Traders, Towns, and Tourists
For hundreds of years people have been drawn to Bear Lake along the Utah-Idaho Border. Shoshones, Fur Traders, Latter-day Saint Pioneers, and contemporary tourists have come to the lake for various purposes over the years, and it remains a vibrant and beautiful place to this day.
Bear Lake is a natural freshwater lake that is 18 miles long and 7 miles wide. It straddles the border between Utah and Idaho, which passes through the center of the lake. Renowned for
its bright blue waters, thanks to the limestone in the mountains surrounding it, Bear Lake has been dubbed the Caribbean of the Rockies. The lake and surrounding communities are also well known for the famous “Bear Lake raspberries” that grow in the area and the associated Raspberry Days festival held every August. In recent years the lake has become a tourism hot spot with vacation homes and resorts spreading along its shores.
The Shoshone inhabitants of the valley historically used the Bear Lake area for food; they fished the lake’s waters and hunted in the surrounding mountains. They called the lake “sweet lake” due to its exceptionally clear water, and the first European fur traders adopted the name “Sweet Lake” for the body of water. The name “Bear Lake” came about when a Scotsman named Donald McKenzie paddled up the Bear River in 1818. When he found the lake he named it “Black Bear Lake,” but later trappers soon dropped the adjective “Black” so the lake’s name matched the river. Fur trapping continued in the area but sharply increased in 1827 when mountain men held a rendezvous along the southern shore of the lake. Thousands of Natives from many tribes came to trade furs for guns, supplies, and other goods. Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith were among the mountain men in attendance. Mountain men gathered to Bear Lake for another rendezvous in 1828, but it was the last one held in the valley.
From 1829 onward, the rendezvous moved into nearby Wyoming, and Shoshones continued to enjoy the Bear Lake Valley. The next group to arrive were laborers from the Logan, Utah area who were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes nicknamed “Mormons”) and had come to search for pine trees tall enough to serve as support beams for the Logan Temple then under construction. When their reports of a fertile valley with a large lake reached Brigham Young in Salt Lake City, he sent Church apostle Charles C. Rich to settle the area in 1863.
The Mormons initially strove for peaceful relations with the Shoshones, and at first agreed to keep to the northern part of the valley while the Shoshone used the southern part in what is present-day Utah. These Latter-day Saint quickly established the small towns of St. Charles, Montpelier, Ovid, Bennington, and Fish Haven, all named for cities in Brigham Young’s native Vermont. For a few years the valley became known as “Mormon Valley.” As time went on, both the Mormon name and the agreement they had with the Shoshones faded from memory. The Latter-day Saint settlers expanded southward along the banks of the lake, adding the towns of Paris, Garden City, and Laketown.
Bear Lake continues to represent a place where people go to fish, boat, and recreate, just as the Shoshones and fur traders had.