Geographic Insights about Big Bear Lake

Most visitors to Big Bear Lake come from the urban sprawl of Southern California, city dwellers at heart. Few have a real appreciation of the underlying geology or geography that circumscribes the place they visit for the rest and recreation found at Big Bear. They are exquisitely well positioned to appreciate the built environment, from the lakeside marinas to the range of lodging at Big Bear Lake. But the natural environment is not well understood.

There’s something really special about Big Bear and its environs. Nestled in the mountains, this 7 mile long alpine lake, which originally existed as a shallow lake and marsh (before the dam made it deeper), drains a watershed stretching from the high desert on the northwest (see California Tourist Guide for maps and info about Deserts and Inland Empire) to the Santa Ana river watershed to the east. It’s located at a high elevation (6,750 feet at lake level), which means that it stays cool/cold year round and thus explains the extended skiing season available for 6 months a year, even though it is near to balmy Los Angeles.

In fact, the elevation explains the heavy precipitation, too. Big Bear receives about 5 feet of snow a year, and some years can be almost double that. While that’s great for skiing, the principal value is feeding the fresh water of the lake itself, sustaining the fish population in the lake and the verdant flora along the entire watershed.

The fauna of the region have been distorted by human development so that what exists now is hardly what existed for so many years. While one can find the occasional coyote, you would be hard pressed to find a bear … and the original European settlers named the valley for a reason: in pursuit of some cattle thieves, Benjamin Wilson, an early pioneer, took 22 pairs of men into the canyon … and they came out with 22 bear hides. Needless to say, the population of California brown bears and grizzly bears has been severely reduce

The other feature of the natural environment worth mentioning is mining. After the gold rush in Northern California, several efforts were made to look for gold in the San Bernadino Mountains, starting in 1859. Bear Valley delivered some bear meat for the prospectors (those poor bears!), but the gold strike was found in Holcomb Valley, 5 miles to the north, not in Big Bear (Lucerne) Valley. That was probably best in the long run, as no significant ecological destruction occurred in Bear Valley, unless you count the extirpation of the Grizzly Bear in the early 1900s.

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