With the population of a small town, Big Bear Lake and the surrounding area hosts hundreds of thousands of visitors most weekends of the year, as even at 7000′ of elevation, temperatures remain mild enough to entice Coastal California’s bustling city denizens to escape their concrete jungle in exchange for a natural paradise. In the winter, though perhaps a bit too cold for comfortable camping, Big Bear transforms into a ski community, despite not receiving particularly abundant snowfall.
The grizzlies for which the area was named are now long gone, and the region has become an outdoor enthusiasts playground steeped in history, such as the fact that it was home to the world’s second bus line. Hot springs in the region inspired developers to transform the place into a Dirty Dancing-esque resort background, surrounded by velvety forests and the lake itself, and even as time wears away at our nostalgic concepts of now perhaps antiquated vacation destinations, the general atmosphere remains.
For those of us who make our way, and our stays, by RV, camping options are ample, in both these resort-style establishments and the copious national forest camping that surrounds them.
Free Camping Near Big Bear Lake, California
“Where beauty lives, money follows,” is a famous quote, found on t-shirts everywhere in Roman times (we assume, our Chrome browser history won’t let us go back that far.) It’s easy enough to spend money in Big Bear, so luckily the camping part of the affair can be completely free.
The San Bernardino National Forest is a massive situation, blanketing over three-quarters of a million Californian acres. The forest serves up free camping via a relatively unique concept they call “yellow post” camping, essentially metal pipes sticking out of the ground, numbered and painted yellow. A fire permit is required for any type of flame–including stoves–at these spots, and it’s subject to current fire conditions. Some of the spots are first-come, first-served and others can be reserved. The ones closest to Big Bear Lake are known as the Coon Creek Yellow Post sites, and all 19 of these are indeed first-come, first-served. The first few are large enough for many RVs, and they narrow out as you find yourself deeper into the forest.
Nearby Jenks Lake offers dispersed camping as well. Both options are free and, while not exactly a cakewalk in, don’t necessarily require four-wheel-drive or particularly high clearance.
Note that the Coon Creek Yellow Post sites are closed in the winter, should you be the type of RVer brave enough to visit during the colder months.
Full-Hookup Camping in Big Bear
Does running a space heater as you watch the snow barely make it to the ground while sipping hot cocoa sound perfect to you? Or maybe you’re just the type who prefers to plug in their electronics and not worry about whether the sun is going to cooperate for the day? Regardless of the why, full hookups camping is available in Big Bear year ’round.
If you enjoy both plugging in and the serenity of the national forest, Serrano Campground wraps the two up like pine nuts in a ponderosa cone. Full hookups, including 20 or 30 amp electric and even hot showers.
Beyond the free camping mentioned above, plenty of additional campgrounds have managed to nestle themselves between the blue water and green horizon. Some, like Dogwood Campground, even offer electric hookups, but the vast majority are your run of the mill, spacious sites amongst the pines camping you’ve come to know and, if you’re reading along here, most likely love about national forest camping.
The following spots aren’t limited to vans by any means but are much more accessible to smaller vehicles, and therefore more likely to prove “your kind of place,” if you’re the type of vanlifer who’s in it for the solitude and those extra points you can only get from being nimble. Especially as the crowds begin to swell, your smaller footprint may be able to get up and into some of these spaces before the big rigs steal all the good spots.