Lake Chelan’s Clear, Cool Water in the Summer
From the deck of the Lady Express ferry, I stare into the cobalt blue water of Lake Chelan, and the nation’s third-deepest lake seems bottomless. When we pull into a sheltered bay to pick up backpackers at a dock along the shoreline trail, I can see at least 30 feet down, where young kokanee salmon are living in a natural “aquarium.”
With baking hot weather, incredible alpine scenery, and fresh water from the remote reaches of the North Cascades, the 55-mile-long lake is the centerpiece of a quintessential Northwest summer getaway. Here are our some of our favorite things to see, do and explore in this awesome setting.
(Check for road alerts before you go, and call or go online to confirm the availability of specific attractions and services such as fuel, lodging, restaurants, seasonal events and gatherings.)
Around Lake Chelan
On hot summer days, there’s no better place to be than on the lake.
There are options to rent a powerboat, pontoon boat or Jet Ski around Chelan and Manson, the two main towns along the lake’s southeast shore. Or rent a kayak or paddleboard for fun paddling. It’s best to head out early, when conditions are calm.
When it’s time to stretch your legs, head up to the Echo Ridge Recreational Area Trailheads (pictured above), about 10 miles north of downtown Chelan, to explore a 26-mile network of Nordic trails that open in summer to hikers and mountain bikers, with no fee required.
There is much to do in the town itself. Chelan’s historic downtown district is filled with a variety of unique, family-owned businesses, where you can browse for gifts, sample wine and chocolate. Healthy eaters head to Bear Foods Natural Market for a remarkably diverse selection of foods — including vegan and gluten-free options — that rivals anything you’d expect to find in a large, urban environment.
For a glimpse at old-timey Chelan, stop in at the Chelan Museum. Housed in a 1907 building, and operated by the Lake Chelan Historical Society, the space showcases a robust collection of Native American and homestead artifacts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Wineries, Restaurants and Sidewaters Waterpark
Glacially carved soils and a climate cooled by the lake help give Chelan-area wine grapes the unique character that earned the region its own AVA (American Viticultural Area) designation in 2009. The region’s 30 wineries are still experimenting with a range of varietals and blends, so expect to be surprised by a selection that ranges from aglianico to zinfandel.
One way to see the area’s wines is to sign up for a winery tour. Plus, several Chelan-area wineries offer unique experiential dining opportunities in their restaurants.
Slidewaters Waterpark is another option in the area, a family favorite since 1983. Over the decades the waterslide park has grown to include a lazy river, downhill racer mats, doubles inner tubes, a kids’ water-play zone and a surfing pool with a stationary deepwater wave that can be adjusted from 1-foot to 6-feet tall.
Near the far northeast end of the lake, the community of Stehekin offers a uniquely remote experience. With no roads to town, the only way to get there is by boat, plane or foot.
Daily ferry service with Lady of the Lake makes summer visits a breeze. As you sail across the lake, the mountains grow more impressive, and you can often see mountain goats in the surrounding hills. Consider a combination sailing, with a 90-minute ride to Stehekin aboard the Lady Express and a 3-hour stopover, followed by a 4-hour return aboard the Lady of the Lake II (pictured below).
Hikers use Stehekin as a home base for trips into the North Cascades. Stehekin Discovery Bikes offers rentals near the ferry dock, giving you a chance to explore the area.
Camping Along the Lake
Camping options on the south shore include two state parks and multiple spots with RV hookups, including the Lakeshore RV Park. For those with boats, 14 serene boat-in campgrounds dot the waterfront between Mitchell Creek (north of Manson) and Stehekin. Docks on federally managed lands require a Lake Chelan Federal Dock Site Permit.
Most of the campgrounds are nestled alongside protected harbors, offering stellar views of surrounding mountains. Since most also offer fire rings, tent space, primitive toilets, picnic tables and docks, the experience feels like a mashup of backpacking, car camping and boating.
If you don’t have a boat, you can still camp along the lake. Just ride the Lady of the Lake ferry service and ask to be dropped at one of the campground “whistle-stops,” such as Prince Creek or Lucerne, along the way.
–Written by Jeff Layton, updated in September 2022.