STRs in small towns during busy season

Published January 18th, 2023

Busy season in the Southern California mountains doesn’t last long – but for some of the residents, it feels like it. By December, the snow has started to fall and the community of Big Bear Lake gets tested – this is particularly evident when visiting the two main grocery stores in town (A Stater Brothers and Vons). Locals know to get their shopping done early while the tourists are still sleeping or driving up the hill. The Ski lifts open around 8:30am, and with it, the early morning traffic jam. A few weeks later, mid-January, things begin to settle down. Weekends still get busy until the snow melts, but life begins to return to a normal pace.

This story isn’t unique to Big Bear Lake – there’s a lot of small towns that act as portals to popular outdoor recreation destinations. When looking where to place blame, short term rentals become an easy target. Do the short term rentals generate more traffic, or do they decrease day-use traffic? In the case of Big bear, it’s a fair question. The majority of daily visitors to the slopes are there just for the day – this means a lot of traffic on the 2-lane highways leading up the mountain. Visitors who are staying for a weekend are able to use public transit to get to the slopes. Renters also have more time to spend money on the local economy, eat at local restaurants and shop downtown.

It’s hard to completely blame short term rentals for the traffic – the slopes have always been busy. Locals aren’t afraid to talk about how annoying the holiday crowds are, but most of the people you talk to understand it as an inevitable part of living in a ski town. The negative impacts of crowds are hard to abate – with enough people, statistically you’re guaranteed to get some who are rude, some who are litterbugs, and some who think the traffic rules don’t apply to them. The solution for some locals is to basically hunker down during these busy periods and ask visitors to do their grocery shopping before they drive up.

When the warm days start to arrive in the Spring, the ski resorts prepare to transition to their mountain biking configuration. Hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail start trickling through town for a day or two of rest, and the lake opens back up to boating, kayaking and fishing. The cool mountain air is a respite from the triple digit temperatures days in the Inland Empire. Summer has become a profitable season for the community, with much more manageable crowds. The rental rates are more affordable this time of year, and the Downtown area is less chaotic (you can quickly get a table or sit down for a drink). The increase in short term rentals has, in some ways, unlocked the year round potential of the area – an area where summer work used to be harder to find.

These rentals do affect the character of the community, and the city of Big Bear has recently passed a vacation rental ordinance that limits the number of rental properties a licensee can hold (2 max), and includes parking space requirements and inspections. As peoples’ recreational preferences change, traffic to these small communities changes – the rental situation is most likely just a reaction to this rather than the primary cause. People want to get outdoors more and connect with nature – and this means more people will be traveling through these small gateway towns whether or not there’s available lodging.