Straddling the Utah and Idaho border, Bear Lake Valley is more than just a summer playground—it’s a year-round destination for outdoor adventure. The 20-mile-long lake and surrounding mountains offer diverse outdoor opportunities from boating and fishing (including ice!) to hiking and skiing. You’ll also find some of the region’s most iconic historic sites, a wildlife refuge teeming with migratory birds and seven friendly towns that exude Old West charm. Besides recreation, the area offers plenty of quirky festivals like Raspberry Days in August, Bear Lake County Fair in Montpelier, and the famed Bear Lake Monster Winterfest celebrating the lake’s legendary water beast. Here are our suggestions to explore and enjoy every season in the Bear Lake Valley region.
Getting on the Water at Bear Lake
Bear Lake, spreading across 109 square miles, offers a watery playground for summer adventurers. Boats of every size and shape explore the lake, with sailboats catching afternoon breezes, motorboats pulling water skiers in lazy circles, and personal watercraft like Jet Skis and SeaDoos speeding through the still water. The lake is also a perfect paddling destination for kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards, with calm mornings and open water. Boaters can find plenty of places to rent their choice of watercraft, buy boating accessories, or take lessons.
The lake features miles of sandy beaches and shallow water along the shoreline for swimmers and waders. It’s also one of the best scuba diving sites in Utah and Idaho, with clear water and interesting features like underwater cliffs and an artificial reef of sunken 1930s cars. After the summer heat, Bear Lake remains a great boating destination with sailboats tacking across the wind-rippled water and power boats exploring the 48-mile lakeshore.
Anglers will have a blast trying to catch Bear Lake’s fish, including four species—Bonneville cisco, Bear Lake whitefish, Bonneville whitefish, and Bear Lake sculpin—that live nowhere else in the world. The remote lake has more endemic species than any other North American lake, and trophy-sized Bear River cutthroat and lake trout thrive in the 208-foot-deep lake’s cold water. Besides shoreline and boat fishing from April through November, fishermen head to Bear Lake after it freezes over to drop a line down an ice hole, and they can attempt to catch the rare silvery cisco during its winter spawning run.
Wildlife Watching in Bear Lake Valley
Bear Lake National Wildlife Refuge, stretching across a broad valley north of the lake, offers a superb habitat for migratory waterfowl. More than 160 avian species, including shorebirds, waterfowl, and songbirds, nest and feed through the summer on the refuge’s wetlands, ponds, and meadows. Wildlife photographers and avid birders gather here to observe the various birds, including huge flocks of Canada geese, sandhill cranes, and numerous duck species. The best months to visit are May and June when the elegant cranes perform their courtship dance, and thousands of other birds like egrets, gulls, avocets, and great blue herons raise their fledglings to adulthood.
In late September, sandhill cranes and other migrating birds abandon Bear Lake and head south for the winter, leaving only raptors and ravens after snow and ice blankets the refuge. The best way to see and photograph wildlife is to drive a designated route past marshes and ponds filled with waterfowl to wildlife blinds and short trails in the heart of the refuge or paddle a canoe on a shallow channel past nesting birds.
Explore the Trails in Bear Lake Valley
Besides boating, angling, and paddling, Bear Lake Valley offers plenty of outdoor fun. Bring a bicycle and ride a 50-mile-long loop around the flat lakeshore or head for the hills and pedal a mountain bike along Diamond Creek, or ride 18 miles downhill from Bear Lake Summit to Meadowville.
Hikers and horseback riders can find miles of trails in Bear Lake Valley as well. Popular hikes include the Limber Pine Trail, which features a 560-year-old tree along the route. The Sink Hollow Trail, near the Beaver Mountain ski area, is a 4.5-mile route that features excellent views of the region. With 500 feet of elevation gain, you’ll work a little bit, but it’s accessible for most hikers. The 3.5-mile Laketown Canyon Trail is southeast of the Bear Lake, while the 9-mile Bloomington Lake Trail will take you to a gorgeous cliff-lined lake.
If dark places are your thing, take a 90-minute guided tour through Minnetonka Cave, a nine-room cavern that’s a chilly 40 degrees year-round. With cooler temperatures and changing colors, the fall is an excellent time to take advantage of the hiking and biking opportunities in the region. For those looking to move a little faster, Bear Lake Valley also has hundreds of miles of ATV trails that will give you the thrill of 0ff-road riding.
The fall is also an ideal time to take advantage of the scenic drives in the region. If you’re traveling from Salt Lake City or Ogden, the Ogden River Scenic Byway (Highway 29) is an excellent way to enjoy an alpine drive that will take you to Woodruff in the Bear River Valley.
The Logan Canyon Scenic Byway (U.S. 89) starts in Logan and travels to Garden City, and along the way you’ll discover craggy canyons and overlooks with forever views across the blue lake.
Explore the area’s colorful history by following the Oregon Trail-Bear Lake Scenic Byway, which starts on the western side of Bear Lake and travels through Idaho. Here you’ll find the historic Paris Tabernacle and wagon ruts on the Oregon/California Trail’s Big Hill. Be sure to stop at the National Oregon/California Trail Center in Montpelier to learn about the historic trails with displays and a living history program.
Once winter arrives, the emphasis quickly turns to snowsports, and you have lots of options. All those hiking trails are just as spectacular in the winter, but now you can switch to cross-country skis and snowshoes. An average snowfall of 400 inches a year means there’s usually plenty of powder to keep you entertained.
The other primary winter activity in the region is snowmobiling, and visitors will find more than 350 miles of groomed trails in the region. It’s easy to find places to rent equipment or tour operators who can take you and your group on an unforgettable winter tour of the area.
Bear Lake Valley’s Friendly Towns
No matter when you come to Bear Lake Valley, you’ll find friendly towns in Utah and Idaho that are very welcoming to visitors. Garden City is the largest town on the west side of Bear Lake in Utah, and it offers all services to visitors, including lodging, restaurants, camping, and boat rentals. On the Idaho side of the line, head to Fish Haven, St. Charles, and Montpelier for lodging options, campgrounds, and restaurants.
Whether you’re cooling off in the summer, enjoying the fall colors, or flying down the slopes in the winter, Bear Lake Valley has everything you need for a memorable getaway. See for yourself why this scenic region is one of Utah’s top destinations.
Written by Stewart Green for Matcha in partnership with Bear Lake CVB.
Featured image provided by Brandon Nelson