Enjoy These Washington Lakes from Sunrise to Sunset
With nearly 16 hours of light during our longest days of summer, it takes a special lake with enough entertainment to keep us satisfied from sunrise to sunset. From the heart of Seattle to the Olympic Peninsula and the arid deserts of Eastern Washington, these are those lakes and their extraordinary experiences in and on the water.
Washington’s lakes tend to be at their calmest in the hour before sunrise, when water-skiers set out for smooth, glassy water and anglers cast for fish in the first rays of dawn.
The water is so still because the sun has not yet raised the air temperature, forming breezes over the lake’s surface. But the warmth and the waves will come, as will the throngs of lake lovers who soak up the summer sun that shines so bright and long during the Northwest’s most enjoyable months.
The Wet Side: Western Washington
Lake Union and Lake Washington
Nestled into and up against Seattle, Lake Union and Lake Washington are favorite destinations for their close-to-the-city scenery and water sports.
Whether you’re bringing your boat, renting one, chartering a yacht or taking a sightseeing cruise, exploring these two lakes connected by the Montlake Cut is a unique Seattle experience. You can gander at whimsical houseboats and grand waterfront mansions. You can watch floatplanes splash down and lift off, while taking in stunning scenery and breathtaking sunsets.
On Lake Washington, anglers, water-skiers and wave-sport fans can all get their turns in. The smaller Lake Union offers more direct access to Seattle and all its splendor. Boaters can rent electric vessels and even hot tub boats, and cruise around within sight of the Space Needle looking for a good dockside restaurant to make an order.
You can’t miss the multimillion-dollar yachts on the water, but keep an eye out for historic ships like the steamer SS Virginia V, a nearly 100-year old steam-powered wooden ship and National Historic Landmark. The boat is expected to be back on the water in summer 2022 after a stint at a shipyards for renovations. Normally, the steamer is moored at the Historic Ships Wharf in Lake Union Park, near the Museum of History and Industry.
Water-skiers have enjoyed Lake Sammamish for more than 60 years, while tubing and other sports have gained popularity in recent years.
“Lake Washington is for people to be on and Lake Sammamish is for people to be in, since the water in Sammamish is typically warmer,” says Jim Mackey, the commodore of the Lake Sammamish Yacht Club. “Wakeboarding basically started on Sammamish when Herb O’Brien developed the first compression-molded wakeboards. Since then, brands have continued to create and test gear right here in our lake.”
Seven miles long and 105 feet deep, Lake Sammamish is a boating wonderland, with spawning salmon and other species of fish to catch, huge houses on the water and a dazzling view from the north end of the lake of the Mount Rainier alpenglow at sunset.
Wynoochee Lake is an oft-overlooked destination tucked inside Olympic National Forest. Created by the damming of the Wynoochee River, this off-the-beaten-track and wild lake is surrounded by towering trees and endless adventures.
The lake is about a six-and-half-hour drive from Spokane via I-90. From Seattle, plan for a nearly three-hour drive to reach this hidden gem via I-5 south and state Route 8 and U.S. Route 12. The final 35-mile stretch is paved from U.S. 12 all the way to the boat launch, but stock up on supplies and gas in Montesano. The lake has a seasonal U.S. Forest Service campground, restrooms and lake access, as well as a year-round boat launch.
Stretching for 4.4 miles, the peaceful reservoir is best known for incredible fishing. This also is an excellent place for water skiing, tubing and other wave sports when the water level is high, but low levels expose stumps along the shoreline. To ensure lake access, especially on sunny summer days, have $5 cash or a Forest Pass for day use and arrive early because there is limited parking at the boat launch.
The Dry Side: East of the Cascades
Lake Chelan is the crown jewel of Washington’s dawn-to-dusk lakes. Refined and accessible from the resort community of Chelan, yet secluded and rugged uplake, this 50-mile lake has it all.
On hot, dry and sunny days, the lake’s clear, glacial water refreshes swimmers, water-skiers, wakeboarders, paddlers and boaters. A day’s worth of fun can be had on the Wapato Basin with a boat or jet ski rental from Chelan or Manson.
Boat-in campgrounds dot the shoreline and offer dark night skies to watch stars and meteors. Anglers on the shore can try for cutthroat trout, but the trophy fish — including state-record-setting mackinaw — are best pursued by boat.
Lake Chelan’s maximum depth of 1,486 feet makes it the deepest lake in Washington and third deepest freshwater lake in the U.S. This deep point is in the Lucerne Basin, where the mountains of the North Cascades rise to the sky.
At the northernmost reach of Lake Chelan is Stehekin, which can be reached by foot, boat or aircraft. Only experienced and prepared boaters should attempt the long trip to Stehekin, but anyone can sail there from Chelan on the Lady of the Lake ferry. Once in Stehekin, you can hop on the Stehekin Valley bus to the trailhead of a stunning 19-mile (one-way) hike to Rainy Pass.
Those hoping for the best sunsets should stay in the Wapato Basin, where the rolling hills give a better viewing of the plunging sun and its myriad of colors.
“A great evening can be had watching the sunset from Manson Bay or just downlake from Wapato Point,” says Steve Byquist of the Lake Chelan Boating Club.
Moses Lake and Potholes Reservoir
These lakes right off Interstate 90 are off-ramps to water fun under the sun.
“The south end is probably the biggest draw on Moses Lake. There are acres of sand beaches to get on and lots of warm water to enjoy,” says Ron Sawyer, co-owner of Cascade Marina. “Right near town, there are several islands that you can reach, giving a beautiful place where you can watch the sunset after a picnic dinner.”
Potholes Reservoir (also known as O’Sullivan Reservoir for the dam that created it) is just south of Moses Lake. Fishing and wildlife watching are great in the shallows, while wakeboarding is a fun option in the deeper part of the lake. Always pay attention when you’re the captain: Inattentive boaters have been known to get stuck in shallow sections.
Created by the Grand Coulee Dam along the Columbia River, Lake Roosevelt is the largest reservoir in Washington, stretching for 140 miles in an area first carved by ice age floods.
The main draws to the lake are this area’s dry, sunny climate and the incredible opportunities for water sports and swimming. Anglers will have a chance all summer to catch walleye, trout, whitefish and more.
The Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area has 22 boat launch spots. Roosevelt Lake has nine boat-in camping areas, five of which have a dock. Boat-in camping is free, but a boat launch fee is required. Shoreline camping is also allowed a half-mile from any developed area.
Nearly 27 miles in length, scenic Banks Lake is southwest of the Columbia River’s Grand Coulee Dam. The reservoir often freezes in the winter, but the summer boating here is hard to beat.
Steamboat Rock State Park has six boat launch lanes in three locations and 320 feet of dock for boat handling. The parks’ Ponderosa Point is a favorite boat-in camping area. Shoreline camping is also allowed on the lake a half-mile from any developed area. Besides Steamboat Rock, there are other ramps along the lake, giving plenty of options for where to start.
The water offers a diversity of recreation opportunities; the fishing is great, water-skiing and wave sport enthusiasts will find the perfect lines, and cliff jumpers and swimmers can discover incredible spots.
Sunrise and sunsets paint the sky with colors over the rugged landscape. In between those times, local angler Nic Alexander says, there’s “miles of water, rock cliffs, sandy beaches and sandy flats to explore.”
– Written by Douglas Scott, last updated in September 2022.
–This column originally appeared in the AAA Washington member publication, Journey, July/August 2021 edition