It is not unusual for those looking to purchase a Southern California mountain home to be curious as to the differences between what Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear have to offer. It usually manifests itself in the unfair, ambiguous, but very easy to ask question, "Which is better - Big Bear or Lake Arrowhead?".
Ultimately, the answer to that question is, "It depends on what you're looking for!". Is it skiing, mountain biking, hiking and other outdoor activity your looking for? Or is it swimming, boating and fishing? Is it cultural activity, shopping, and fine dining? How about weather? Looking for snow, sun, or just trying to escape a triple digit heat wave? Or are you looking to move to the mountains full-time, in which schools, jobs and commute times may be your main concern? Or maybe you are just looking to get away and have quiet, secluded time in the mountains?
Everyone is different and it is up to you to decide what you are looking for from a mountain community. And once you define what it is you are looking for, hopefully the following comparisons by category will help guide you in making an informed decision.
(Disclosure: I have lived in Big Bear for over two decades. I have only visited Arrowhead and have had several conversations with realtors from Arrowhead over the years about the differences between the two towns. I will do my best to be unbiased but am not so foolish to think I am not! I welcome any and all others with corrections or differing opinions to email me your comments and I will happily edit in any insights accordingly. @ firstname.lastname@example.org)
Real Estate Prices
Since this is a real estate website, real estate values are probably one of the more important comparisons that people who are reading this blog post want to know about. So let's start with home prices.
If you look at the overall market data from 2013, you'll see that the average price measures for Big Bear homes and Lake Arrowhead homes are fairly similar. The 2013 average sale price for a Big Bear home was $251,329 while the average sale price in Lake Arrowhead was slightly higher at $263,208.
But if you look at different market segments, you sometimes see big differences in prices. For instance, in 2013 the average sale price of a lakefront home in Big Bear was $988,811 while the average Lake Arrowhead lakefront sold for $1,387,783. That's almost a 40% difference in sale price.
In fact, if you break down the sales of both Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear into price ranges, you'll see that percentage-wise Lake Arrowhead had almost 3 times as many sales over $500,000 than Big Bear did last year. This suggests there is a more active luxury home market in Lake Arrowhead than in Big Bear with sales over 500K making up almost 10% of Lake Arrowhead's sales while only 3.5% of home sales in Big Bear were over the 500K mark.
So although you could say that prices are about the same in Lake Arrowhead as they are in Big Bear, determining the difference in values really comes down to looking at specific property types and certain price ranges. If you're looking to make a comparison, you really need to make sure you're comparing apples to apples.
Although many people think Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead are similar in their weather, once you understand their location and geography, you realize there are some distinct differences.
Lake Arrowhead is located just beyond the top edge of the coastal slope of the San Bernardino Mountains. As moist air hits the frontal slope of these mountains, it creeps up the mountainside, cools, and condenses into clouds as it gains altitude. Thus Lake Arrowhead, at 5108 feet above sea level and located just beyond the peak ridge of this coastal slope gets more clouds and rain than Big Bear does.
In fact, Weather.com states that Lake Arrowhead gets 40 inches of rainfall a year whereas Big Bear gets only 20. Yet snowfall reports show that Lake Arrowhead averages only 26 inches of snow a year whereas Big Bear averages 65 inches. Why?
Unlike Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear Lake sits about 20 miles east of this coastal slope at 6750 feet above sea level, almost 1700 feet higher than Arrowhead. Weaker weather systems leave their moisture in Arrowhead and never make it to the higher elevations of Big Bear. This is why Big Bear boasts over 320 days of sunshine per year and is often called one of the sunniest places in the country. The stronger winter storm systems do make it to Big Bear, and by the time they reach the higher altitudes of the Big Bear Valley, they are more likely to turn to snow.
If you look at the average temperatures in Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead, they are almost identical. Big Bear's average summer daily highs and lows are 81 and 48 degrees while Lake Arrowhead's are 81 and 57 degrees. Winter daily highs and lows in Big Bear are 47 and 21 degrees while Arrowhead is 44 and 30.
Lake Activities, Boating, Fishing, Paddling
The focal point and geographic center of both mountain communities is their alpine lake. Big Bear Lake is much bigger in surface area but much more shallow than Lake Arrowhead. Big Bear's lake is just over 3000 acres in area and has a maximum depth of 72 feet while Lake Arrowhead is 782 acres with a maximum depth of 185 feet. So if room to explore and play on a lake is your thing, Big Bear may be more attractive. But if you are buying a lakefront property in Big Bear, you have to be aware of the effects that lower lake levels may have on one's property in years when the lake's water levels are low.
Also, Big Bear Lake is a public lake. There are community access points and public boat launches. Lake Arrowhead is a private lake and can only be used by property owners who have the right to do so in their property deeds. As well, Lake Arrowhead has more limitations on lake usage, such as not being able to use jet-skis and wave runners on the lake.
As for canoeing, kayaking, sailing and paddle boarding, both lakes have great places to do so. But remember, Lake Arrowhead is private, so only those with deeded access can use the lake.
Same goes with fishing. Both lakes are healthily stocked with fish annually, but you have to have deeded access to the lake to fish in Lake Arrowhead, even if from the shoreline. Big Bear offers fishing to any and all, even from the shoreline, as it is a public lake.
Skiing, Snowboarding and Snow Sports
Perhaps the biggest difference between Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead is that Big Bear has two ski resorts, Bear Mountain and Snow Summit, whereas Lake Arrowhead has no such services. In addition, Big Bear has two lift accessed snow play parks for tubing and sledding. Combined with the fact that Big Bear gets about two-and-a-half times as much snow, if you're looking for snow related activity, Big Bear has a decided advantage in this regard.
Golf is another area that is decidedly different between the two areas. Big Bear has a golf course which is privately owned by the ski resorts but is open to the public for use. Lake Arrowhead's golf course, Lake Arrowhead Country Club, is a private course in which you need to be a club member or guest of a club member to play. Big Bear's course is only a 9 hole course whereas Lake Arrowhead's is a full 18 holes. The Lake Arrowhead Country Club also has tennis courts and a swimming pool in addition to the golfing.
Mountain Biking, Cycling, Hiking, Rock Climbing, Equestrian and Other Outdoor Activities
As for Mountain Biking, Hiking and other Outdoor Activities, being an outdoors oriented person, I am admittedly biased towards Big Bear. There has been a very strong outdoor activity scene in the Big Bear Valley for years. The Big Bear Trails Association just carved The Skyline Trail, one of the nicest trails you'll ever ride or hike from one end of the valley to the next, adding it to the hundreds of miles of other area trails. The Big Bear Cycling Association has group bicycle rides and races throughout the year, there are hiking clubs and other expeditions offered through the Big Bear Discovery Center, there are designated horse trails such as the Pacific Crest Trail and several stables from which to ride or where you can board your horse. There are a variety of free climbing and top roping areas for rock climbing on all sides of the valley. There is the paved Alpine Pedal and Pedestrian path, perhaps the most utilized trail in the San Bernardino Mountains, which runs along the north shore of Big Bear Lake.
The list goes on and on. Simply put, Big Bear is all about being out-and-about in the great outdoors!
To be fair, I am not very familiar with what Arrowhead has to offer in these areas. But through conversations with outdoor enthusiasts, Big Bear seems to come up far more frequently in conversations about experiences than does Lake Arrowhead.
Ease of Travel
Lake Arrowhead has the decided edge here for those driving from most Southern California areas. The drive is mostly highway and takes about 20-30 minutes less than it would to get to Big Bear. Coming from the Las Vegas area, Big Bear would actually be about the same travel time, perhaps even quicker.
But for those not too concerned about the extra 20-30 minutes drive, many actually look forward to a drive through the beautiful San Bernardino mountains. The drive offers amazingly picturesque views and is stunning at points, especially the Rim Of The World section between Lakeview Point and the Big Bear Dam. Many visitors frequent the roadside turn-outs to take one-of-a-kind panoramic photos.
One nice travel feature that Big Bear does have to offer is the Big Bear Airport. It services most prop planes and smaller jets and has a runway that is 5850 feet long and has a weight capacity accommodating planes up to 12,500 pounds. Flying to Big Bear from the Los Angeles and Orange County areas has become more common over the past few years. The trip can take less than 30 minutes and it is a beautiful flight through the San Bernardino Mountains. Many second home owners who access BIg Bear by plane leave a car at the airport for their local usage.
The Village in Big Bear Lake just had a multi-million dollar makeover adding new paver stone sidewalks, amazing lighting, and a couple of public fire pits to cozy up to year round. There are restaurants, shopping, theaters, lodges and much more in a nice quaint area. There is a marina located just a few hundred yards north of the village for boat access.
Arrowhead has a nice village as well. One advantage to Lake Arrowhead is that there are boat slips located right next to the village that are available for usage by those who have deed rights to lake usage. You can float on up, tie off your boat, and in less than a minute be walking around the heart of the Lake Arrowhead village. The village in Arrowhead also has all the amenities you'd expect in a quaint mountain village.
How To Decide
These are just a few areas of comparison that prospective home owners are curious about. Of course the list could be far more exhaustive than the few things mentioned above. But ultimately, the best way to decide which mountain community works best for you is to spend time in each place to really figure out which is the best fit. Find a good realtor who knows the area and take your time understanding what you get for your investment in each location. At the end of the day, both Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear offer the unique opportunity to experience mountain living although they're just a short drive from home.