More than a milkshake stop, Bear Lake offers adventure for the whole family.
Bear Lake has my heart,” my friend, Alison Richman, told me when describing her nostalgia for Utah’s northernmost freshwater lake. Like many native Utahns, multiple generations of her family have looked forward to a Bear Lake trip as a cool-water respite in the heat of summertime. It’s far enough away from Salt Lake City to feel like a real vacation, but close enough to get there and back on a tank of gas. Straddling the Idaho-Utah border, this natural glacial lake is surrounded by both private and public land, and it abounds with recreational opportunities—from a quiet morning of fishing, paddleboarding along the lakeshore to wakesurfing behind a powerboat.
Until I started researching this story, I’d never stayed in Bear Lake during the peak summer months, mostly due to the crowds. About a decade ago, traveling with my family, we’d stopped in Garden City on a late-July afternoon hoping to pick up a quick lunch. We ended up in line for over a half-hour with two hangry toddlers eager for milkshakes—not the best day. Since then, we’ve waited until autumn’s calmer and cooler months for our Bear Lake fix, when fall-leaf viewing, good fishing and mule-deer-hunting season brought us back to the area with a better attitude.
Even locals tout the offseason. Darin Pugmire of Pugstones Sporting, located in Garden City’s iconic Raspberry Square, says that fall and winter are great times to visit Bear Lake. “It’s not as crowded as summer, but there’s still a ton of stuff to do,” he says.
Options for both lodging and dining around Bear Lake have improved dramatically in the past few years, making even the summer months feel a little more laid back. The west shore abounds with burger & shake shacks and pizza parlors. RV and tent campsites (both in state parks and private campgrounds) and established condominium beach rentals have been joined by a huge range of cabin-rental options from bare-bones rustic to upscale posh booked through sites like Airbnb.
Circle the wagons
Guests wanting to experience “Glamping” (glamorous camping) can do so at the beautiful setting of Conestoga Ranch (427 N. Paradise Parkway, 385-626-7395, open mid-May through Oct. 1, ConestogaRanch.com), situated on a rise above the east shore in Garden City. Accommodations vary from reproduction Conestoga wagons—a favorite for extended families wanting a circle of four or five wagons to “glamp” together—or wall tents cozily sleeping four or more (rates start at $129). All come with comfy beds and linens and are within a short walk to some pretty glam bathrooms at the main lodge.
For those looking to up the frills factor, luxury wall tents are up the hill from the resort’s charming Campfire Grill Restaurant (beer and wine available), all featuring private in-suite bathrooms, wood stoves and secluded decks with cozy Adirondack chairs and fire pits, including a “firewood valet” taking care of delivery and maintenance.
During previous visits to Bear Lake, we were hard-pressed to find decent breakfast options, especially on Sundays. Fortunately, both Conestoga Ranch’s Campfire Grill and nearby Crepes and Coffee (235 N. Bear Lake Blvd., 435-946-2696, open daily, 7 a.m.-2 p.m.—one of the few places in town to get an espresso) have the morning fuel run covered.
But one thing everyone says of a Bear Lake must-do: You’ve got to get a raspberry shake, often said while asserting that the famous treat is done best by one of a handful of competitors in the area, such as LaBeau’s (69 N. Bear Lake Blvd., 435-946-8821). It’s probably the most hotly contested debate of Bear Lake regulars, who are fortunate to have lots of options to choose from. I’ll just wait until fall to avoid the lines.