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Escape the Summer Heat in the Mountains

big bear lake
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Please explore responsibly. While "SoCal Wanderer" continues to uncover the region’s local gems and not-to-miss destinations, public health guidelines and weather conditions are changing constantly. We encourage our readers to check the latest updates for each location. Stay curious and cautious.

When it’s cold and snowy, southern Californians flock to the mountains; and when it’s hot and steamy, we rush to the beach.

But why not gain some elevation when the temperatures rise and the snow melts, too?

Maybe the “alpine” landscapes of our national forests and mountain communities remind us too much of Christmas and log cabins with fireplaces ablaze on wintery nights. But many of our mountainous resort areas are veritable wonderlands all year long.

Of course, when that layer of powder is gone, our ski and snow resorts have sometimes got to improvise to keep bringing people up the mountain – hence, the hunt for the largest pine cone at Rim Nordic Ski Resort in October. But the mountains themselves are bountiful and generous with their riches.

So, here are the five best ways to get away from the summer “lows” and get “high” on adventure, nature, and romance across the land, water, and sky!

1. Big Bear, San Bernardino National Forest

Bear Mountain might get all the downhill skiing enthusiasts in the winter, but if you want to escape the crowds during the dry summer months, head to the lake – Big Bear Lake, that is. While everyone else in southern California is heading towards the ocean and cramming themselves onto any empty patch of sand they can find, you’ll have your pick of recreational opportunities both on and around the water. Take a hike up many of the moderate and family-friendly trails (like the one to Castle Rock, which overlooks the lake). Ride a bike along the paved Alpine Pedal Path that encircles the lake. Hop in a kayak at the Marina and skim the surface of the lake itself while you watch some birds and get anointed by a ladybug landing on you. Enjoy the late-season wildflowers that outlast any of those you’ll see down the mountain.

At Big Bear Lake, you can also find out how the universe is expanding and accelerating by taking a tour of the lakeside observatory – and it’s all based on what’s going on with our biggest and closest star, the sun. The Big Bear Solar Observatory usually stands stoically along the receded shores of Big Bear Lake, behind a locked gate, accessible only to researchers. But the New Jersey Institute of Technology, which has run the observatory since 1997, allows the public to visit on the second and fourth Thursday of the month during June, July, and August and the second Thursday of the month the rest of the year. Advance reservations are required and can be made online or by phone. And if you’re taking just a day trip up to the mountains, stay long enough for the sun to set and the stars to come out. You won’t even need a telescope to see them.

big bear
Sandi Hemmerlein
big bear observatory
The Big Bear Solar Observatory  | Sandi Hemmerlein
big bear lake
Sandi Hemmerlein
big bear kayak
Sandi Hemmerlein

2. Mount Baldy, San Gabriel Mountains

If ski and snow haven’t brought you through the 1950s-era road tunnels in the San Gabriel Mountains to Mount Baldy, allow yourself to be lured by a scenic lift ride to the top followed by lunch at the Top of the Notch Restaurant and maybe even a quick zipline. The Sugar Pine Chair Lift was built in 1952 and modernized in 1975, so hopping onto it feels like taking a leap back in time. And while there may be no wait for a seat during the summertime (especially on a weekday), it does provide a popular shortcut for hikers to climb to the top of Mt. Baldy once the snow has melted. The 20-minute ride (each way) is worth it just for the scenery, as you dangle from a cable, 20 to 60 feet off the ground, over the course of a mile. And by the time you reach the top – that is, the so-called "notch" – you’ve climbed 1,300 feet of elevation to reach 7,800 feet above sea level. Take a moment to gaze out from the Desert View Overlook, and note that although it is alpine up there, it's also a bit sparse – particularly on the south face of the mountain, known as the "Baldy Bowl." That's why nobody ever calls Mt. Baldy by its real name, Mount San Antonio.

Below Mt. Baldy is even more historic still, a charming little enclave of mountain cabins and bears and birds. The former "Camp Baldy" was so named in 1910, a holdover from the late 19th century and early 20th century "craze" of mountain exploration and recreation. During Prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s, Camp Baldy was a place you could actually get something to drink. But in 1938, flooding wiped out nearly all of it, including a casino –the same catastrophic flooding that also took out the roads on either side of the nearby Bridge to Nowhere. Camp Baldy was rebuilt and, in 1951, renamed Mt. Baldy Village – which still features some original structures that survived the flood, like the Buckhorn Lodge (the former hotel to the ill-fated casino). Stop by the Visitor Center and listen for the calls of the Steller's jays alighting every rock, fence, and branch in a grove of evergreen trees.

mount baldy chairlift
Sandi Hemmerlein
mount baldy knotch
Top of the Notch Restaurant |  Sandi Hemmerlein
mount baldy zipline
Mount Baldy zipline  |  Sandi Hemmerlein
view from mount baldy
Sandi Hemmerlein

3. Mt. Waterman, San Gabriel Wilderness Area

Drive 34 miles north on the Angeles Crest Highway and you’ll hit a little-known part of the San Gabriel Wilderness and one of the lesser-known ski resort areas, Mt. Waterman. This area took a big hit in 2009 after the Station Fire, when the highway was closed and access was essentially cut off, and in subsequent years, when irregular and insufficient precipitation contributed to unpredictable ski season schedules for years on end. But regardless of wintery conditions (the lifts close in spring), Mt. Waterman is great to visit during the summertime, with temperatures slightly cooler at a higher elevation, a moderate amount of shade, and a well-cleared, eponymous trail.

The single-track Mt. Waterman trail is scenic for sure, but with a 1,500 foot change at over 8,000 feet elevation, everything appears to be at somewhat of a diagonal. If you’re not acclimated to hiking in higher elevations, the air will feel thin and your breathing may be laborious. Take plenty of breaks to sniff the bark of trees that smell like vanilla and kick around huge pinecones just for the sake of lingering a little longer. At the summit, three miles up, sit on the rocks and enjoy lunch or a snack. And when you turn around and descend Waterman Mountain along the same trail, it’ll be so much easier -- and quicker – than it was on the way up. Wear sturdy shoes for the somewhat loose trail, bring plenty of water (as altitude can dry you out), and remember to display your Adventure Pass, which is required in the entire Buckhorn Day Use Area.

mount waterman
Sandi Hemmerlein
mount waterman
Sandi Hemmerlein

4. Idyllwild, San Jacinto Mountains

The quaint village of Idyllwild isn’t known for its snow play, per se – you’d have to go to Big Bear or Running Springs for that – but it, too, provides a temperate respite from baking in the lower-elevation oven heat of the nearby desert communities, especially in the Palm Springs area. Coming from the low desert to the east, take a drive along the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway (or the Pines to Palms Highway, coming from the west, both designated Highway 74) and then head north at Mountain Center on Highway 243. There, you’ll find an escape from the heat that’s been used by the people of southern California dating back to the bands of Cahuilla Indians, thanks to the high elevation and access to water fed by nearby Strawberry Creek.

Don’t just pass through, though – stay awhile and take advantage of some of the local rock-climbing offerings (like at Tahquitz Peak), mountain biking trails, and day-hiking trailheads like Deer Springs, which enters the Mt. San Jacinto State Park Wilderness and eventually will take you to Suicide Rock, another haven for rock climbers. To access the wilderness area, get a permit first from the Idyllwild Forest Service Ranger Station or Mt. San Jacinto State Park Ranger Station, where one of the rangers can advise you on trail and weather conditions and send you on your way with a map. After all, even in the dog days of summer, you might encounter hail one day and tree-igniting lightning the next. The hike to the summit along the Deer Springs Trail will take you up 1,700 feet past ponderosa pines, the payoff of which is the panoramic views of Idyllwild and the surrounding Strawberry Valley.

idyllwild palms to pines
Palms to Pines Scenic Byway |  Sandi Hemmerlein
idyllwild deer springs
Deer Springs  |  Sandi Hemmerlein
Mt. San Jacinto State Park Wilderness  |  Sandi Hemmerlein

5. Mt. San Jacinto, San Jacinto Mountains

Riding the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway might feel like taking one of those bus tours of celebrity homes in Beverly Hills. But you can’t deny its importance, as the world’s largest rotating tram and an incredibly scenic, romantic, and adventurous way to escape the rising mercury of the Low Desert. Take the tram ride just to cool off while everybody else is sweating and baking down there. Start your journey at the landmark Albert Frey-designed Tramway gas station, which now serves as the Palm Springs Visitors Center, and then head up Tramway Road to the Valley Station, where you’ll park, buy your ticket (though reserving online is preferred), and board the gondola that will take you across Chino Canyon and up to the Mountain Station. After a brief 10-minute ride along two and a half miles, you will disembark at more than 8,500 feet of elevation and feel a temperature that’s literally 30 degrees cooler than where you started.

In warm weather months (generally Memorial Day through Labor Day), you can take a free, guided nature walk led by a California State Parks volunteer docent along a relatively flat and easy path. Set off on a more challenging hike into Long Valley along a portion of the 54 miles of trails in these 14,000 acres of wilderness (check with the Long Valley Ranger Station about wilderness permit requirements). Or, just take in the breathtaking view, grab lunch, and either set up camp for the night at one of six primitive, permit-only campgrounds or head on back down the way you came. Although the first tram up is too late to catch sunrise (10 a.m. during the week and 8 a.m. on weekends), the last tram up is at 8 p.m. (which coincides with the latest sunset you’ll ever see in Palm Springs) and last tram down is at 9:45 p.m., which means you can experience both daylight and nightfall on the mountain in one visit – without spending the night.