Washington’s Lake Chelan: Where Nature Lovers Converge

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Nestled within north-central Washington within Chelan County rests Lake Chelan: a hotspot for outdoor explorers who crave adventure on land, in the waters, or both. Long but narrow, the lake measures in at 50 miles with a width of less than two miles, offering a multitude of opportunities for water adventure and recreation. With an average 300 days of sunshine each year, the area is well-liked and well-traveled by backpackers and water aficionados of all types; and off the beaten path, many places lie in wait ready to be discovered.

Starting on land, adventurers to Lake Chelan will enjoy a massive amount of hiking opportunities within the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Chelan Ranger District, which encircles the lake with 422,000 acres. Within this area are 14 major trailheads, which open up to 250 miles of summer trails: 190 designated for non-motorized; the remainder open for motorcycles and similar vehicles. Several wilderness areas, including the Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness Area, provide even more options, ranging from short hikes to overnight excursions. Hiking highlights at Lake Chelan include the mighty Echo Ridge Summer Trails, which include wide trails at 25 miles in length; Pot Peak at nearly 10 miles, which, from top to bottom, covers four miles of rugged wilderness; and Devil’s Backbone, which at 13 miles, branches into several other trailheads throughout the area.

body of water near mountain during daytime

Many of these paths connect to the lake itself, offering pristine viewing in a natural world disconnected from the hassle and gridlock of cosmopolitan life. Mere feet from the mighty lake, visitors can glimpse at the opportunities awaiting them. When it’s time to escape terra firma and dip into the blue, the options are as plentiful as they are on land – after all, Chelan is Salish for “deep water”.

Boasting nearly 51 miles in length, Lake Chelan is a natural wonderland replete with outdoor water opportunities that sate the hungriest of aqua lovers. Recognized as a boater’s paradise, the stunningly beautiful lake offers a couple year-round public boat launches, with several more available during warmer, more popular seasons; in addition to pump-out and refueling stations, boat rentals are a key feature for sailing aficionados. 

Adventurers who prefer smaller, lighter watercraft can enjoy canoeing, kayaking, and paddling (including SUP) for a calmer, more intimate experience with nature; and when the lake gets busy, smaller bodies of water, such as the Chelan River, provide quieter opportunities. Visitors who are more attuned to thrill-seeking can also get a lot out of water skiing and wakeboarding, which are especially popular pursuits in morning and late afternoon when waters are a bit calmer. Last but not least, swimming and snorkeling are beloved pastimes for guests of all ages – daring swimmers often test their mettle at the Polar Bear Splash event held annually on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in January.

Being Washington State’s largest natural lake, it’s unsurprising that Lake Chelan’s fishing opportunities remain popular pastimes. Anglers who visit the pristine body of water can expect to bring home a variety of fish and crustaceans: burbot, Chinook and sockeye salmon, crawfish, bass, tench, and crawfish to name some. Lake Chelan’s star attraction in the fishing world is lake trout, which are so abundant there are no restrictions on size or daily limits: state-wide records for trout catch have been broken several times at Lake Chelan, particularly in 2013 when an avid angler brought up a fish weighting nearly 36 pounds. Fishermen and women looking to make the most out of this experience should consult the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife fishing page at https://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing for more information.

For explorers who like to venture off the beaten path, Lake Chelan also connects with the awe-inspiring Columbia River and Lucerne Basin; and from there, many more adventurers twist and turn through a number of other waterways. Out of these outlying areas, the Stehekin Valley, which connects Lake Chelan to Washington’s interior wilderness, is one of the most cherished. Salishan for “the way through”, the valley lives up to its reputation as a longstanding passageway for travelers, and in today’s world, visitors can embark on an adventure wholly unique. A rustic community of about 100 people, Stehekin is only accessibly via foot, boat or plane, making the journey as impactful as the destination itself: after a valley tour, visitors can enjoy the night nestled snuggly within the shadows of the iconic Cascade Mountains; and when it’s time to pack up and head on home, local businesses such as the North Cascades Lodge General Store provide travelers with the right provisions to make it back safely.

For visitors looking for a more contained environment, Lake Chelan hosts Slidewaters Waterpark: a haven for summertime thrills suited for the young and the young at heart. Opening yearly on May 26 and closing September 3, the waterpark offers a rich variety of swimming pools and slides, tubing and inflatable craft, and fun in the sun; and while the kids are at play, older guests can have a good soak in a hot tub.

Scuba diving in Lake Chelan is largely concentrated in the lake’s upper basin, called Lucerne Basin, which is acclaimed as one of the top three deepest gorges in the United States: measuring in at 1,486 feet of depth in a section of the lake only a mile in width. Lucerne Basins’ deep depths are a must-visit for technical divers, especially during the summer when the lake fills – the gorge dipping 386 feet below sea level. As an inland dive location, the basin is well loved for its warm temperatures, especially in spring and summer: Washingtonian divers looking for a more relaxed experience in comparison to Puget Sound or the watery western reaches of the state find the lake appealing for good reason.

Beyond these rugged outdoor pursuits, Lake Chelan also offers its own form of luxury through boutique establishments and accommodations. Wine tasting and fine dining can be enjoyed at the Siren Song Vineyard Estate and Winery, while Campbell’s Resort is recognized as one of the most palatial lodgings in the area. Complementing these opportunities are special events that take place throughout the year, such as the Red Wine and Chocolate in The Lake event, which celebrates Valentine’s Day.

With such a wide array of outdoor activities above, below, and on the water, it’s no small wonder why Lake Chelan remains one of Washington State’s most recognized and beloved recreation and vacation destinations. From its extensive hiking trailed dotted with Douglas firs to its cool, Pacific Northwest waters, Lake Chelan is a place where nature lovers converge. 

For more information on visiting the lake, including directions to its most treasured destinations as well as lodging accommodations, go to www.lakechelan.com. Specific details on exploring and staying in Stehekin can be found at www.stehekin.com.

Scuba H2O Adventure Magazine is currently looking for scuba divers who have explored Lake Chelan and would like to share their experiences with us. Interested parties should contact managing editor.

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