last) peak bagging side trip of the day. We followed the now decommissioned road for about a quarter of a mile before finding a shaded and secluded spot to leave our bikes and head northeast on foot, cross-country, aiming for East Peak at 7,527 feet.
“Should take us a couple of hours,” Ethan had estimated, and given his extensive hiking and backpacking experience, I trusted his judgment unquestionably. We crossed the wide valley through a sea of Joshua Trees, blooming cacti, and desert flowers.
As we proceeded to the mountain’s base, started the climb, and scrambled up the slope, it gradually dawned on us that this would be much harder than anticipated. Eventually, “a couple of hours” turned into four and a half for the roughly 5.6 miles out-and-back side adventure. However, the views from the top into Johnson Valley and the Mojave Desert did not disappoint. The red tin can holding the summit register we attempted to sign seemed to have been last opened in the 80s and was not budging at our attempts to open it.
Given we had not anticipated being on the hike for this long, we also ran out of water, and slight dehydration symptoms and fatigue started setting in. On one occasion, I did not pay as much attention to the ground as I should have and got poked in my left foot by a cactus. Not too long later, Ethan slipped, trying to descend from a boulder, and slightly twisted his left ankle. None of these turned into showstoppers, but it was par for the course that this trip wasn’t going as planned. We followed the rest of the cairn-marked route back down and off the mountain and returned to our bikes for much-needed rehydration, contemplating how to continue.
And continue we had to, there was no other choice. We were too deep into the dirt road with no cell reception. Unfortunately, we had 25 miles left, with most of the climbing still ahead of us, and it was already past 4pm. The first uphill section became a sea of rocks and boulders, challenging to ride in our already fatigued state. Kind ATV drivers going the other direction gave us some water to replenish our slightly depleted water resources. We reached a temporary high point at the intersection with Arrastre Creek Road around 5pm, where Ethan mentioned that he did not feel in good enough condition to continue. “I am cooked. I think I need to bail.”
I felt reasonably okay, optimistic I could cover the remaining 17 miles before darkness set in, so we parted ways at the junction. Ethan had plotted a way for him to get back to civilization and settlements close to the lake where he could phone his wife to get picked up.
I continued through a meadow filled with Joshua Trees left and right before turning south on Broom Flats Road, slowly climbing to the highest point of the day at 7,660 feet. The Joshua Trees gradually made way to pine trees as I gained altitude. Fatigue now also finally started to settle in, and the dryness of the air at this higher elevation caused some persistent cough to set in.
From the high point, what should have been an exhilarating downhill brought me down to Arrastre Creek, but instead, I was focused on staying alert despite my exhaustion and trying not to crash. After the easy crossing of the slow-flowing creek, I had to push the bike the final mile up to the junction with Hwy 38. With grades around 15 percent and chunky, fist-sized rocks, riding uphill was unthinkable.
I pushed on for a downhill on the highway with little traffic. Temperatures had dropped significantly, and I began to shiver on the descent before the route directed me to turn onto a singletrack parallel to the main road. The trail wasn’t in the best condition, rutted in parts from water runoff from snow melt the last few weeks and exposed rocks.
At 8pm and sunset, I threw in the towel. I had made it within city limits but passed my physical limitations. It was getting dark and cold, and I did not trust that I could conquer the remaining 5 miles of more uphill. I pulled into a forest road and made my “rescue” call to Ethan to pick me up to get back to the Airbnb.
The vote was unanimous. We would not attempt the entire day two route on the second day. Neither Ethan nor I felt in any condition to push ourselves through another 40 miles of unforgiving alpine terrain. Instead, we leisurely left our Airbnb at the laid-back time of 10:30am and headed towards the trail system on top of the ridge on the south side of the lake.
After a punchy climb up a fire road, we connected with the Skyline Trail, a well-maintained, non-technical multi-use trail running along the ridge line. As we were weaving back and forth through the pine forest, the joyous feelings of riding along unencumbered through beautiful scenery finally set in.
The altitude and some of the short uphill sections exhausted us, so we took frequent breaks to enjoy the scenery to the south of the San Bernardino Mountains and San Gorgonio as its highest peak. The weather, again, was perfect, with slightly cooler temperatures than the previous day, but not a cloud in the sky to tarnish the views.
After ten miles, the Plantation Trail was supposed to bring us swiftly back towards the lake and into town. Alas, nature had some last-minute surprises for us. Patches of snow were still leftover from an unreasonable winter high in precipitation. Not only did we have to navigate the melting white mounds, but the melt water also created creeks and ponds that needed to be navigated around. Riding through mud created by snow melt ensured that we looked properly dirty when we arrived at a coffee and tea place in town, our official bookend for this adventure.
As we sipped our drinks, we both agreed: Suffering is optional. Sometimes it is just enough to be outside, in nature, with good company.
We modified it to incorporate some side trips to tag some mountain peaks along the route, a plan we had to quickly abandon because we misjudged the physical effort.
Depending on your level of fitness and tolerance for suffering, we would suggest at least two days for the full route, with three days allowing for more relaxed riding and opportunity to soak in the alpine scenery.
Big Bear is located about 100 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, roughly a two-hour drive in good traffic conditions.
The town of Big Bear Lake can serve as a great refuel stop, depending on where you start the route. There are also opportunities to restock in Boulder Bay and Fawnskin.
Water can be hard to come by along the route and availability will vary, relative to the time of year. We had stashed a couple of gallon-sized water jugs at the intersection of the route with Hwy 38. There will be more water source opportunities on the western part of the route, again with Boulder Bay and Fawnskin as options, but likely also at one or the other campground along the route.
The variety in terrain, which included riding on pavement on one end of the spectrum, and dirt roads with suitcase-sized boulders on the other, warranted a mountain bike setup with bikepacking bags depending on your needs (camping vs. staying at a motel/Airbnb).
Riding my Salsa Timberjack on this trip definitely felt like the right choice. I would not recommend attempting this with a gravel bike.
- Tour De Los Padres. Primarily focused on routes in Los Padres National Forest, but has other bikepacking routes listed, including the Big Bear Lake Loop researched for this trip.
Permits and Fees
- Adventure Pass. Fee for using various National Forests in Southern California. If you are planning on parking at one of the designated parking lots, a pass will be required.
- National Weather Service – Big Bear Lake. Current weather conditions with seven day forecast.