The Los Angeles basin is a desert—an unlikely set- ting for a ski resort. But luckily for the 9.5 million residents of L.A.'s sprawling metropolis, a geological blessing called the San Bernar-dino Mountain Range erupts 10,000 feet into the sky a mere 99 miles from the city's skyscrapers. And the kicker? It actually snows.
For more than 50 years, Angelenos have escaped to Snow Summit and Bear Mountain resorts, making the one- to three-hour drive for snowy adventure and, for many, an introduction to the world of skiing. But they've always faced a dilemma: Which resort to visit? Summit or Bear? Bear or Summit? Finally, the decision is easy: Summit and Bear. Because for Snow Summit's 50th Anniversary in 2002, the resort bought itself an extravagant gift: Bear Mountain.
The two resorts, now jointly marketed under the name Big Bear Mountain Resorts, provide skiers access to both mountains with one interchangeable lift ticket. Each resort presents a new landscape: Previously, each of the 200-some-acre mountains tried to be all things to all snowsliders. Now each has a singular focus: Snow Summit aims to please mainstream skiers and snowboarders, while Bear Mountain caters to the freestyle and youth market.
At first glance, the move seems counterintuitive: Why take Snow Summit, host of ESPN's first Winter X Games and home to Transworld Snowboarding's No. 1 freestyle terrain park and turn it into a family ski resort? The answer is easy: It's simply a better skier's mountain. Summit, with developed base facilities and a single ridgeline that connects trails, is better equipped to handle skiersof all ages and abilities. And Bear Mountain, with its bare-bones base area and 10,000-square-foot sundeck, is an apt space for the New School set.
Snow Summit president Richard Kun is excited to see the mountain returned to its natural destiny. Where there were jumps, you'll find groomers. Where teens once flew through the air, you'll find families gliding together. There are still big hits, of course, but now there are fewer of them. Kun has managed the resort, which was developed by his parents, since 1964, and his love for it is evident. At the top of the Mountain Express quad, he gestures to a family of skiers cruising together. "See? Do you see that? That is what Snow Summit is all about.
After the changeover, the pace at Summit feels blissfully slower and the mountain skis bigger. With an average of 500,000 skier visits per year, that makes a difference. Skiers in the know escape crowds by heading to the eastern side of the resort, serviced by Chair 7, or by following the electronic "Smart Signs which direct skiers to the shortest liftlines—a useful innovation for a resort that often sells out on holidays and weekends.
Just two miles up the road at Bear Mountain, the energy is noticeably higher. Whereas Summit feels like a family barbecue, Bear has a college-party atmosphere. Rock music blares from speakers. Skiers and snowboarders with spiked hair and piercings take turns sliding on a rail perfectly placed for spectators. And the spectacle is good. Bear and Summit, with the help of well-known designer Chris "Gunny Gunnarson, boast some of the best terrain parks in the country, drawing some of the top skiers and riders. For Bear's makeover, Gunnarson was given carte blanche to use all suitable locations on any runs for terrain features. And he has, creating what amounts to an all-mountain freestyle terrain park.
"When you get on the lift, says public relations director Brad Farmer, "you're entering the terrain park. At any given time, there are an average of 200 terrain features at Bear, including jumps, rails, boxes, pipes, you name it. When visibility is poor, skiers have to pay attention to avoid the jumps that cover most of Goldmine and Silver mountains. But Bear's third summit, Bear Peak, remains pristine, leaving double-black Geronimo—the steepest, longest and best run at either resort—untouched.
While mmanagement insists it's not intentionally dividing skiers and snowboarders—rather "youth versus the "mainstream—the makeovers do have that effect. Terrain parks draw more snowboarders than skiers. And what skiers have lost to jibs at Bear, they have gained in wide-open runs at Summit—a trade-off that seems to be keeping most guests happy. There are some who grumble that the formerly laid-back Bear has been "corporatized as it adopts Snow Summit's policies (such as a phone reservation system and limited ticket sales). But ask the same dissidents how they like skiing both mountains for the price of one, and their tune is markedly different.
And they're still flocking to Big Bear, making the short trek to this mountain playground that feels light years away from L.A. Gazing out at sparkling Big Bear Lake during a sun-soaked lift ride, it's hard to imagine why 9.5 million people are sitting in traffic, fighting for parking spots and soaking up smog down in the desert below. Suckers.