Straddling the Utah and Idaho border, Bear Lake Valley is the perfect destination for summer fun. Visitors will find hot, sunny days to spend on the warm, clear water of the huge lake, which features 48 miles of sandy shoreline. It’s one of North America’s oldest lakes, dating back nearly 250,000 years. Today, it’s often referred to as the “Caribbean of the Rockies” thanks to the water’s stunning turquoise color—although the sagebrush-covered hills surrounding the lake offer a very different environment than island beaches.
The lake’s famed hue comes from the reflection of tiny suspended particles of calcium carbonate that were washed into the water from limestone deposits in the surrounding mountains. Bear Lake Valley is a gorgeous bucket-list destination with plenty of wet ways for fun in the sun. Here are our best choices to get on the water and make the most of the summer.
1. Boating on Bear Lake
Bear Lake offers some of the West’s best boating adventures, with sailboats tacking in westerly breezes, powerboats rippling still waters, personal watercraft bouncing over waves, and big pontoon boats exploring the 109-square-mile lake. Sailors love Bear Lake for the regular afternoon winds that fill sails, stunning sunset colors, and the 305 boat berths at the Bear Lake State Park Marina on the lake’s west side. Powerboats cut around the lake in long lazy circles, towing water-skiers, while nimble two-seaters like Jet Skis, SeaDoos, and Waverunners find plenty of water to escape the crowds. It’s easy to get on Bear Lake with seven boat ramps scattered around the shoreline, including two at Idaho’s North Beach and a five-lane launch at the park marina. All boaters need to remember that Bear Lake is enormous and often generates its own weather. Check the weather before boating, always wear a personal floatation device, and watch for high winds which can whip up 10-foot waves.
2. Paddling around Bear Lake
Paddlers come to Bear Lake to launch onto shimmering water that reflects puffy clouds and rounded hills. The best time to hit the lake is in the morning before the wind builds up and the afternoon power-boat crowd starts cutting turns. The lake shines as a premier stand-up paddleboard venue with easily accessible open water, especially along the developed west coast. Bring your own board or, if you haven’t tried the sport before, rent one and take a lesson. Garden Park Beach and Rendezvous Beach are ideal spots with calm, shallow water and stellar views. Kayaks are also a popular way to explore Bear Lake’s expansive waters. Again, Garden Park and Rendezvous Beaches are perfect spots to rent a kayak and launch. For more privacy, head to the undeveloped east shore of Bear Lake and paddle around First Point, Cisco Beach, Rainbow Cove, and North Beach.
3. Swimming and Beaches at Bear Lake
What’s the best beach at Bear Lake? There’s no right answer since there are miles of sandy options. The eight-mile-wide lake is the biggest swimming hole in Utah and Idaho, with beaches lining the mountain-rimmed water. The spacious beaches offer plenty of quiet spots to plant an umbrella and chairs, do the backstroke in crystalline water, watch the kids build a sandcastle, or marvel at the sun setting in a blaze of orange. The beaches on the west side of the lake are generally wide with flat shallows. Nearby campgrounds make access a cinch. The east side beaches tend to be narrower since the lake quickly deepens close to shore.
Bear Lake Hot Springs is a great beach choice, with hot mineral pools, a campground, boat rentals, and access to a mile of beach. Drive your car across the sand to the shore and set up for the day. Nearby North Beach is perfect for the kids with a wide sandy beach and shallow water for wading. Rendezvous Beach, named for a mountain man gathering in the 1820s, offers white sand and two state park campgrounds. The best beach in the Garden City area on the west shoreline is alongside Garden City Park, which features shallow water for swimming.
4. Scuba Diving off Cisco Beach
Bear Lake is one of the most popular dive sites in Utah and Idaho, and visitors can explore the deep, clear water off Cisco Beach, a flagged dive area on the east side of the lake. Bear Lake, with 30-feet of visibility, is best from June to October when the water surface temperature fluctuates between 55 and 65 degrees, making a wet suit and thermal dive gear necessary. The dive site has small rocky alcoves and cliffs, plenty of fish—including lake trout and Bonneville cisco—a sunken boat, and The Car Lot, an artificial reef of cars submerged in the 1930s under 60 feet of water. Besides shore diving from Cisco Beach, divers also boat dive at The Rock Pile.
5. Angling at Bear Lake
Sandwiched between mountain ranges, Bear Lake is a fantastic playground for anglers. The lake, reaching depths of 208 feet, harbors healthy populations of Bear River cutthroat and lake trout along with four rare fish species that live nowhere else in the world. These four species—Bonneville cisco, Bear Lake whitefish, Bonneville whitefish, and Bear Lake sculpin— evolved in isolation in the remote lake.
While most fishermen troll for trophy-sized trout in deep water from boats, good shore fishing is at Cisco Beach, Rainbow Cove, Gus Rich’s Point, and Bear Lake State Park Marina. Angling guides say it’s best to catch the big trout at different depths from 20 feet to 150 feet, using a pontoon boat, kayak, or float tube to get away from the shoreline to cold, deep water. Late December through January, when Bear Lake is iced over, is the best time to catch the thriving cisco and the other endemic fish species. Fishermen often use a long-handled dip net and waders to snare the eight-inch fish in the famed cisco spawning run at Cisco Beach or head to The Rock Pile off Ideal Beach Resort to jig with a shiny lure.
How to Get on the Water
With plenty of rental companies, marinas, and guides, it’s easy to get onto Bear Lake if you don’t have a boat. Hit up Bear Lake Water Adventures for stand-up paddleboard rentals, lessons, and suggestions before heading onto the lake. Epic Recreation offers tours and lessons and rents powerboats from 24-foot pontoons and personal watercraft to sleek ski boats, along with kayaks, paddleboards, and water trampolines. Bear Lake Rentals provides powerboats, pontoons, fishing boats, SeaDoos, 24-foot wakeboard boats, and non-motorized watercraft including kayaks and paddleboards. The Bear Lake State Park Marina offers boating and fishing supplies as well as boat rentals.
Bear Lake’s Famous Raspberry Shake
After a long day of wet fun on Bear Lake, cool down in Garden City with a famous Bear Lake raspberry shake. This small town on the lake’s west side immodestly claims to be the birthplace of the raspberry shake, a tasty mix of fresh local raspberries and soft vanilla ice cream. LaBeau’s Drive-In, with its 10-foot-high revolving raspberry shake, and Quick ‘n’ Tasty Drive-In across the street are favorite shake stops.Written by Stewart Green for Matcha in partnership with Bear Lake CVB.
Featured image provided by J. Stephen Conn