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Wandering the West

It was almost the first day of summer, so last weekend I took the plunge into Bear Lake and didn’t actually come up screaming from the cold. At 5,900 feet elevation, and filled with snowmelt off from the north slope of the High Uinta mountains, Bear Lake has a reputation as one cold place to take a dip. But starting this weekend, Bear is the perfect place to get relief from a Utah summer. And the swim temperature will just keep getting better until mid-September.

Coming from upper Midwest lake country, I was pretty shocked to get out here in the West and find no natural lakes to jump into or camp alongside. We have some nice reservoirs near Park City, but they’re not natural and, as the summer moves on and irrigators and downstream cities draw their allotments, the shorelines of reservoirs become mud bogs.

But Bear Lake became a natural lake some 30,000 years ago when ancient Lake Bonneville broke through an Idaho mountain range nearby and drained, leaving only the Great Salt Lake and a few other isolated bodies of water. Bear Lake is a huge remnant of pure mountain water, in an oval shape filling the valley between two mountain ranges. It’s huge twenty miles from north to south and eight miles wide. If you went by water color alone, you’d swear you were in Caribbean waters. In bright sunshine it almost glows turquoise because of the way sunlight hits microscopic particles of limestone suspended in the water.

This lake straddles two states equally, with the Utah-Idaho state line splitting it in half. Each state has a number of state parks around the shoreline for camping and day use. The big public marina with boat docks and gasoline lies just south of the Idaho line on the west shore. Most of the action is on the west shore. The lake is so big the west shore has three towns strung out along it Garden City in Utah and Fish Haven and St. Charles in Idaho. Laketown, Utah, is not on the lake, but it’s near the south shore. The east shore is relatively undeveloped with mostly primitive campgrounds and a few-boat launch ramps.

Garden City and Fish Haven are the epicenters of lake life, with restaurants, stores with lake essentials, and lodging. Two golf courses are near the lake with eye-popping lake views Bear Lake Country Club to the southwest and Bear Lake West in Idaho near Fish Haven.

You can try to fish here for lake trout and Bear Lake cutthroat trout, but its tough to find them in all that water. Better in summer to just relax on the shore, jump in when you tire of beach games or just lounge around with summer reading and cold beverages.

This is a boater’s paradise. With hundreds of square miles of surface water, this is the place to open the throttle, trim the prop, and fly on that four-dollar gas. Water skiing and wake boarding are hugely popular, especially in the calm morning hours. afternoon the winds come up and Bear Lake’s marina-based sailboats come out to play. Many of the boats here are ocean-capable rigs sailed by people who know how to make them move.

It’s no surprise that Bear is becoming wildly popular with Park City people. It’s just two hours away and we do it quite often as a day trip. Many of the new cabins going up are being built by Park City people and, like Park City, gated communities of trophy homes with designer-label golf courses are coming on the market.

Those developments are new, but some things never change. On Friday nights the local girls sit outside the gas station checking out the arrival of the new crop of "lake boys" and there’s a dance every Saturday night over in Garden City that enables them to meet. Reminds me of carefree summer days at my parent’s cabin in Park Rapids, Minnesota, complete with Saturday dances at the National Guard Armory. But that’s another story one that won’t be told here, or anywhere.

THE VITALS:Park City to Garden City: 126 miles via I-80 to Evanston, then north

Web site: http://www.bearlake.org

Insider tip: Bear Lake’s nicest campground is Idaho’s Bear Lake East Shore Park. Call 1-866-634-3246 to reserve Idaho state campgrounds. Call 1-800-322-3770 to reserve Utah state campgrounds.

Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.


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