After having lived most of my life in the Bay Area, California mountains meant only the Sierra Nevada. My earliest memories are of Lake Tahoe with the bands of blue, the color deepening the further you were from shore. I remember the translucency of the water, the whiteness of the beach sand and the way the sun shining through the water left a dazzling pattern on the sandy bottom. And the granite, always angular and glistening with feldspar.
Vacation in the mountains was a reprieve from home and the rank eucalyptus odors. Now it was sage and pine, and brilliant, hard edged cumulus instead of the dull sheets of stratus.
But it was time to put all that behind and turn my thoughts without aversion to the Southern California Mountains, another transverse mountain range like the Santa Ynez range. The deep power of the San Andreas fault had twisted the mountains sideways, contrary to the northwest trending of the other California ranges.
With some of the family now living in Southern California, a three and a half hour drive to Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardinos won the day over nine hours north to Lake Tahoe.
The San Bernardino Mountains rise abruptly on all sides out of its arid landscape. The curving road makes a quick ascent passing occasional coulter and knobcone pines, dried stalks of yuccas and chaparral. In a land of few lakes, only dams can create a body of water, gathered mostly from snow melt. Big Bear Lake, no exception, occupies its own shallow valley set in low mountains and open conifer forests. Unlike the Sierra, where millions of trees have succumbed to the long drought and insect attacks, Big Bear’s trees look healthy, perhaps being accustomed to dry years.
While noticing the distinct differences between the appearance of Sierra Nevada and the San Bernardinos, I remembered reading of their similarities. Both began as batholiths formed of cooling magma deep underground before being uplifted some three million years ago. Older rocks overlain the newer granites. But in the Sierra Nevada, the old rock eroded away with the heavier rains and the extensive glaciation. In the Santa Bernardinos, with glaciation only on the highest peaks and less rain, more of the old rock remains.
Because we were nine people, we rented a large, recently remodeled house which is currently on the market for three and a half million dollars. While the family took to kayaks and paddle boards, I settled in on the deck to figure out this place.
The dominate pine is the Jeffrey – a close relative of the ponderosa (yellow) pine, which along with the coulter pine, are all members of the yellow pine family distinguished by packets of three long needles which produce nice harmonies in the wind.
The fir family was represented by white fir growing, at the deck rail, with short, dense needles which point upward. Each species seems to have its own distinct odor. Press your nose into the cracks between the plates of bark on the yellow pine and you smell vanilla. Sniff the white fir and you get an essence of pine and citrus. Be like the native American Indians, brew a cup of tea with the needles and you have your daily requirement for vitamin C.
But what took my fancy was the pair of sugar pines above a neighbor’s roof. Aside from being both the largest and second tallest in the pinus family with uncommonly long pine cones, I love this pine. John Muir savored the exuded gum which he said was sweeter than maple-syrup. The branches are arranged on the straight trunk often symmetrically, but sometimes a branch will shun order and stretch out further than the rest. Cones hang near the tip of the branch. I remember watching them in a winter wind swaying as if they were extravagant ornaments. Once, while examining a cone a foot and a half long lying on the ground, I remember someone telling me that the scales expand and contract with the change of temperature and the prickles make a grove in the soil for the seed. I’ve never been able to find another citation for that charming “fact” since.
The forest, at least in the neighborhood of our house on north-facing shore is knitted together by an understory of a tall manzanita called Pringle Manzanita. The season for its pink urn-shaped flowers is long past and only a few dried berries remain.
Time to shake off the lethargy that comes with an occasional fleecy cloud drifting across the blue and then dissolving or the soft song of pines, and explore the rest of the lake. The dam is a modest one required only to hold back the snow melt and the marshy waters in the shallow basin. Once around the corner to the drier south-facing shore, sages and the sturdy Sierra juniper make an appearance.
At the visitor’s center, we take literature on the trees of the region and the description of a champion lodgepole pine further up the mountain which sounds almost reachable by a short trail.
It appears there would be no avoiding the walk once my daughter learned of it. Children, no matter how old themselves, are reluctant to entertain the ills (real or imagined) of their elders. I did bring my boots so maybe I can avoid a compound fracture when I turn my ankle on the inevitable loose rock.
Once we turned off the road that circles the lake, we were in the forest headed uphill. We pitched and heaved over the bumpy road. But once in this sub-alpine forest we felt like we were back in the forests above Lake Tahoe. Though I am considered the chief exclaimer in the family, we all exclaimed over this familiar beauty. No more yellowish rock. Here the granitic core of the mountain revealed itself. The understory became varied – sometimes tender green fields of bracken ferns, other times corn lilies.
We parked at the end of the road where a sign pointed downhill to the lodgepole pine and to the Bluff Lake Preserve. I recognized this kind of trail – decomposed granite made “interesting” by rocks and exposed roots. My grandson Stuart walked close behind me and my daughter ahead of me. I focused on what was underfoot allowing only sidelong glances at the creek next to the trail over hung with wildflowers, the first such sight in these mountains. The trail leveled out as we approached the lodgepole pine grove. Lodgepole pines are uncommon in this southern forest. They hark back to a cooler era. My joy was somewhat tempered by remembering that I had to walk back out. I didn’t care. I hadn’t expected this gift in my 89th year.
The old giant was closely encircled by younger trees (as I am by my family). The tree overlooks a broad green meadow—a meadow which not so long ago had been a pond. In the Sierra, the Lodgepole pine is the first to show up as the pond becomes a meadow. As other trees move in, the meadow becomes part of the forest.
The noble tree is a part of a national registry of the largest known of its species in a particular geographic area. A nearby Jeffrey pine is several hundred years old, an “old growth” survivor in a forest that had been heavily logged
The champion lodgepole pine from its meadow and two oldtimers.
5 thoughts on “A Family Vacation at Big Bear Lake”
Loved this blog Phila!! I have fond memories of this area! Much more lush than my past home in Wrightwood. The Sugarpine is my favorite.the cones are a piece of art!! Thanks for stirring up my dull memory.
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Thank you very much, Phila. Unique as you.
I have printed it for my daughter, Charlotte to enjoy, too.
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Professor Leitmann is on leave.
Beautiful descriptions and lots of information. You really are an excellent writer. Surely these are destined to become a book. I’m reserving a copy now.