Thinking about a day trip this summer? Head to the mountains: Big Bear, Idyllwild, Mammoth

Written by Tara Atrian and Amy Ta

A view of Big Bear Lake at sunset. Photo by Phil Navarro.

California fully reopens next week, so you may be thinking about hitting the roads this summer. With hotels, flights and Airbnb rates rising, why not set aside your passport and stick to something closer and taller? California travel writer Ann Marie Brown suggests turning to our local mountains for your next summer day trip.

Being at elevation has benefits, Brown says. “ You get nice cool summer temperatures, it's rarely much over 80 degrees, and you also get a big variety of possible recreation opportunities.”

Big Bear

Big Bear lake and dam as seen from a drone. Photo by Shutterstock.

Big Bear is about a two-hour drive from LA, and while it’s typically a winter destination for Southern Californians, Brown says it's worth getting out there now too. “In the summer, you are going to want to take advantage of that big beautiful alpine lake.”

The easiest way to enjoy the lake is to hop on a tour boat.There are several different ones you can do, including the Miss Liberty Paddlewheel Tour Boat. It’s a 64-foot long refurbished paddle wheel boat that can host up to 125 people at a time for narrated tours. Brown also suggests the Big Bear Pirate Ship tour, which offers cocktails. The pirate ship is a third scale replica of a pirate ship that was used in the 1980s movie “Time Bandit”. There’s also the Big Bear Queen, which is the lake’s longest running lake tour.

For do-it-yourself explorers, you can rent a kayak and/or swim in the lake. 

Brown says there are also tons of hiking trails. “Most of the hiking trails offer beautiful lake views, so you can’t go wrong with that.” Brown’s favorite is the Castle Rock trail, roughly 2.7 miles that offer gorgeous granite boulders and excellent views. 

No need to pack your lunch for this trip because there are plenty of global, interesting restaurants. Her favorite is Tropicali, which serves Hawaiian food. Brown recommends trying one of their poke bowls or tiki drinks.  Another restaurant visitors should try is Big Bear’s Himalayan Restaurant, which offers cuisine from Nepal and India. You may want to try their Mo-Mo dumplings or chicken tikka masala. For breakfast, try Grizzly Manor Cafe, where you can get “pancakes bigger than your head.”


The Ernie Maxwell Trail in Idyllwild is a good option for folks who want an easy hike. Photo by Shutterstock.

Nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains in Riverside County, Idyllwild is about two hours away from LA.

 "Idyllwild is really a charming small town. The population there’s only about 4,000 people, so it’s truly a small mountain town,” says Brown.

Idyllwild is famous for its hiking trails in Mount San Jacinto State Park, and there’s a trail for all fitness levels. For those who prefer something easy, Brown suggests the Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail, which only has a few slight ups and downs. “It’s an easy trail out and back, you can't get lost, there's no place to turn off, and you're walking through the pines and the wild flowers. It's just a beautiful walk with some nice views of nearby mountain peaks.”

Moderate level hikers may want to try Suicide Rock, a trail that’s nearly seven miles and offers “big glorious vistas.”

For a strenuous trail: Tahquitz Peak. It’s about nine miles round-trip, and you’ll get views of granite massifs and can check out a fire lookout tower at the end. “It’s almost 9,000 feet high, and I think that’s a real bucket list hike for a lot of hikers in Los Angeles,” says Brown. 

There are also opportunities for rock climbers of all levels — even lessons for newbies.  

For food, Brown suggests Cafe Aroma, which has been around for a few decades. The restaurant combines some of the artsy parts of Idyllwild with European fusion type foods, including penne pasta, duck breast, and osso buco. “It’s this wonderful spot that’s decorated like a combination between a library and an art gallery,” Brown says. The cafe is also supposed to restart live music soon too. 

Another restaurant Brown suggests is FERRO. “That’s the name of the chef, and he does magical things with pasta, she says. You can stop by the Italian restaurant and get Coniglio alla Cacciatore, which is braised rabbit. Vegans may like the Spaghetti Aglio e Olio con Pomodori Secchi, a type of pasta. Gluten-free eaters may want to wrap up their meal with a Torta di Nocciole, a flourless hazelnut cake paired with vanilla gelato and a local raw honey drizzle. 

Mammoth Lakes

A woman mountain biker at Mammoth Lakes. Photo by Shutterstock.

While Mammoth is farther than the other mountain towns, Brown suggests it could make a good weekend trip if you have an extra day. There are tons of summer recreational activities to do, from mountain biking to renting a boat at the Mammoth Lakes Basin. You can also go fishing, kayaking, and hiking. For the best views, you can take a gondola to the top of Mammoth Mountain.



Larry Perel


Tara Atrian