Lake Chelan is an elongated body of water that snakes through the hills of Central Washington. It is a scenic wonder, one of the state’s premier outdoor playgrounds, and a magnet for anyone with a penchant for water sports, wine, and relaxation.
On summer weekends, it seems that everyone in Seattle descends on the sunny shores of Lake Chelan. And as a result, the lake is a place where ‘the great outdoors’ and ‘getting away from it all’ do not necessarily go hand in hand.
Unless, of course, you decide to travel to Stehekin—a tiny self-reliant town nestled between craggy mountain peaks at the northern end of the lake.
LAKE CHELAN IN CENTRAL WASHINGTON
Due to the varied topography that flanks its shores, 55 mile-long Lake Chelan has a little bit of something for everyone. At its southern tip, Lake Chelan boasts sunny weather and vineyard-clad hillsides. For partiers, sunbathers, water-sports-enthusiasts and entertainment-seekers, this activity-filled side of the lake offers a plethora of things to do.
In contrast, travelers searching for tranquility among tall trees and towering mountains, will find that Stehekin provides the perfect antidote to stressed-out city living.
During our Lake Chelan weekend getaway, Dan and I spent our first day on the lake’s sunny south side, and our second day in the remote Stehekin Valley.
Over the course of the weekend, we explored the lake from top to bottom—discovering the scenic landscapes, chilled-out vibe and hidden gems that make the Washington State recreation area such an alluring place to visit.
Washington’s largest lake boasts more than 30 wineries along its shores. Wine grapes thrive along the banks of Lake Chelan, thanks to the area’s combination of rich soil and sunny climate. In just two decades, the Chelan Valley has made a mark on the map of wine country. Along with Eastern Washington’s Palouse and Oregon’s Willamette Valley, it has become one of the Pacific Northwest‘s premier viticulture regions.
Based on its promise of a beautiful setting and casual no-reservations-necessary atmosphere, Dan and I chose to visit Lake Chelan Winery during our weekend getaway.
The winery serves casual picnic-style barbecue and delicious wine. It is an atmospheric place to unwind after a day of paddle boarding and swimming.
Though we found the Lake Chelan Winery’s barbecue to be somewhat overpriced and underwhelming, we enjoyed the venue’s live music, prolific of outdoor seating, and views that were as intoxicating as the wine itself.
While we only had time to visit one vineyard during our visit to Lake Chelan, we had no shortage of places to choose from. Some of the most highly touted wineries near Lake Chelan include Tsillan Cellars, Benson Vineyards, Nefarious Cellars, and Vin du Lac.
LAKE CHELAN RECREATION
As the premier hotbed of recreation in Central Washington, Lake Chelan is a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts. In summer months, motorized boats zoom about the lake’s crystal-clear waters and carve out obstacles for paddle boarders and kayakers. Swimmers cool off in the water. The hum of jet-skis adds to the area’s activity-filled soundtrack.
During our Lake Chelan vacation, Dan and I chose to rent SUPs from LakeRider Sports. It was overall a positive experience and our first time trying to balance on paddle boards.
In fact, despite the fact that we had to share the choppy water with hoards of other motorized boats, we enjoyed the experience enough that we bought our own inflatable SUPs within days of returning home.
WHERE TO STAY ON LAKE CHELAN
As one of Washington’s premier tourist attractions, Lake Chelan has a wide array of accommodation options. Most of the places to stay on Lake Chelan are situated in and around its eponymous town. They include large resorts, cabins, Airbnbs, and vacation homes.
Campbell’s Resort and the Lake’s Edge Tuscan Lodge are top-rated picks for travelers seeking waterfront lodging and comfortable rooms. For vacationers looking to have a more intimate experience, renting an Airbnb is a fantastic option.
When Dan and I visited Chelan, we somehow snagged a last-minute camping spot at Lake Chelan State Park. The sprawling campground is extremely popular come summer, and is best booked well in advance.
DAY TRIP TO STEHEKIN ON THE LADY OF THE LAKE
While the south end of Lake Chelan contains more than enough things to do, those looking for a more rustic adventure can take a day trip to Stehekin.
Stehekin is Washington’s most remote inhabited community. The small town lies at the northern end of Lake Chelan, near the entrance to North Cascades National Park.
The town is the yin to Chelan’s yang. It is everything Chelan is not—quiet, tranquil, remote, and off the beaten path. The little village oozes calm. After all, there are no roads that connect the community’s 75 permanent members with the outside world.
THE LADY OF THE LAKE FERRY
The cheapest and most convenient way to travel between Chelan and Stehekin is by boat. So, for the sake of time, ease, and money, Dan and I chose to take a ferry from Chelan to Stehekin for the day.
The Lady of the Lake is the name of the boat that travels between the two ends of the elongated waterway. Depending on whether you take the fast boat or the slow boat, the journey can take between 2.5 and 4 hours one way.
Our combination day trip ticket to Stehekin cost us $67 per person and included a three hour stopover on the north side of Lake Chelan. It included a one way ticket on the fast boat, and a return on the slow boat. If we had wanted to travel both ways on the faster boat, we would have been forced to reduce our layover length to 1.5 hours.
You can find updated Chelan ferry schedules on the Lady of the Lake website.
BIKING AROUND STEHEKIN WASHINGTON
With limited time, biking is the best way to explore the Stehekin Valley on a day trip. The small town has a few paved roads and a plethora of attractions located within relatively close proximity to one another.
The Stehekin bike rental tent lies a few hundred meters north of the ferry dock, along the village’s only road. Rentals cost $5 per person, per hour (cash only).
On bikes, Dan and I set out to discover the top things to do in Stehekin. We stopped by the town’s charming outdoor church and one room schoolhouse, visited its magnificent waterfall, feasted on fresh berries from the Stehekin Garden, and set out in search of the area’s tiny airstrip.
GATEWAY TO THE NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK
Stehekin is the northern hub of the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area and a gateway to Washington’s spectacular North Cascades National Park. The park lies about a dozen miles down the road from the ferry dock. Its jagged mountain peaks are visible from just about anywhere in town.
Stehekin is the northernmost town along the Pacific Crest Trail—a hiking path that spans the height of California, Oregon and Washington. The small community is a popular place for thru-hikers to fuel up on food before continuing their last push toward the Canadian border.
THE STEHEKIN PASTRY COMPANY
The Stehekin Pastry Company, also known simply as ‘the bakery,’ is where just about every tourist goes for lunch. Aside from the North Cascades Lodge and the reservations-only Stehekin Valley Ranch, it is the area’s sole eatery.
The Stehekin Pastry Company’s cinnamon rolls are somewhat of a legend among hikers of the Pacific Crest Trail. Having heard of them from friends, I knew I had to give them a try.
And they did not disappoint.
In fact, just about everything we ate at the little bakery was of exceptional quality.
After lunch, Dan and I continued our bike ride through the Stehekin Valley, toward Rainbow Falls. Along the way, we took a few minutes to visit the town’s historic one-room schoolhouse.
The schoolhouse served as the Stehekin Valley’s primary educational facility between 1921 and 1988.
In 1988, the Stehekin School moved into a new building down the road. And today, the Old Stehekin School is essentially a museum for visitors who wish to learn a bit more about education in the valley.
Stepping inside the Old Stehekin School was like setting foot in a miniature version of my elementary school.
I attended the Eugene Waldorf School from Kindergarten through eighth grade. It is where I learned to knit, paint with watercolors, work with wood, and read and write.
The little one-room Stehekin School overflows with art from floor to ceiling. Haikus and watercolor paintings adorn its walls, and a cozy fireplace sits in the corner.
As I toured the interior of the Old Stehekin School and flipped through the pages of its yearly publication, I was struck by the similarities between my own childhood education and that which I saw on display.
Though I found no mention of Waldorf pedagogy in the school’s brochure, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of home in its small classroom.
Visiting the historic one-room schoolhouse was an unexpected highlight of our day trip to Stehekin. The experience offered me a little slice of my childhood, in a place that I would have never expected.
After admiring the art on the walls in the Old Stehekin School, Dan and I continued to Rainbow Falls—the highlight of our Stehekin day trip and a gem of northern Lake Chelan.
Rainbow Falls is perhaps the most popular destination for day visitors to the Stehekin Valley. The two-tiered cascade tumbles 312 feet into an aquamarine pool. It is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Washington and a fantastic place to cool off on a hot summer day.
As an alternative to biking, many travelers choose to visit Rainbow Falls on a Red Bus tour. Red Bus tours leave from the Stehekin waterfront twice daily. Their departures coincide with the arrival of the passenger ferries. They last 50 minutes and cost $10 per person.
The Stehekin Garden lies along the town’s singular road, between the ferry dock and bakery. As we made our way back to the ferry following a lovely bike ride through the Stehekin Valley, we stopped at the garden to buy fresh blueberries and apricots.
In doing so, we had the opportunity to speak with one of Stehekin’s long-time residents.
Karl Gaskill has lived in Stehekin for over forty years. He first discovered the magical valley in the 1970s, while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Since the 70s, Gaskill has lived off the land and off the grid.
He built his home and garden in Stehekin and has never once looked back. “Everything I need is here,” he told us, as he gazed toward the mountains.
The two ends of Lake Chelan may share a body of water, but their similarities end there.
In Chelan, tourists are drawn to fine dining, idyllic wineries, wide-open vistas, and a plethora of recreational opportunities. In Stehekin, they find tranquility, soaring mountains, and off-the-grid simplicity.
Whether you’re looking for entertainment, relaxation, bustling activity, or peaceful serenity, Lake Chelan is sure to deliver.
Because if you don’t find what you’re looking for on one end of the lake, you’re likely to find it on the other.
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