History Of Bear Lake

Nestled in the top of the Rocky Mountains in the Bear Lake region is a land of lush valleys, meandering turquoise-blue waters, epic recreation, and some of the most intriguing pioneer history in the American West.

A Rich & Storied History

The history of Bear Lake stretches back to the late 18th-century when Native American tribes like the Shoshone, Ute, and Bannock utilized the Bear Lake Valley as a prime hunting ground, as well as a gathering and camping site. The early 1800s brought mountain men to gather in the region for fur trapping, hunting, and trading. At one of these gatherings, Donald “Fats” McKenzie, an explorer for the North West Fur Company, dubbed the freshwater lake at the center of it all Black Bear Lake, due to the abundance of black bears in the area.

Later shortened to simply Bear Lake, the waterway has always been a central focus of the region’s allure – along with Bear River, the largest tributary of the Great Salt Lake. Bear River flows through the Bear Lake Valley in Idaho, past Montpelier where it receives Bear Lake at the Idaho-Utah border.

Suppliers and trappers continued to utilize the region as a rendezvous point for decades, including notables like Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, William Ashley, and Tom Fitzgerald. The increasing popularity of the trade route drew pathfinders such as John C. Fremont and Captain Bonneville to map out the Bear Lake Valley, naming mountain peaks, canyons, and streams in the area.

These missions helped to reveal opportunities for settlement throughout the region leading into western Oregon, prompting large numbers of people to begin making their way across the newly established trails in search of a place to call home.

Expanding Into Nearby Areas

From the Thomas Fork Valley. trailblazers followed the Oregon Trail. The trail reached the Bear Lake Valley area near the point where US Highway 30 enters Idaho, generally following the path of Bear River to the northwest. Thomas L. “Peg Leg” Smith operated a prominent trading post near Bear Lake in Dingle, southeast of Montpelier, providing a convenient point for supply stops and trades among travelers and mountain men along the route.

By the early 1860s, Mormon leader Brigham Young had begun sending pioneering settlers to the Bear Lake area to establish the faith-focused community of Paris, Idaho under the leadership of Charles C. Rich. The development of neighboring communities soon followed, leading to the beginnings of prosperous farming and mining industries and an important role in the expanding railroad system.

Finding The History Of Bear Lake Today

Logan Canyon Scenic Byway

Logan Canyon Scenic Byway is a 41-mile, two-lane highway from Logan to Garden City. Famous for its scenic offerings, the byway parallels the Logan River through Logan Canyon, through dense forests, lush meadows, and rugged rock formations. If you opt to embark on a sightseeing expedition, many historical points of interest will be accessible along the way. You can get a taste of the Oregon Trail from the byway as well. From US 89, you can drive all or part of the original hundred-mile route between Bear Lake and Star Valley, Idaho.

National Oregon/California Trail Center


Follow the footsteps of the original pioneers with an up-close look at the Oregon Trail, complete with a simulated wagon train experience. This historical center was built along the original trail in Montpelier, Idaho. The Center is also home to the Peg Leg Smith Trading Post gift shop, the Rails and Trails Museum, the Allinger Community Theatre, original art exhibits, and historical exhibits from the Bear Lake County Historical Society, Union Pacific and Daughters of Utah Pioneers.

Wilford Woodruff Home And Visitors Center


This two-room log cabin is the former home of Wilford Woodruff, the third president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The building now serves as part of the Historic Nauvoo Visitors Center, hosting artifacts and information about early Mormon leaders dating back to the mid-1800s. Tours of the cabin are available.

Rendezvous Beach


From the days of the original mountain men, people have been gathering to trade goods, supplies, and stories at Rendezvous Beach. Today, this highly popular 1.2-mile-long recreational area is still largely pristine, and a haven for those in search of watersports and boating. Rendezvous Beach is on the south shore of Bear Lake near Laketown at Bear Lake State Park

Paris Tabernacle Historical Site


Constructed in 1889, this Romanesque Mormon tabernacle is a historic meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, still functioning as a house of worship and a community center. A small museum houses heirlooms and objects of art left by the original homesteaders. Self-led and guided tours are available. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Butch Cassidy Museum


Visit the last standing bank in the world robbed by Butch Cassidy and his gang! Located in southeastern Idaho, The Bank of Montpelier was established in 1891 as the first chartered bank in the state and became famous after Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch Gang robbed the bank on August 13, 1896. A reenactment of the robbery is held annually on the Saturday closest to the original robbery date.

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