Little Bear Valley

The San Bernardino Mountains were the home of Serrano Indians for thousands of years. The first white man to explore the area was the famous trapper Jedediah Smith in 1826. Except for an occasional prospector, the area remained relatively untouched for the next 20 years, when Mormon settlers began cutting timber in the area.

In 1845 the governor permitted a wealthy rancher, Benjamin Wilson, to take a group of men and pursue Indian raiders and cattle rustlers. Following the San Bernardino River up into the mountains, Wilson and a party of twenty-two men came upon a large valley and swampy lake. A great number of huge grizzly bears were found there, and each of the men lassoed and killed one of the magnificent beasts. Word spread of this hunter’s paradise, and the area became known as “Bear” Valley. (Robinson, p.12)

Jedediah Smith

Pack mules bringing supplies to Little Bear Valley (Rim of the World Historical Society)

Things changed dramatically when gold was discovered in Bear Valley in April of 1859. Soon miners were working claims all over the mountains. There was a similar, yet smaller valley west of Bear Valley near what is now Lake Arrowhead. To distinguish the two areas, this became known as “Little” Bear Valley.

The valley was filled with wildlife. There were grizzly bears, cougars, deer, bighorn sheep, antelope, coyotes, wolverines, raccoons, skunks, and squirrels. Little Bear Creek ran year-round through a beautiful grassy meadow. Indians gathered acorns from the many oak trees, and used the grasses to make baskets and clothing.

Cattle played an important role in Southern California’s economy. Little Bear Valley was an ideal place for cattle and sheep grazing. The first herds were probably brought up by the Mormon lumber men to provide meat, milk, cheese, and butter for the lumber camps. The drought of 1862-1865 caused many ranchers from the San Bernardino Valley and Mojave Desert to drive their herds up the steep canyons into the mountains when the lowland grasses and creeks had dried up. (Robinson, p.82) All summer the herds grazed on the abundant pastureland.
Calves were separated from the herds and branded, and the older animals were rounded up. After feeding on the rich mountain pastures, the fattened herds were driven down the mountain where they brought very good prices. Soon, this became a yearly event involving thousands of animals.  

Cowboys branding and separating cattle in Little Bear Valley.
(Photo courtesy of Rim of the World Historical Society)

Harvesting hay in Little Bear Valley, site of present day Lake Arrowhead (Photo courtesy of the Rim of the World Historical Society)

Unfortunately it also took its toll on the environment. Shepherds often set fires to create more open grassland for their flocks. Overgrazing left the mountain meadows a dusty wasteland by the 1890s. Very little pasture was left for the lumber mill horses and oxen and soon the lumber men and the cowboys were fighting overgrazing rights.

By the turn of the century the Forest Service began to control land use on the mountain. Grazing areas were designated to stop the overgrazing and protect the watersheds from livestock pollution and erosion. (Robinson, pp. 95-99)

In 1910, ranchers began to be charged a fee for each animal grazing on public forest land. The beef shortage during World War I brought a brief increase in cattle grazing, but by the early 1930’s most ranchers had sold their lands to developers.

The creation of the Lake Arrowhead reservoir eliminated the pastures of Little Bear Valley. Vacation resorts in Crestline, Blue Jay, and Lake Arrowhead soon sprouted up on the old cattle ranches.

Early campers in Little Bear Valley, with Lake Arrowhead reservoir in background
( Rim of the World Historical Society)

Questions to Think About

1. Do you think you would have enjoyed old Little Bear Valley? Why?

2. What do you think the people thought about the Serrano Indians?

3. Do you think anyone could clear cut trees on the mountain today? Why? 

Return to Homepage