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Discovering Bear Lake in Northern Utah

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

It was Labor Day weekend, a good time to be in northern Utah. The crisp autumn air was hinting at winter. Aspens and birch were turning the hills golden and a sweet smell of the last hay-cutting filled the valleys. We had explored Wasatch-Cache National Forest in the past, but people kept talking about amazing Bear Lake.

Checking the map we saw a nice loop that would take us up state Highway 39 to Garden City and back over Logan Canyon Scenic Byway (U.S. Highway 89) to Brigham City. Traveling after Labor Day has some advantages. Since many of the tourist attractions are starting to close down for the season, the crowds are gone.

By any criteria, Highway 39 out of Ogden should be a designated scenic byway. We motored up spectacular Rainbow Gardens Canyon to Hunts­ville. Founded in 1860, it’s a cute little town with a nice park and a good place to stop for lunch. Shooting Star Saloon reportedly has great burgers and Texas barbecue.

A few miles up the road, we turned off to reach a Trappist-Cistercian monastery, founded in 1947. Visitors are welcome, and the little gift shop/bookstore has some wonderful homemade preserves and other yummies. Continuing up 39 along various branches and forks of the Ogden River, we passed more inviting campgrounds than I can remember. Seems like there’s one about every mile.

We wild-camp whenever we can. Climbing out of the forest toward Monte Cristo Summit, we passed the excellent graded gravel two-lane road leading over to Hardware Ranch, famous for the huge herds of elk that congregate there every winter, but that’s another story. Just past that turnoff, at about 6,984 feet, there is a large parking area used by snowmobilers in the winter. This was the perfect campsite for the night – off the highway, quiet, a great view and even a fire pit.

In the morning, we topped over Monte Cristo Summit, (9,000 feet). At the junction with Highway 16 in Woodruff, we turned left toward Randolph, and a few miles later, turned left again on Bear Lake Scenic Byway (Highway 30). Randolph has a little park, sort of an outdoor museum, with some cool old antique sheep wagons. Could these be the redecessors of today’s RVs?

Whatever we were expecting, the first sight of Bear Lake was jaw-dropping. Often called the Caribbean of the Rockies, it has a striking turquoise appearance, the result of calcium carbonate particles suspended in the water. The lake has existed for at least 200,000 years. For the last 8,000 the lake has been isolated from Bear River by earthquake activity, resulting in unique water chemistry and some rare forms of plant and animal life. There are four species of fish found nowhere else in the world.

Following the lakeshore, we discovered a great turnoff to a day-use area that led right to the water’s edge. Where the clear water lapped along the beach, there were millions of little snail and clam shells that went extinct 6,000 years ago when the lake was reduced in size. At 5,910 feet in elevation, this time of year the air was a little chilly for a swim. Continuing on Highway 89, we passed several nice campgrounds before we reached Garden City.

Pulling into the modern Bear Lake/Garden City KOA Campground, we were impressed with the facilities, which included free Wi-Fi, 50-amp service, pool, playground, tennis courts, miniature golf, bicycle rentals and a complete grocery store. We plugged in and set out to walk around town just a few blocks away.

The Welcome Center was full of information on all sorts of interesting things to see and do. We did notice that the most popular way to get around town, other than walking, was biking and ATVs. Paved trails lead along the highway. One of the specialties Garden City is famous for is its Raspberry Days Festival, an annual event, which begins two days before the first Saturday in August. We were a month late for that, but there were plenty of raspberries around. Lakeside Pizza on Logan Canyon Road had the best shakes and homemade pies in town.

At the visitor center, Judy Holbrook told us we should pedal over to the new marina. Bear Lake cutthroat, Mackinaw and rainbow trout are among the dozen or so species that tempt the sports fishermen. The modern State Marina has boats and jet skis for rent. We didn’t feel like wetting a line, but we did buy a handful of fish food. Dangling our bare feet over the edge of the wharf, a school of carp quickly came for the free meal and nibbled at our toes when the main course was over. This is a must-do for kids and adults who remember how to act like kids.

We were in Pioneer Country. A little side trip took us up the west side of the lake to visit the National Oregon/California Trail Center in Montpelier, Ida­ho. Even if you’re not a history buff, this is a fascinating exhibit, including the amazing Authentic Indoor Living History on the Oregon Trail experience. Sitting in the back of a moving, creaking covered wagon and learning about some of the trials and hardships people endured traveling west will make you appreciate your modern motorhome.

Evening was approaching as we headed back to camp. On a tip from the visitor center, we turned up to Cooper’s Bear Lake Restaurant & Sports Bar for dinner, just four miles north of Garden City. The view from the deck at sunset was of the lake and the beautiful Bear Lake West golf course. It made us wish we could stay a few more days, but we had a plan, and the thought of fresh peach cobbler put us back on the road.

Logan Canyon Scenic By­way starts in Garden City and climbs steadily for five and a half miles to Bear Lake Overlook and a nearby national forest campground. We stopped for the view and a short break.

As the byway winds its way along Logan River, passing through vertical limestone cliffs, there are an abundance of hiking and biking trails, rolling streams full of hungry trout, and a natural beauty lasting all four seasons. The forest and meadows probably haven’t changed much since beaver trappers like Donald MacKenzie and Jim Bridger roamed these mountains.

One of the best and easiest ways to get close to this land is by horseback. We stopped at Beaver Creek Lodge and took a relaxing trail ride. Closing our eyes, we listened to the squeak of the saddle and the sound of the horses’ breath. It was 1827 for a moment.

Doing some side-road exploring, we drove up to Beaver Mountain Ski Area, the oldest ski resort in Utah. To our surprise, it has summer RV hook­ups in the parking area below the lodge. A little farther along, we took the Tony Grove Lake turnoff. There is a wonderful nature trail that encircled this pristine mountain lake. The campground is very tight for big RVs.

It would take a month to see and do all that Logan Canyon has to offer, but we didn’t want to miss the annual Brigham City Peach Days festival. If your timing is right, Peach Days is a must. It’s an honored tradition and fun-filled weekend that attracts about 75,000 spectators. There was a fabulous old-fashioned parade, carnival rides, a custom and antique car show that had more than 1,000 entries, and, of course, plenty of peach cobbler coming right off a line of Dutch ovens. The event takes place in September (Sept. 7-10 this year), the weekend following Labor Day.

The last leg of our little loop took us south along The Fruit Trail (Highway 89), where we stocked up on baskets of fresh,  juicy peaches and fresh vegetables, enough for our next adventure. The temptation was to turn east again on Highway  89 in Ogden and do it all over again.

For More Information:

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

800-448-2327, www.bearlake.org.


Bear Lake/Garden City KOA

800-562-3442, www.koa.com.


Beaver Creek Lodge

800-946-4485, www.beavercreeklodge.com.


The National Oregon/California Trail Center

208-847-3800, www.oregontrailcenter.org.

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