Bluff Lake Reserve: A Road Less Taken

Bluff Lake is a reservoir located just 3.8 miles from Big Bear Lake, California. Located at 7,600 feet, Bluff Lake Reserve has towering pines, a 20-acre lake and meadow, and majestic outcrops of quartz monzonite.

The eighty-acre ecological reserve is open to the public from May until October. Once a stopover resort for pack burro trains and stages bringing tourists to Big Bear in the late 1800s, it is home to several species of rare plants and is a thriving animal habitat.

In 1921, James S. Edwards, Trustee of Pomona College in Claremont, bought the property for $1,100 dollars after owner Sylvanus Thurmon died the year prior. 

In 1925, Edwards sold the property, now valued at $100,000 dollars, to Pomona College for $10. Pomona College owned the Bluff Lake property until the 1940s, using it as a nature field study area.

Hollywood came to Bluff Lake in 1961 when Disney’s ‘The Parent Trap’ starring Hayley Mills, Maureen O’ Hara and Brian Keith filmed the opening scenes for the girl’s camp there.  In 2000, ‘Dr. Doolittle 2’ starring comedian Eddie Murphy was filmed at Bluff Lake when The Wildlands Conservancy was acquiring the property to save it from development.

After acquiring the 120 acre parcel in 2000, The Wildlands Conservancy drained the lake to kill non-native catfish in order to restore the native aquatic systems that had been decimated by artificially stocked lakes in Southern California.

In 2011, the WLC sold the lower 40-acres camping section to Camp Gilboa, which offers a truly unique and vibrant Jewish camping experience for youth ages 8 to 17. 

“On this site still stands the cabin of the original Bluff Lake stage stop. Burro trains in the early 1880s made a regular run to Bluff Lake Resort. The “Burro Express” was still in operation in 1898. In 1899 with an improved road, the Bear Valley and Redlands toll road stages were in operation to Bluff Lake.” ~The Honorable Order of E. Clampus Vitus, 1982

A young man by the name of Kirk Phillips had seen a White truck with bench seats carrying passengers on Fifth Avenue in New York City; this was the world’s first bus line. He thought this would work in the mountains and by the spring of 1912 he established the famous Mountain Auto Line and started bringing freight and passengers to the mountains by motor power. This was the world’s second bus line.

By 1914 there were nine reliable White trucks (buses) making the trip and bringing tourists to and from the mountains. The buses had four cylinder engines; they were open top and sides, had four rows of seats behind the driver and carried thirteen passengers.  Early buses known as White Stages operated by the Shay Brothers paused near Bluff Lake on their way to Big Bear Lake in 1915.

They traveled to Big Bear Valley via the Mill Creek Road past the picturesque Bluff Lake and meadow area and came out through the control gate opposite the historic Oak Knoll Lodge which is still operating today.

It was very nice meeting Ranger John during our hike.

A mile-long loop trail goes through the pine forest around the lake and through the west side of the meadow, with connections to the trail leading to the Champion Lodgepole Pine.

Someone decided to catch a quick siesta on some boulders near the lake.

Lodgepole Pines are common in the Sierras where it is colder, but rare in Southern California. The world “Champion” (discovered in 1963) is a magnificent, double-topped tree that towers above the surrounding forest reaching a height of 110+ feet. The circumference of the trunk at the bottom is 22 feet, however the bulbous base is 36 feet in circumference. It’s age is estimated at 452 years, which means that it began to germinate in the year 1560. 

You will find mature forests of Pinus contorta (lodgepole pine), Pinus jeffreyi (Jeffrey pine) and Abies concolor (White fir). Scattered about the forest floor you will find a plethora of native wildflowers and fern growth including many varieties of lupine and even some endangered species such as the the Bird-footed checkerbloom, Sidalcea pedata, as well as Bear Valley bluegrass, Poa atropurpurea, and California dandelion, Taraxacum californicum.

The stone foundation for the Edwards house is directly behind the log cabin from the 1890s, at the north gate.

A log cabin was built for John Healy Williams, a congregational pastor next to the Edwards family’s stone and wood house. It burned down in the 1950s, leaving only its large fireplace, chimney and foundation.

There are remains of two cabins from the old resort on Camp Gilboa’s 40 acre private property – you can see them from the picnic area on the South Trail. Please do not enter Camp Gilboa without authorization.

Bluff Lake Reserve is a popular destination for adventurers who are looking to hike through Big Bear’s best landmarks, including Castle Rock Trail and the Champion Lodgepole Pine without crowds.  Gorgeous and serene, Bluff Lake is an alpine lake that won’t disappoint.

Bluff Lake Reserve is part of the Sand to Snow Preserve System. It is open to the public 9 am until 6 pm from May until October.  Admission is FREE; donations are welcome. Dogs must be leashed at all times. 




Access to Bluff Lake is off Big Bear Blvd. west of town on either Tulip Lane or Mill Creek Road.

  • At Oak Knoll Lodge, turn south on Forest Service Road 2N10. After about a mile the pavement ends and becomes an improved dirt road (passenger car accessible).

  • Follow the 2N10 another 2.6 miles to the junction with 2N86 and bear left, following the sign that says “<—Bluff Lake Reserve.”

  • In approximately a 1/2 mile, look for the sign on the right: “Bluff Lake Reserve 1/2 –>” and turn right on the access road and proceed a 1/2 mile to the main parking area.

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2 thoughts on “Bluff Lake Reserve: A Road Less Taken

  1. The lake and the camp (now Gilboa) used to be a YMCA camp. We went to “Family Camp” a few times in the 1960s. I have lots of fond memories catching garter snakes and frogs, canoeing and fishing on the lake, swimming in the lake and the pool, riding in a half-track army vehicle to go to the dump to see bears, watching movies and having hot cocoa in the mess hall (with bats flying around inside), responding to the ringing of the big mess hall triangle for each meal, hiking to the champion lodgepole pine tree, horseback riding, shooting BB guns and .22 rifles (once I got old enough) at the shooting range, shooting arrows at the archery range, making lanyards and insect cages… so much! Campfire was always fun, and each family was supposed to put on a skit sometime during the week. Those were glorious days with my parents and brothers and sister!!

    I credit my career in natural resource management and conservation, and my interest in nature, In large part, to our experiences at Bluff Lake Camp.

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