Out of the Park

Here's How To Have A Beach Vacation In Utah

Think a Utah beach vacation is an oxymoron? You’ll reconsider after visiting the Caribbean of the Rockies.

By Natalie Taylor June 1, 2016 Published in the Summer/Fall 2016 issue of Park City Magazine

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Natural calcium carbonate deposits are responsible for Bear Lake’s signature turquoise waters.

Some of my fondest memories are of summer vacations on Bear Lake. During those days, my dad would spend hours pulling us on a tube, and later water skis, from one end of the lake to the other as he blasted ABA from the cockpit of the boat. In the evening, we’d wander the lake’s wide shoreline or go into “town,” a.k.a. Garden City, for raspberry shakes. And although parts of this quintessentially Utah destination have evolved since then, most remain unchanged and, for me, pleasantly varnished with the sheen of nostalgia.

Bear Lake’s natural fresh waters, caught in a half graben or fault-sided valley, span 109 miles along the Idaho–Utah border at the northeast side of the Wasatch Range. The lake’s vibrant color is due to the reflection of calcium carbonate (lime) deposits suspended in the water. One look at that turquoise gem and you know why they call it the Caribbean of the Rockies. 

In 1819, Donald “Fats” McKenzie attended a rendezvous here—a gathering of mountain men, trappers, and Native Americans to trade furs and goods—and christened the body of water Black Bear Lake for the area’s prolific black bear population. Rendezvous Beach is named after those gatherings, and you can still find remnants of pioneer homes nearby. According to lore, the Bear Lake monster is a serpent with an undulating body and the head of either (choose one) a cow, otter, crocodile, or walrus and varies from 18 inches to 50 feet long depending on who’s telling the story. Garden City—the biggest of small towns along the shoreline—is dotted with marinas, boat ramps, and campsites and serves as the ideal base camp for watersport-focused adventure.

Begin the day here by getting up early to nab that perfect first glass on a slalom ski. Rent a jet ski, paddleboard, or sailboat when the afternoon breeze kicks up. Fish for trout and native cutthroats, whitefish, and cisco. Head over to Logan Canyon and enjoy hikes of any length. From golfing and birding to biking (circumnavigate the lake on the relatively flat, 51-mile Bear Lake–Laketown Scenic Byway) and spelunking in the Minnetonka Cave, or even taking in a musical melodrama at the Pickleville Playhouse (435.946.2918), Bear Lake never fails to deliver fun.

Let’s not forget the raspberries. The combination of cool nights and warm days makes the valley perfect for growing some of the best berries on earth. And when they ripen in late July and early August, it’s all about this luscious fruit: jam, syrup, honey, or fresh-picked. Bear Lake Raspberry Days is a three-day festival typically held the first full weekend in August featuring the Little Miss Berry Pageant, parade, rodeo, 5K run in Laketown, pancake breakfast, dances, and fireworks on the beach.

As kids, even though we spent entire days plucking raspberries with itchy arms and red scratches, the berries somehow never made it home. But I’d forgo berry picking for a fresh raspberry shake any day. The entire shore is sprinkled with shake-making ice cream shops: iconic Le Beau’s, Hometown Drive Inn, Merlin’s, or Zipz. Arguments get heated when it comes to the best raspberry shake (and the long lines at each place prove it).

Lunch and dinner spots include the Bear Trapper Steak House, Firehouse Pizzeria, or my favorite, Crepes and Coffee, a small hipster joint that makes all its crepes to order while you sip coffee on sofas and watch the world go by.

Lodging options abound in and around Garden City. Rent a condo or a cabin, camp along the lake, or reach a happy compromise at Conestoga Ranch (844.464.5267), a luxury camping resort that defines “glamping.” It’s got all you want from camping—roasting marshmallows over a crackling fire, breezy canvas tents, and starlit skies—without all the hassle. You simply pull up, register, and hop on a golf cart shuttle to a sleeping wagon, traditional tent, or grand tent, complete with beds, heat, an en-suite bathroom, and outdoor fire pit. Hungry? Try Conestoga’s Campfire Grill Restaurant’s Bear Lake Wagyu burger or the wood-fired BBQ chicken pizza. Traditionalists can enjoy the chuck wagon lunch with Dutch-oven specialties.

My entire family returned to Bear Lake last Labor Day to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Despite a cold snap, us kids (and now dozens of grandkids) skied around the glassy lake once again to “Waterloo,” “SOS,” and “Mamma Mia.” Bear Lake’s homey vibe remains intact for us and, I’m certain, countless other families as well. 

Get There

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A Grand Tent at Conestoga Ranch

There are two routes to Bear Lake: via Logan Canyon or Evanston. I prefer making the loop, i.e., taking the canyon to get to the lake and going through Evanston on the way home. Along the way there, be sure to leave time for a stop at the Maddox Ranch House (1900 S. Highway 89, 435.723.8545 closed Sundays) in Brigham City for home cookin’: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, homemade biscuits and gravy, and of course, pie. And arriving at Bear Lake via the canyon also offers a big payoff on your final approach: a stunning view of the entire lake.

Lift-Assisted Glamp-Out

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The Pineview Reservoir, as seen from Snowbasin’s John Paul Lodge

If you’ve ever wanted to stand at the start gate of the 2002 Olympic downhill, or wake up to a view of Ben Lomond Peak (rumored to be Paramount Pictures’ famous logo), or eat an entire dinner—including dessert—prepared in Dutch ovens, then your dreams await at Snowbasin’s annual John Paul Campout, scheduled for July 27.

Bring your overnight essentials, including a sleeping bag (since you can choose to throw your bag down either inside or outside the John Paul Lodge; tents are optional) and warm clothing and hop on Snowbasin’s John Paul Express quad chairlift for the overnight of your life.

In addition to a gourmand-level cookout dinner, the evening includes a short hike; libations; cowboy songs, poetry, and a ghost story or two around the campfire; and a hot, hearty breakfast in the morning. Snowbasin is located 64 miles north of Park City. For details, visit snowbasin.com.

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