Bear River

Robert E. Parson, A History of Rich County, Utah Centennial County History Series

The Bear River Mountains, the northernmost extension of the Wasatch Range, separates Rich County from Cache County, Weber County, and Morgan County to the west. Similarly, the Crawford Mountains separate a portion of Rich County and Utah from Wyoming to the east. The county’s elevation ranges from 5,924 feet at the shore of Bear Lake to 9,148 feet at Monte Cristo Peak. High elevation contributes to a cold mean temperature for the county of only 41 degrees Fahrenheit, with tremendous shifts in day and nighttime temperatures. Seasonal extremes are also common. The warmest temperatures at Woodruff can approach 100 degrees in July and drop to as low as 50 degrees below zero during winter.

The county is traversed in part by the Bear River, which enters the county east of Woodruff. The river begins high in the Uinta Mountains and flows north through Utah to Wyoming and back again, entering Idaho in the vicinity of Dingle. The Bear is the major river in Rich county. Other streams in the county which are tributary to the Bear River include Saleratus, Crane, Woodruff, Birch, Big, Little, and Otter creeks, which all flow eastward. Streams in the county which are tributary to Bear Lake include Swan, Cheney, Tufts, and Big creeks (in the vicinity of Laketown) which all flow from the west to the east; and North and South Eden creeks, which flow westward from the east.

At times during the course of recent geologic history, these streams became raging torrents; at other times they virtually dried up. As wet cycles greatly increased the volume of streams and rivers flowing from the higher elevations, those waterways cut deeply into the sedimentary deposits of previous periods. Bear Lake at one time rose about thirty-nine feet above its current level. Its southern boundary extended to the north-central portion of Round Valley. There is now little indication of the shallow bay which occupied Round Valley, but evidence of the lake’s high level is prominent in the terraces between North and South Eden canyons on the east side of the lake. At least two other major lake levels at approximately 10-foot intervals are also visible. Warm and dry climatic periods were times of deposition, during which streams deposited material on the valley floors. Prior to about 18,000 years ago, the Bear River is thought to have flowed through the lake. However, periods of deposition eventually created a natural dam across the north end of Bear Lake Valley, pushing the channel of the Bear River farther to the east and allowing Bear Lake to expand.

The waters of Bear River and Bear Lake commingled by means of the natural channel between Bear Lake, Mud Lake, and Bear River. As late as 1899, prior to the regulation of Bear Lake by Utah Power and Light Company, Clarence T. Johnston and Joseph A. Breckons mentioned flood waters from Bear River commingling with waters from Bear Lake through Mud Lake to the north.12 During the early settlement period, water from Bear Lake also mingled with that of area sloughs, rivers, and streams. On a trip from Paris, Idaho, to Montpelier, one traveler remarked:

“I noticed my driver was making for what seemed to me to be a lake
six or eight miles wide; on asking for the name of the lake imagine
my surprise and horror to find that this was the overflow from the
sloughs and rivers . . . Pointing to a black spec [sic] far out in the
water, my driver informed me that it was the bridge over Ovid

Russell R. Rich, Land of the Sky-Blue Water: A History of the L.D.S. Settlement of the Bear Lake Valley (Provo: Bingham Young University, 1963), 79.

The water supply of Bear Lake Basin has historically played an important role downstream. Although prehistoric Lake Bonneville, which covered much of Utah during the late Pleistocene period (12,000 to 14,000 years ago), was never actually connected to Bear Lake, the high stages of Bear Lake correspond in time to the existence of Lake Bonneville. Furthermore, the Bear River and its tributaries and Bear Lake and its tributaries were the major contributors to the Cache Bay portion of Lake Bonneville, west of the Bear River Range. In writing about the Pleistocene period, Richard C. Bright noted the interrelatedness between Lake Bonneville and Lake Thatcher to
the north. Lake Thatcher occupied that area of southern Idaho consisting of Gem and Gentile valleys. The northern part of the Thatcher Basin drains to the Portneuf River, while the southern part drains to the Bear River. Fossilized remains found at the site of Lake Thatcher and at Utah Lake also suggested to Bright that the two were at one time connected, “probably via Lake Bonneville.” He also surmised that the Snake River was at one time connected to points south, including the Portneuf Valley in southeastern Idaho. Events in the geologic past were almost always regional in nature.
The geologic events which shaped Rich County also shaped Cache Valley, the remainder of Utah, and most of the Intermountain West. The most recent geologic history, which has left the topography of the region in its present form, has helped determine the activities of humans on the land.