Lake Chelan

Oh, Lake Chelan, you sparkling emerald among mighty peaks, you snake of a sea! Adventure awaits behind your every curve, mystery fills your depths. Your Lady carries us as we crane our necks in wonder. Oh, Lake Chelan, you beauty of a lake, you jewel of a sea, you are the greatest lake, perhaps the greatest that will ever be!

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The lupine-lined Lakeshore Trail.

I’ve been intrigued by Lake Chelan since I moved to Seattle in 2006. I heard about tiny isolated places only accessible by boat like Stehekin, Holden Village and Lucerne nestled In the towering North Cascade mountains along a sparkling lake. From there you could access the remote Glacier Peak Wilderness and places like Lyman Lakes, Spider Gap and Image Lake. These distant and hard to reach places are just far enough away from Seattle to be truly remote and I was fascinated by them.

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Lake Chelan from Chelan Butte

Finally a few years ago we decided to check out Stehekin. The tiny town sits at the northernmost tip of the lake and the only way to get there is to fly or take the ferry boat, Lady of the Lake, fifty miles from the town of Chelan at the southern terminus of the lake. So I booked a couple nights at the historic Campbell’s Resort and reserved our spot on the boat for a day trip to Stehekin.

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Sparkling emerald water from Manson.

When we arrived in Chelan in April the weather was beautiful and sunny, a welcome contrast to the spring rainy season in Seattle. I received a notification that there was an issue with the ferry boat and that we would be traveling on the ‘slow’ boat since the ‘fast’ boat had a mechanical issue. I called them and the very nice lady explained that the trip up the lake would take 4 hours each way with only a short layover in Stehekin. She suggested we reschedule the trip (free of charge) and I did so, this time I arranged it for an overnight so that we could backpack the Chelan Lakeshore Trail in May.

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I LOVE this mural in Chelan.

Needless to say, we did not suffer in the least by our change of plans. We happily lounged in the pool and visited the local wineries. We hiked up nearby Chelan Butte through the blossoming balsamroot and marveled at the lake and the Columbia River. We drove to Manson and visited more wineries, enjoying the intimate and friendly atmosphere. With the windows rolled down and wine bottles clinking in the trunk, we made our way back to Seattle. We smiled at each other, our pink noses kissed by the sun. We would be back soon.

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Along the Lakeshore Trail.

We returned in late May, this time with our backpacks to hop on the ferry boat. It was the weekend before Memorial Day and I felt very clever as I told my husband that we were totally beating the crowds. I carefully inspected the fellow passengers, trying to determine how many trekkers we would be competing with for camping spots. As we pulled away from the dock I breathed a sigh of relief, I counted only three other groups that were possibly hiking the Lakeshore Trail as well. I was confident that we would outpace them.

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Balsamroot along the Chelan Butte Trail.

After about a half hour the boat slowed as it came upon another dock. My husband and I looked at each other. Huh, must be another pick up spot… As we got closer my eyes grew wide in disbelief. There were at least 30 backpackers on the dock waiting to board. We looked at each other with our jaws dropped as the others packed themselves on the boat. As we scooted to make room I thought so much for having our pick of the campsites.

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Enjoying the sunset near our campsite.

We waited our turn to debark the boat at the quaint landing at Prince Creek. Even with 30 of our fellow backpackers the place felt remote. As soon as we hit the trail the crowds dispersed and we hardly saw anyone on the whole trip. It’s a 17 mile hike to Stehekin from the drop off point and the trail rises and falls along the shore of the lake. We made our way through lupine and rock-hopped across numerous creek outlets: Rattlesnake, Pioneer, Cascade, Meadow, Fish, Hazard carving their way down the high mountains. We set up camp at the Moore Point campground and lounged on the shore. We built a fire and studied the map excited to continue on to Stehekin the next day.

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Lady of the Lake docked near Stehekin.

Civilization began to reappear the following day as we skirted the backyards of cabins and spotted boats anchored offshore. We stopped at the ranger station to learn a bit of history as we moseyed to Stehekin. Sadly, everything was closed for the season including the Stehekin Pastry Company (they would open a week later on Memorial Day) and we didn’t get a chance to go into town since we had to catch the boat. We did manage to get some burgers and beers and ate outside overlooking the water and seaplanes. I sat and took in as much as possible as the boat approached, savoring every mountain peak in sight. Although I was a little disappointed we didn’t get to fully experience the town, I smiled to myself. Once again my lack of good planning turned into an excuse for another trip up Lake Chelan. We will be back soon.

Bonus Camp Read!

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Lake Chelan: The Greatest Lake in the World by John Fahey
Fahey, who spent a good portion of his life on Lake Chelan, goes on a mission to prove that his beloved lake is the greatest lake in the world. Each chapter alternates between his quest around the world, the natural and cultural history of Lake Chelan and his stories from living on the lake. The best part is that it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious. I was so sucked into this book that I stayed up very late one night to read it.

Car Camp, Day Hike or Backpack?  Day Hike
You could probably finish this book on the long boat ride to and from Chelan (definitely if you take the slow boat and get on at the earliest pick-up point like we did!). But beware: as great as the book is, you may have a hard time taking your eyes away from the beauty of the lake.

Hikes Featured in this Post:

Chelan Lakeshore Trail

4 Replies to “Lake Chelan”

  1. I grew up in the Seattle area, so in my mind, Lake Chelan is a resort area that many of my classmates spent their summers at. I’ve never had much interest in going as an adult. Your description and photos of both your trips have definitely changed my mind! The boat trip and lakeshore trail sound lovely. I can understand why you’re happy to have an excuse to visit again!

    1. That’s great! Let me know if you go there, I’d love to hear your thoughts! 🙂

  2. sounds like a great trip! I was there many years ago, did a car shuttle with another couple. We rode the boat to Stehekin (getting on at the second stop uplake a bit), caught a shuttle to the PCT trailhead, and hiked up and over to Rainy Pass on Highway 20, where our car was parked. Did it in 3 days, two nights but easily could be done in two days, only I think the boat timing is the issue. And I would do it the other way, with your car on the south if you can. Enjoy your next trip up there!

    1. Ohh that sounds amazing! That is one of my favorite areas of the Cascades! I will have to try that route sometime.

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