At first glance there’s nothing to suggest there’s anything special about this rugged, barren terrain. In fact the area for the most part lacks vibrant color, save for shades of clay soil and an endless expanse of blue sky horizon. The only thing that breaks up the stark horizon is nearby Baldwin Lake, the Valley’s naturally occurring body of water that again has water lapping at its shores.
It’s only upon closer inspection that the uniqueness that is the Baldwin Lake Ecological Preserve comes to life. There’s color here, beautiful shades of yellow and red and purple, if you’re willing to look closely for it. There’s history too—some 150 years ago this area was the epicenter of Southern California’s largest gold rush. Perhaps most significantly, there’s life here, no less than ten different floral species that exist here and nowhere else on the planet.
A self-guided interpretive trail and visitor center explores Baldwin Lake Ecological Habitat via a short loop that visits 11 marked posts. Developed by the Forest Service in conjunction with Fish and Game, the loop is short, just over a half-mile in length, and it presents a healthy dose of rare habitat and history.
Pick up a free copy of the guide at the trailhead, located along Hwy. 18 in Baldwin Lake just west of Holcomb Valley Rd., or at the adjacent Ecological Reserve, open Saturdays 10 a.m.-2 p.m. April 1-June 24 and staffed by volunteers in a partnership between San Bernardino National Forest Association and Fish and Game Dept. Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. see free guided walks of the Preserve.
The terrain is rocky so good footwear is recommended, and there is a touch of elevation gain, but the trail is very well marked and easy to follow as it winds along old fire roads and even wagon trails from yesteryear. History abounds, starting at the building marking the trailhead—it once was known as the “Horse House,” a synonym for house of ill repute activities that reportedly went on here decades ago.
As the trail winds through open sagebrush habitat overlooking Baldwin Lake—there’s water in it this year—visitors learn about the flora and fauna that call this area home. Deer, coyotes, mountain lions, a variety of small mammals, birds and reptiles live in this harsh terrain, where the sun’s rays are intense—bring your sunscreen—yet winters are harsh. Three types of jays—pinyon, Steller’s and scrub—are found in the San Bernardino Mountains.
The trail’s highlight comes at posts #7 and #8, as it visits Pebble Plain. Scattered patches of rocky clay soil are in fact some of the planet’s most unique terrain, believe to be created during the Pleistocene periods 10,000 years ago when glaciers covered much of the area. Pebble Plain is so unique, it has been compared to coral reefs with as many as 20 species in a square meter.
Big Bear’s unique climate, particularly in spring—freezing nights, warm days—causes pebbles to literally push to the soil surface. It’s a habitat only the most hardy can survive in, like “belly plants” only an inch high, best viewed by lying down. Douglas’ violets (actually yellow), Parish’s rock cress, Bear Valley sandwart and others are mostly unique to this area. It’s among the highest concentrations of rare plants in North America!
Belly plants contrast nicely with colorful displays that aren’t particularly unique, like red Indian paint brush, orange California poppies, and even purple lupine that smells like grape soda. Artifacts from the mining era are mixed in with more recent items that are purely trash…please leave the area exactly as you found it.
Stop #10 marks western juniper, best identified by red stringy bark, scaly green leaves, and small light purple berries. These slow-growing trees are hardy and enduring…some in the forest are believed to date over 2,000 years!
If this short loop isn’t enough hiking for you, continue east on Hwy. 18 another quarter-mile to Holcomb Valley Rd. and turn left. Just before the transfer station at the end of the road is the famed 2,638 mile Pacific Crest Trail…the section on the left offers great hiking past Doble trail camp, while the southern section on the right sports panoramic desert views.
Call Big Bear Discovery Center at (909) 866-3437.