RICH COUNTY, Utah (ABC4) – Thousands of Utahans will head up to Bear Lake this weekend to celebrate Independence Day.  As waves of people flood the small communities surrounding the lake, they will spend millions of dollars. A survey by the Bear River Association of Governments looks at how much visitors spent last year. The study shows the economic value of the lake for the region and aims to boost public awareness about the need to preserve the lake.  

Bear Lake is also known as the Caribbean of the Rockies. “I mean it really is a paradise,” Tami Leonhardt told ABC4. She lives in Garden City and is the executive director of the Bear Lake Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau. Like many of the residents in Garden City (a town of less than 1,000 full-time residents), Leonhardt grew up fairly close to the lake. However, after falling in love with the area she made it her home. She lives in the small town with her husband. 

“We jump from just the local residents to anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 people,” Tami’s husband Mike, who is also the mayor of Garden City, told ABC4. “(They) spread out around Bear Lake. It’s not all concentrated right here, although this is the hub of everything.”  

According to the mayor and the chamber of commerce, most people visit the lake between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Winter sports drive visitation in the winter months as well. However, almost all tourism happens during a two-month period in the summer.  

Visitation has exploded over the last few years. Mike Leonhardt added: “It’s interesting. People come back every summer and they go, holy cow. what happened over the wintertime. you know. because you are seeing lots of growth in Garden City from homes to town homes.” 

“We’ve had over 33 percent growth in short-term vacation rental homes that have come online over the last 10 years,” Mike Smoot explained.   

Smoot is the owner of Sunrise Resort. He is also actively involved in the chamber of commerce. For those who have visited Bear Lake, the resort is the white lighthouse that is visible from Bear Lake State Park Marina. He told ABC4 that 33 percent increase means there are now more than 600 rental properties just along the western shore.   

“It has changed this valley significantly,” Smoot said.  

People make the trip to the lake for many reasons. And almost every person you run into at the lake will talk about the intense blue color of the water. The lake’s color is famous and is one of the reasons it is referred to as the Caribbean of the Rockies.   

“Once they see the beauty, it’s so easy to come up and enjoy your time,” Tami Leonhardt stated. She said the water is much, much colder than the actual Caribbean, but the warmth of the lake’s culture is just as inviting.

The Bear River Association of Governments conducted a survey to study the impact of tourism on the region. The study focuses on the economic impact during 2021. 

“Far and away, the largest expenditures are on lodging,” Lara Gale said. Gale is the regional growth specialist for BRAG.  

She said the survey found that visitors spent $48 million. This was directly responsible for 450 full-time jobs.  

Gale said they continually study the many benefits the lake provides to the region. Benefits like water for farmers, habitat for hundreds of species of animals and birds, and water that feeds into the Great Salt Lake. However, this study focused on the economic impact of the lake on the region to highlight the importance of preserving the lake’s health as a means of preserving the region’s economic health.   

“I think it’s really important that we remember that all of those uses are worth thinking about when we think about preserving the value of any given natural asset,” Gale stated.