The Best Driving in Southern California: Routes 330 and 18 to Big Bear Lake
The route to Big Bear. Photo from Google Earth
Although I purchased my GTI over a year ago, I had never really pushed the car for fear of wrecking such an expensive car (to me, at least), especially since it is my only mode of transportation. Automotive financing will change your priorities, I suppose. I have taken it to Las Vegas on multiple trips, and to places closer to home like San Diego or through the twisty run up to the apple orchards in Oak Glen (Los Rios Rancho makes unbelievable cider, even when the apples are out of season). Until last weekend, I had never given the Pirelli P Zero Neros a full workout. Until last weekend, when I navigated a two-lane road with a vertical rock wall on my left and a sheer drop to a forest floor on my right. In the pitch black, through what must have been more than a hundred tight switchbacks and curves, through thousands of feet of elevation change. California Route 330 and afterward, the 18, begins at the eastern end of the 210; it is one of the most thrilling roads in Southern California provided that traffic isn’t too heavy, and as long as it is enjoyed during the warmer months when the pass isn’t blanketed in ice and snow.
The road is rarely more than a single lane on each side, with passing lanes popping up every four miles or so and plenty of turnouts for slower trucks and RVs. Not that we saw them used very much on our way up, of course, as there were too few cars to necessitate either. We began the climb at about 8:30PM, and even in summer, that meant the sun had set and we were left to our headlights to guide us. There were no streetlights until we entered Big Bear city limits, so at nighttime, visibility is limited to how good your lamps are.
And the GTI’s are good, and so are the fog lights. They are perfectly functional as opposed to the ones on my old Mustang, which were useless except for making the car look better to oncoming cars. Good tires and sporty suspension are also a must for having an enjoyable run up the mountain, and the plaid bucket seats in the GTI kept us firmly in place. If we had back seat passengers, I’d imagine the rear bench would be less comfortable, but luckily only the fronts were occupied.
So, up to Big Bear. The route is covered in police vehicles who will not pause for a second to pull over Sébastien Loeb imitators, and we saw four black-and-whites in the 16-mile stretch waiting on the sidelines for sprinters. That being the case, we made sure to stay right behind cars going 1-2 mph faster, just in case. Certain cars are cop magnets no matter the speed, and we stayed just aft of a leading Corvette for precisely that reason. A calculated risk, as it were, and it still allowed us to tackle blind corners with reckless abandon. Sure, there were two corners in particular that unexpectedly “featured” decreasing radii, but with the steep upward grade, an immediate 10 mph decrease is no more than a throttle lift away. The speed limits on the road seem to have been created with no consideration to the bends whatsoever. Some 20-degree turns carry a suggested speed of 25, while more than a few abrupt right-angled corners set the limit at 50. No matter. I stuck to my time-honored tradition of driving “reasonably.”
By the time we made the trip from the base of the mountain to the cabin where we would spend the night, we had traveled roughly 32 miles. Without looking at a clock, it was impossible to judge how long it had taken. 45 minutes? An hour? The drive demands unwavering attention, so your sense of time becomes warped. Whatever it is, there’s never a dull moment and rarely more than a few seconds of straightaway to compose yourself before the next set of chicanes and hard turns that serve as a true barometer of your car’s suspension setup.
I can attest that the full vision that daylight affords completely transforms that 32 mile stretch. The glistening Big Bear Lake is completely visible, and is jaw-dropping against the emerald pine trees that surround it. As I bombed down the 330, I could see where I was going this time, which would have been more emboldening if it weren’t for the far greater number of cars in the opposing lane. Nevertheless, the brakes quickly warmed up in the 6,500 foot plummet back to San Bernardino.
While the rest of Los Angeles and Orange Counties suffer from near-constant gridlock and poorly paved roads, the route to Big Bear remains pleasantly clear of traffic (at night, at least. Or while going in the opposite direction of people arriving for the 4th of July celebrations). The sheer number of quality turns is enough to tempt your inner Senna, and provided that you have the right car, I encourage you to do so. The 330 is the Las Vegas of driving: a place close enough for Southern California residents to forget themselves for a little while and lose themselves in a bit of debauchery. Just don’t follow the 50 mph signs too closely, they will give you a false sense of security that your car may not recover from. You have been warned.