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A Quick Guide to the History of Big Bear Lake

Updated: May 18, 2023

Today, Big Bear Lake is one of Southern California’s premier vacation spots, with skiing, loads of fun on the lake, and plenty of activities to partake in year-round. For those living in and around the region, a trip to Big Bear can be like traveling to another part of the country.

Regardless of when you decide to visit, you’ll love your visit to Big Bear.

But instead of focusing on present-day fun in the area, let’s take a step back into Big Bear Lake history. From Native American civilizations to the Gold Rush, let’s dive into Big Bear’s past.

Early Western History of Big Bear Lake

cabin with mini bridge

According to the deeply informative timeline laid out by the Big Bear Historical Society, the history of the beautiful area now known as Big Bear Lake began thousands of years ago with the Serrano Native Americans, who called the area Yuhaviat, meaning “Pine Place.”

Westerns didn’t make it to the area until the late 1700s. It was during this time that Spanish deserters fleeing soldiers led by Captain Pedro Fages sought refuge in the area.

San Bernardino County earned its name in 1810 when Francisco Dumetz established a supply line there; it just also happened to be the feast day of St. Bernard of Sienna.

The Naming of Big Bear

historic big bear bridge

Photo Credit: Brian Karczewski

Big Bear Lake’s modern history began in 1845 when ranchero Benjamin Davis Wilson led a posse into the San Bernardino mountains in search of a raiding party of Native Americans who had stolen horses from ranches in Riverside.

William found his raiders, as well as grizzly bears—lots and lots of grizzly bears. And thus, Bear Valley got its name, which later evolved to Big Bear Valley (and Lake).

Naturally, William, a fur trapper himself, sent men back to Big Bear Valley to reap the benefits of all those grizzly bear pelts, bringing back upwards of two dozen.

The Gold Rush Comes to Big Bear

boys banning gold

About fifteen years after Benjamin Wilson stumbled upon the grizzly bears inhabiting Big Bear Valley, in the nearby Holcomb Valley, a prospector by the name of Bill Holcomb stumbled upon something else while tracking grizzlies: gold. Once word got out, Southern California’s largest gold rush began!

Then, practically overnight, the population of Holcomb Valley grew to 2,000, and a small town quickly developed, leading to the eventual founding of the Bear Valley Mining District.

Between 1860 and 1912, people practically flocked to Big Bear, mostly by horse-drawn wagons. The trip from San Bernardino took nearly two days by the established trails, but a few more adventurous travelers would go down the less beaten paths to soak up the region’s beauty.

While the gold rush days are far behind, you can take a peek into that piece of history by taking your kids to pan for gold at the Gold Rush Mining Adventure or you can visit a few historical points of interest like Metzger Mine or Lucky Baldwin Mine.

Big Bear Enters the 20th Century

red cabin under the snow

In the late 1800s, early settlers had an idea to build a dam on Big Bear Lake to use the lake levels to their benefit and create a community called Redlands. This community was meant to be primarily for farming and orange groves. A few decades later, the old dam wasn’t able to hold as much water as needed so a new dam was built, increasing the size of Big Bear Lake, turning it into the largest man-made lake at that time.

After 1912, the horse-drawn carriages started to fade, and automobiles began to make their way to the Big Bear Valley region, and 1914 saw the arrival of tourists by the bus-load, thirteen at a time. The valley had commenced its evolution from bears and gold to resorts and recreation. Around this time is when Big Bear City started to evolve and the Village became similar to what it is today.

That time was the golden age for films and as soon as Hollywood caught onto the beauty just a few hours away from Los Angeles, it quickly became a popular spot to film. Many films still well known today were filmed in the area including Gone With The Wind, Old Yeller, and The Last of the Mohicans.

In the 1920s, skiing began to sweep the nation, and of course, winter in the Big Bear Mountains made for an excellent skiing combination. One of the oldest lodges of the area, Oak Knoll, still stands to this day, although it has received its fair share of updates and renovations through the years.

Fast forward to the 1930s, and into the 1940s, and skiing (and snowboarding) had come full swing to the region, along with plenty of tourism, ski instructors, ski resorts, the whole nine yards. In many ways, the region has changed little in the ensuing years since then. Winter sports still prove to be one of the most drawing attractions to Big Bear, although this area is home to great activities and beautiful views year round.

The ensuing decades saw continued development and growth coming to the Big Bear region, and over the years, itEarly Western History of Big Bear’s just gotten bigger, better, and more beautiful.

Come and Experience Big Bear’s Rich History First-Hand

snow activities

Photo Credit: alpkhan photography

In the span of nearly 100 years, Big Bear evolved from a small community of gold prospectors to one of Southern California’s premier wintry retreats, with the region’s history still present all around. Between Snow Summit, Bear Mountain, San Bernardino National Forest, and Big Bear Mountain Valley, this area has so much to offer anyone visiting.

Of course, the best way to get a taste of the rich history surrounding Big Bear is to come and see it for yourself, perhaps with a family vacation. And it wouldn’t feel like a real mountain getaway without a cozy cabin to come home to.

Complete your adventure through history in Big Bear with a blazing fire, warm apple cider, and an unforgettable cabin stay.

Midnight Moon Cabins offers an array of modern luxury dog-friendly cabin rentals right in the heart of Big Bear Lake, and any of the activities that your kids would love are just a short walk, bike, or car ride away.


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