Nestled high in the mountains of the San Bernardino National Forest, idyllic Lake Gregory is a hidden treasure only a short drive east from Los Angeles, and yet enchantingly feels straight out of classic summer movies and childhood memories.
The lakes of the San Bernardino Mountains have long been a convenient retreat for Southern Californians looking for a bit of forest shade and cool water on hot summer days. And while many of us are familiar with the year-round buzz of Big Bear Lake or private Lake Arrowhead favored by celebs, plenty of locals -- myself included, until recently -- are unaware of Lake Gregory on the western end of the mountains in the Valley of the Moon. There, visitors can rent boats, go fishing, cruise around on kayaks and aqua bikes, or even zip down water slides and scramble over the largest floating water park in the county. There’s also plenty of lakeside lounging to be had with cabanas on the sandy beach, a recently renovated café, and live music and events throughout the summer.
Surrounded by verdant alpine forest and the charming mountain community of Crestline, a visit to the lake really feels like a world away and offers an affordable and accessible escape that can be enjoyed even for an afternoon or weekend getaway. “The sleepy little town of Crestline has the unique charm of families that have generationally enjoyed the beautiful Lake Gregory,” says Trish Purcell of The California Parks Company, which partnered with the county to operate and maintain the lake and its facilities. “Lake Gregory is unique in the way that we are a full body contact lake in designated swim areas, and people love all the options for water recreational toys. Our neighbor lake [Lake Arrowhead] has fantastic shopping and dining, but limited lake access to visitors and open mostly to residents.”
Standing on the sandy shore of Lake Gregory, it might be hard to imagine that the glistening lake before you is actually man-made. Originally known as Houston Flats, the lake and surrounding area was developed and named after Arthur Gregory, Sr., a Redlands citrus grower, who first built a sawmill in the area for orange crates. Gregory helped secure a Works Progress Administration (WPA) grant in 1937 to begin work on damming the east and west forks of the Houston Creek in order to create the lake. And while federal funds ran out before completion, Gregory helped fund the completion of the project. The surface of the lake is at an elevation of 4,550 feet, while the ridges around the lake rise up another thousand feet.
While access to the Lake Gregory Recreational Park was once free, there’s now minimal fees for parking and beach access to help fund the upkeep of the facilities. Though compared to the hundreds you might spend elsewhere, $10 for parking and $10 per person for the beach area (kids under 5 are free) is pretty reasonable. The park also offers annual and season passes that help frequent visitors save on everything from parking to beach access, waterpark use and boat rentals.
If you’re looking for a quieter afternoon, weekdays tend to be more laid back, especially while school is still in session. Some visitors will even forego the water activities all together, and make use of the shaded, 2.5-mile walking path that circles the lake. It’s perfect for dog-walking or an exercise routine thanks to the free outdoor exercise machines stationed at points along the path. Others also use the lake as point of departure for great hiking spots in the area, including the popular Heart Rock Falls, also known as Seely Creek Falls, which features a heart-shaped depression next to the waterfall.
One of the biggest attractions at the lake is the water park, especially for younger visitors -- and some older ones as well. The park features two side-by-side, winding water slides that zip riders through the pine trees and into the water. There’s also a massive floating network of over 30 inflated structures covering 13,755 square feet, featuring climbing towers, trampolines, diving platforms, slides and more. There’s also a zero-depth water play area for smaller guests, which includes flower-shaped showers, water cannons, and sprinklers. Day passes can be purchased for $25 per person, which includes access to the water park as well as beach and swimming areas.
While temperatures around Lake Gregory can often be ten to twenty degrees cooler than other parts of San Bernardino County, you’re still probably going to want to get out on the water to cool off, even if you aren’t up for the water park. Beyond swimming, you can also rent belly boards, aqua cycles with huge floating wheels, pedal boats for two or four people, kayaks and paddleboards, most of which can be rented by the half hour or hour.
Another great perk of Lake Gregory is that you don’t have to own a boat in order to take a leisurely cruise or romantic escape on the lake. You can rent inexpensive row boats and motor boats for a half day or full day, and there’s also season boat passes for those wanting to visit more often. If you have a boat already, you can bring human and electric-powered boats or even float tubes or rafts, and just pay a small fee to launch.
Fishing enthusiasts can unwind for a few hours or the day as the lake is regularly stocked throughout the year. You’ll typically find brown and rainbow trout, as well as bass, which many mountain anglers overlook. Fishing access is $8 for the day, which helps to cover stocking costs, and a fishing license from California Department of Fish and Game is required. The lake also offers cash prizes for anglers that catch the few tagged fish that are released each month.
For those looking to relax on the shore, you can bring your own umbrellas, pop-up tents, and blankets, or opt to rent covered chaise lounge chairs with cushions. There are also more plush luxury cabanas if you’re willing to spend a little more for a bit of privacy thanks to a limited number of cedar gazebos with curtains and cushioned seating for up to eight people.
Once you build up an appetite from all of the activity on the water, there are a few options for lakeside dining. You can pack coolers for a picnic on the beach or you can grab tables under the two large covered picnic shelters, which can be reserved for large parties. There are also free-standing grills on both the north and south sides of the lake, available on a first-come, first-served basis, -- just don’t forget to bring your own charcoal. If you don’t feel like packing your lunch, there’s also the recently renovated Cove Café where you’ll find classic summer eats, including burgers, hot dogs, nachos, ice cream, and healthy options for kids. While outside alcohol isn’t allowed, you can head to the updated Beach Club where on Saturday and Sunday afternoon they offer a selection of California and European wines, beer and plenty of patio seating with a firepit. The non-exclusive club also features Beach Club Fridays throughout the summer where at night those of age will find local bands playing, drinks, and food, as well as free parking and entrance.
Lake Gregory also hosts special events throughout the summer, including a Memorial Day weekend celebration with an annual Trout Derby competition, a massive fireworks display and BBQ for Independance Day weekend. This Labor Day weekend they’ll host a luau, featuring hula dancers, live drumming, flaming-knife performances, and a Hawaiian-inspired feast; as well as a taco bar with live music on Sunday, and the annual sand sculpture contest on Monday. Every third Saturday of the month, the park also hosts the FitKid in Every Park program, where participating kids enjoy the lake for free for two hours and participate in a variety of activities, including fishing, nature walks, swimming, scavenger hunts, and obstacle courses, and enjoy healthy snacks.
The lake is also a popular destination for weddings and other private events. On the southeast side of the lake, there’s the San Moritz Lodge constructed with massive reclaimed tree beams and a large reception hall. The hall is also used for meals and events for the local Crest Forest Senior Citizens’ Club. Outside there’s also an area for outdoor receptions, as well as a recently built Newlywed Pine Cottage available for weddings, with plans in the works for additional cottages to be available to the public.
If you’re looking to make a weekend trip out of your visit to Lake Gregory, there are also several places to stay nearby, including the Sleepy Hollow Cabins and Hotel, North Shore Inn, and the charming Pine Rose Cabins. And for more deluxe accommodations, you can also head to nearby Lake Arrowhead Resort and Spa. For a bite to eat after a day spent at Lake Gregory, you’ll definitely want to stop at Hortencia’s at the Cliffhanger, a historic location on the Rim of the World Highway where you can soak up stunning sunset views over the San Bernardino Valley while sipping huge margaritas.
As prices rise for long-distance travel and other local family-friendly destinations, Lake Gregory offers a quiet, inexpensive option with plenty of activities for all ages.
Top Image: Courtesy The California Parks Company