As you descend Highway 89 through Northern Utah’s Sardine Canyon, lush wooded hills open up to reveal a broad green valley rimmed with snow-covered mountain peaks. To the west, the strikingly steep Wellsville Mountains command your attention, while to the east, the peaks of the Bear River Range watch over the valley. This is Cache Valley, named by 19th Century mountain men and trappers like Jim Bridger, who used to “cache” their furs here. I remember fondly the sense of well-being that used to envelop me when, as a student at nearby Utah State University, I would make the annual fall trip back to school. The pastoral scene before me was a warm greeting from a good friend.
One of the joys of RV travel is to find yourself surrounded by scenes like this, while you enjoy the comforts of home. Your rolling home also gives you the ability to take a detour through history, thanks to the hundreds of historic barns of the region. The Bear River Heritage Area has created two downloadable guides that make it easy to find and view 109 historic barns throughout Northern Utah and Southeastern Idaho. One of the immediate benefits of this self-guided tour is the opportunity to get off the beaten path and feel the sense of place you get from exploring country roads and peaceful farmlands, and maybe even meet some of the people who claim the barns as family treasures.
Great Place for Cycling
I have cycled many of these roads and reveled in the sensory delights of sight, sound, (and yes, smell) that come with the ride. The mist of sprinklers, the song of the meadowlark and the aroma of fresh cut alfalfa blend together into a heady concoction. There’s one particular stretch of road from Hyrum south to Paradise along an irrigation canal that is idyllic, with dark green fields climbing to the foothills of the Bear River Range. Many times along this stretch, I’ve imagined myself cycling through the countryside of Europe.
You can take this self-driving tour in small pieces, whether you start from the north in Caribou County, Idaho, from the south through the Cache Valley, Utah, or through the western region of Box Elder County, also in Utah. You can take it as you visit other scenic attractions or recreational areas along your way. It’s a pleasant contrast to driving through the growing communities of the region, with their mushrooming stucco neighborhoods and new business centers. The sight of a heavily weathered, somewhat dilapidated 1890s barn sitting next to a spanking new 21st century farmhouse brings a sense of balance.
Each barn brings with it a story of determination, perseverance, and the desire for a better life. The story of each barn is chronicled in detail in the guides, which were produced as a project of the Bear River Heritage Area, with primary research, photography and writing by folklorist and author Lisa Duskin-Goede. The guides also discuss the architectural types and methods of construction of each barn.
Sugar Beets and Basketball
As I looked at the barns, I couldn’t help but reflect upon my father who passed away last year. He lived in Tremonton, in northern Box Elder County, and went to Bear River High School. He told me of working in the sugar beet fields with his father, who was a contract farmer in the 1920s and 1930s. My dad’s high school football coach would have to go to the fields and ask permission for my dad to take a break from topping the sugar beets to go practice with the team. Many times my dad’s father would say no. Life was demanding on a 1920s farm. But, if you happen through Tremonton, there’s a basketball trophy in the Bear River High School trophy case that my father helped win in 1937. Basketball didn’t conflict with beet-topping.
Like the passing generations, the barns of the region are sentinels of history, protecting and preserving our heritage. Each has a story to tell, and all are well chronicled in the guides. Many of the people who live here are descendants of Mormon immigrants from Europe, including many of Swiss descent. The story of the family farm, with its attendant barn, granaries, sheds, animals and crops is a rich one, holding deeply ingrained memories for those who experienced it.
Driving through the Cache Valley is a study of contrasts. Its roots are in agriculture, yet its present and future is shaped largely by the academic mission of Utah State University. Originally a land grant university known for its agricultural programs, USU has evolved from a small agricultural college to one that is nationally and internationally recognized for intellectual and technological leadership in land, water, space and life enhancement. Throughout Cache Valley, the evolution of its history is on display in many forms, from the tiniest Daughters of Utah Pioneers Relic Halls to living history at the American West Heritage Center, and space exploration history at Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory.
If you approach the region from the south, as I did from Salt Lake City, you exit Interstate 15 at Brigham City, and take U.S. 89 to Logan through spectacular Sardine Canyon. On the way, you might want to turn off at the town of Mantua just a few miles up the canyon, to view the Peter C. Johnson barn (#10 in the Northern Utah guide). Johnson emigrated from Denmark and homesteaded in Mantua, building the barn prior to 1900. The setting is lovely, close to the shores of Mantua Reservoir, a popular summer fishing and waterskiing destination.
The Caribbean of the Rockies.
Once in the Cache Valley, we meandered through the towns of Providence and Hyrum to view several more barns, before continuing on our way along Highway 89 through Logan Canyon, designated as a National Scenic Byway. If you go this way, be sure to turn off at Tony Grove Lake, a small glacial lake 22 miles up the canyon. It’s one of the prettiest lakes I’ve seen, with fishing, canoeing and a walking trail that will take you on an interpretive hike around the shoreline. We continued through Logan Canyon to Bear Lake, which straddles the Utah/Idaho border. This large scenic lake is often called the “Caribbean of the Rockies” for its intense turquoise blue water. Here, we stopped to grab a bite to eat, before heading back to Salt Lake City.
As you drive through Cache Valley on the way to Logan, you’ll likely see the “Dr. Pierces Barn,” alongside Highway 89 (#27 in the northern Utah Guide.) This iconic landmark is best viewed from the southbound lanes, or you can turn west onto the side road just north of the barn. Some other noteworthy Cache Valley barns you might want to consider include the McBride Granary (#25) in Mt. Sterling; the Ernest Morgan Barn and Wood Silo (#21) in Nibley, and the John T. Darley barn (#33) in Mendon.
If you are planning a trip through the West this year, you’d do well to consider a self-guided driving tour of the historic barns of the Bear River Heritage Area. There are few places in North America where you’ll find such a concentration of scenic beauty, recreational opportunities and cultural history. To plan your itinerary, download the Bear River Heritage Area guides at bearriverheritage.com. Click on “About Us” and you can download the files. You can also purchase the printed barn guides for $17 each from the Cache Valley Visitors Bureau. For more information about Cache Valley, including recreational opportunities, events, and RV parks, visit tourcachevalley.com.
Bob Wassom is a Utah based freelance writer with a passion for outdoor recreation, travel and tourism.
Research Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
Try the RV LIFE Pro Bundle FREE for 7 days