Explore Big Bear’s North Shore

Do you want to introduce your kids to nature? We live in one of the most populated regions in the United States, so sometimes it’s nice to get away from it all and experience the mountains, or “Southern California’s backyard.” For a day trip to a quieter place where you can be immersed in the trees and the sound of lapping water on the lake, try Big Bear Lake’s less populated North Shore.

Big Bear Lake was originally created to provide water for farming. Now it provides water for residents of the Santa Ana Watershed – in the Inland Empire and Orange County.

Big Bear Lake was originally created to capture and provide water to farmers in the Inland Empire. Now it is part of a system that provides water for millions of people living in the Santa Ana Watershed, including the Inland Empire and Orange County.

I took my niece Emily (10) and nephew Hunter (11) to “kid test” these attractions. They are both born and bred city kids and were a bit skeptical of hiking, but once we got out on the trail they noticed enough of the nuances of nature to fascinate them for hours. We went hiking and kayaking – which was a big hit on a little budget!


DSCN1291Your day should start at the Big Bear Discovery Center, which is run in part by the U.S. Forest Service. There, you can buy an Adventure Pass for the day ($5) or the year ($30). It will allow you to park at certain trailheads. The rangers there can suggest hikes that will be appropriate for your kids’ age and ability level. The two they suggested for us were the Woodland Trail a mile down the road and the Cougar Crest Trail that can be accessed right from the Discovery Center’s parking lot (although it does have it’s own parking lot requiring an Adventure pass nearby).

Woodland Trail

The Woodland Trail is a 1.5 mile loop with an educational opportunity. There are numbers at specific spots along the trail that correspond to sections in a pamphlet guide you can pick up at the Discovery Center. You also need to buy an Adventure Pass to park in the parking lot. You and your kids can see a juniper tree that is 1,500 years old, the crazily-constructed home of a real-life “packrat” (proper name: Woodrat), and the highest peak in Southern California, Mt. Gorgonio, which rises to 11,499 feet!

Cougar Crest Trail

The Cougar Crest Trail links Big Bear Lake to the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, which closely follows the highest portions of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain ranges, all the way from Mexico to Canada (it’s the West Coast counterpart of the famed Appalachian Trail).


The Cougar Crest is approximately 5.5 miles round trip. It starts out rather easily and gets steeper as you go up. You can always start the trail and go until your kids get tired, which is what we did. In the beginning, Emily and Hunter were kind of wondering what the big deal was, but as we made our way through, here is a list of things that started to fascinate them:

–        The twisting red bark of a juniper tree

–        Blue jays flying from branch to branch

–        A lizard in the process of shedding its skin

–        A decaying log with lots of creepy-crawlies inside

–        A recently felled tree where they could see the branches and leaves up close

–        Bright green moss on branches

–        Pink quartz

–        Dry riverbeds, which carry snowmelt down to the lake, and to all of our taps, come spring

Can you believe this is in Southern California?
Can you believe this is in Southern California?


There are two marinas on the North Shore: the Lighthouse Trailer Resort & Marina near the Solar Observatory and Captain John’s Marina at Fawn Harbor on Grout Bay.


Here’s a note about kayaking in Big Bear: you are not allowed to go out into the middle of the lake, as that area is reserved for motorized boats. For your own safety, you need to stay behind the buoys that say “5 mph.” That means that you can travel much farther by kayak if you go to a marina on the south shore of the lake. The North Shore, however, can be good for beginners with small arms who may not be able to travel very far and are just trying to get the hang of turning. It’s a bit like learning to drive in an empty parking lot.

Kayaking was definitely the kids’ favorite part of the day. Neither of them had ever tried to propel and type of small boat, and they were extremely excited. They loved getting to choose where we would paddle and they loved just being on the water. Me, I enjoyed the serenity of the views.

Hunter 3Rental Rates

Each marina has many different types of boats to rent, so for more complete pricing information, follow the links below.

Lighthouse Marina: Double Kayak – $25/hr

Captain John’s at Fawn Harbor: Any Kayak – $20/hr


Big Bear is a great place for a picnic, and the folks at the Discovery Center will happily provide you with a map that will lead you to some favorite spots. There are spots to eat at Captain John’s and the Grout Bay Picnic Area is just a short drive away across Grout Bay.  The Meadows Edge Picnic Area is on North Shore Lane, which is close to the Alpine Pedal Path and the Lighthouse Marina.


If you want some local flavor, try the North Shore Café. It is a cute place in the tiny settlement of Fawnskin on Grout Bay that serves the basics with a twist – there are more types of burgers than you think you’d get on a mountain. There is also a full beverage menu to ease any aching muscles from hiking. They have a kids menu too. They have a commitment to healthy eating and serve no deep fried foods, so while the kids were somewhat disappointed when they did not get French fries, I wasn’t terribly broken up about it.

Santa Ana Watershed Map - Big Bear

About Kid-Approved Adventures

There are so many cool things to do with your kids in the Santa Ana Watershed, which extends from Big Bear to Huntington Beach, coving much of the Inland Empire and Orange County. One thing that these two regions share is a water supply – and if you live in the IE or the OC, most of your water comes from within this area.

The Santa Ana Watershed encompasses all of the best of SoCal living – the mountains, the desert, and the beach – and sightseeing locally is a great way to have fun with your kids without burning a ton of cash. We will visit many places in the IE and the OC together and all of it is “kid-approved” by them.

Want to explore more places in the watershed? Take a look at SAWPA’s map of things to do in the Santa Ana Watershed, which extends from Big Bear to the beach!