Discovering Box Elder

A scenic and compelling journey through Northern Utah’s Bear River Valley
Bikepacking the Bear River Valley en route to Golden Spike. Photo: Sandra Salvas
Bikepacking the Bear River Valley en route to Golden Spike. A stop at the Lavendar House of Bear River City. Photo: Sandra Salvas

Besides being Golden Spike country, the Bear River Valley is one of Utah’s most scenic and compelling rural agricultural areas. This northern corner of Utah has a special place in the state’s geography — in a region founded on farming, it is one of Northern Utah’s last true rural, productive areas.

This is a bounty for the traveler — especially for those willing to move slowly and look around. Traveling by bicycle, for my eight-year-old daughter, Juliet, and me, meant great bike touring roads of the kind not often found in Utah. The Bear River Valley’s small towns are connected by a network of small, relatively flat two-lane byways without much traffic, reminiscent of New England, the Midwest or Coastal California.

These roads provide a way to poke around the valley. They form a network connecting small towns that you may not have been to before: Honeyville, Deweyville, Garland, Bear River City. And the distances between them are short. From Brigham City, for example, Utah state Route 38 runs north along the base of the Wellsville Mountains to Honeyville, a nice, flat 10-mile ride that is deceivingly close to I-15 but takes you into another world.

The Bear River Valley is a bounty for the traveler — especially for those willing to move slowly and look around.
Maddox Ranch House, Utah's Original Steakhouse. Photo: Sandra Salvas
Maddox Ranch House, Utah's Original Steakhouse. Photo: Sandra Salvas

And they have a way of pulling you aside. On S.R. 38, we dismounted frequently to meet horses standing at the fence or to check out a monument to Call’s Fort, built in 1855 by Mormon settlers as “the most northerly outpost in Utah.”

South of Brigham City is fruit country. The U.S. 89 corridor here is known as the “Fruit Highway,” with a steady rhythm of orchards, farms and stands such as Pettingill, Grammy’s, Gray’s and Tagge’s. Throughout the summer and fall seasons of harvest, the Fruit Highway becomes Utah’s top “agri-tourism” destination. Also along this stretch, in Perry, is Maddox Ranch House, the original farm-to-table restaurant, where steaks are served from cattle raised on-site, and the rolls are made with local Brigham City flour.

Deliberate Travel, Closer Looks

There are neat things all over the place for the traveler to find in this productive rural landscape if you look closely. In Tremonton is Earland’s Meats, a butcher shop for animals raised throughout the valley that advertises a mobile slaughter unit, and features bacon burgers — that is, beef burgers with bits of bacon mixed in.
South of Tremonton, state Route 13 parallels the Bear River on its way to Corinne. On a quiet street in Bear River City, we found the Lavender House, a stately home with a wrap-around porch, surrounded by gardens. Initially having a hard time deciphering what it was, we followed signs down the driveway to a self-serve gift shop. We opened the door to find a ceiling full of dried flowers and soaps and lotions all made from herbs and flowers grown on-site.

Harvest along Utah's Historic Fruit Highway 89. Photo: Marc Piscotty
Harvest along Utah's Historic Fruit Highway 89. Photo: Marc Piscotty
Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Photo: Marc Piscotty
Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Photo: Marc Piscotty

Unfortunately, apart from a few Airbnbs, lodging is not plentiful within these Bear River Valley towns — though travelers will find several chain motel accommodations at I-15 exits. One exception is the Camelot Inn, a small motel where we stayed in Honeyville, at the town’s crossroads of state Routes 38 and 240. The Inn features outdoor amenities such as lawn, a firepit and basketball hoop, as well as spectacular views of the Wellsville Mountains.

Crystal Hot Springs. Photo: Marc Piscotty
Crystal Hot Springs. Photo: Marc Piscotty

Perhaps the most well-known of the Bear River Valley destinations is Crystal Hot Springs, a few miles north of Honeyville. The springs has been an attraction since before the golden spike itself — noted on pre-railroad emigrant trail maps as “Hot and Cold Springs.”

On the evening we stayed in Honeyville, Juliet and I took a spectacular bike ride of two miles out to the hot springs, which has been developed into a series of swimming pools that mix the area’s hot and cold spring water into different temperatures to suit the season. The resort had recently been renovated with a new lodge building and cave/waterfall feature. We were immediately attracted to the waterslides, a new experience sliding down in hot water.

Soaking in the large pool and surveying the mountains above, I told Juliet we’d better let the water and minerals work on our muscles because the next day we had plans to do what the trains did — ride up the grade to Promontory Summit.

(Read: Arrive by Train: Northern Utah’s Golden Spike Country and railroad history are much bigger than the golden spike.)

Tim Sullivan

Tim Sullivan is a writer and principal with the community planning firm Township + Range. He is the author of two books on the American West, the most recent being “Ways to the West: How Getting Out of Our Cars is Reclaiming the American Frontier.” He lives in Salt Lake City with his family.

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

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Golden Spike National Historic Site

Golden Spike National Historic Site

Visit Golden Spike to relive the transcontinental railroad history with exhibits and reenactments, and to take in the beauty of the surrounding Great Basin Desert.