COVID Camping in Big Bear

A last-minute escape from quarantine to the San Bernardino Mountains delivers a low-cost dose of nature and fun.

by Dan Jahns


It was nearly three months into the COVID-induced lockdown and my family had a raging case of cabin fever.  Not that we live in a cabin mind you, or that we were even 100% isolating ourselves, but for a family that loves to get out and travel, we might as well have been in San Quentin.

With the wounds from our COVID-cancelled epic trip to the Philippines still stinging like a papercut with lemon juice in it, we were ready for an adventure remedy when the Los Angeles Forest Service announced that they would be opening most of the major camping areas in time for Memorial Day weekend.

We have some favorite camping spots in the Greater Los Angeles area (Wheeler Gorge in the Los Padres National Forest is a personal favorite – it has a science center nearby for the kids!), however, given the holiday weekend, most reserved sites were booked already so we decided to try a new campground that had some availability. Heart Bar (6,660 ft) is one of the many campsites that dot the pine covered mountains around Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino National Forest.  It boasts 89 reservable campsites ($26/night for a single) plus 26 first-come, first-serve sites and has drinking water and vaulted toilets nearby.  All sites can accommodate tents, trailers or RVs. And there were A LOT of RVs Memorial Day weekend.  Not that there is anything wrong with that – it’s just that we prefer a more rustic, tent-only experience.  Fortunately, we were able to set up our camp facing the forest and kept our backs to the RVs. 

After setting up camp – a task expedited by our recent purchase of the Ozark ten-person Dark Rest Instant Cabin (hey, it makes a great gift for the campers on your holiday list!) – our kids, aged 8, 6, and 4 went off in search of the enormous pine cones that littered the campground to use as campsite decorations.

I donned my face covering and ambled over to the host’s trailer to purchase firewood ($8 a bundle) and after enduring some mask shaming (apparently the locals are none too concerned with COVID) I received my allotment of wood and headed back to camp.

When I returned, my wife Francesca already had dinner heating up on the camp fire.  In a stroke of brilliance, she had brought chili that she made back home in a Pyrex dish and just heated it up right on the camp-provided grill over the open flames. We all washed the chili down with a couple of s’mores.  I enjoyed walking my two girls through that rite of passage – picking the best sticks and how to get the marshmallow a perfect golden brown – an experience my son had a few years earlier on our first father-son camping trip.  

Unfortunately, not all of my wife’s ideas were as brilliant as The Great Pyrex Chili Cooker. Even though it was hot in LA proper, the temps in the mountains were dropping and Francesca had read somewhere that if you put heated rocks from the campfire into the tent, it will make the inside of the tent super toasty.  I questioned if that wouldn’t burn a hole through the tent, but she said “Pinterest can’t be wrong!”  Guess what?  Pinterest was wrong. Perhaps I’ll write another article on how to patch multiple burn holes in a 10-foot tent.

But for now, let’s return to the campsite for the adventures on which my kids and I were about to embark.  We created a group called “The Bushwhackers’ Club” and headed down a hill, over a river and across a wide open field until we got to a fiercely steep mountain – steep enough that it would definitely not have passed the Mommy Test had she been there to supervise the expedition.  But…seeing as Mommy had stayed back at the campsite…up we went and while there were a few moments when I questioned if I should call Child Protective Services on myself, we ultimately made it to the top and were rewarded with amazing views as the sun began to set.  

Due to the cold temperatures (no, the hot rocks didn’t help), we decided to return home after just one night. After breaking camp on Saturday, we drove the 20 miles to Big Bear lake and the kids enjoyed some rock clambering at Boulder Bay Park – I highly recommend it if you have the time and are in the area.  Another fun antidote to the remoteness of camping, is nearby Magic Mountain (no, not the Six Flags amusement park) where they have water slides, Go-Karts, alpine slides and a roller coaster in addition to the Soaring Eagle zipline ride.  

In retrospect, I regret that we cut our camping weekend short because, little did we know at the time, we would be forced to cancel our next Big Bear camping trip in September due to the massive fires in Southern California. Even though there were no actual fires at Big Bear, they closed ALL the hiking trails and camping out of an abundance of caution.

When Mother Nature decides to take a break, The Bushwhackers’ Club will be heading out for another family camping adventure. 




Dan Jahns  – October 2020

ROAM Contributor   

Dan is a New Jersey native who has lived in Tokyo, Hong Kong and now resides in Los Angeles with his wife Francesca and their three young children. Having seen so many travel-loving couples grounded when they started having babies, Dan and Francesca made a pact that they would continue to explore no matter how large the brood got.  They kept their promise to each other and now the family of 5 travels as often and as far as possible. Read about Dan’s pre-kids travels at Eat, Play, Love – An Around the World Travel Blog.


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