A sunny resort town and mountainous wilderness meet halfway in Central Washington

As the sun sank below the shoulders of Stormy Mountain incentral Washington, long, amber shadows crept across eastern LakeChelan's rolling, sun-burned hills. The lake's chop� stirred by watercraft and stoked by wind� smoothed and lay silent. Feeling flush from aday of swimming, sunbathing, boating, and wine tasting, my familyand I ate grilled chicken on our condominium deck near the town ofChelan, savoring the desert scenery and balmy weather.

A day later and about 55 miles to the west, we gathered for adifferent experience. Sitting at communal tables at the StehekinValley Ranch dining hall, we and other guests awaited sizzlingtop-sirloin steaks and cowboy coffee. The western end of LakeChelan is fed by the glacial waters of the Stehekin River, makingit too frigid for most people to enjoy water sports. Instead wewould spend our days here exploring the mountainous Stehekin Valley� biking, hiking, river rafting, horseback riding,and enjoying the solitude.

"Many of Stehekin's visitors are amazed at how much can changein topography, culture, and climate in just 55 miles," CliffCourtney says of the lake's two ends. He is a member of afourth-generation Stehekin family that runs many of the businessesin the valley. "Rather than the dry hills of Chelan, you'll findrugged, snowcapped peaks here and heavy evergreen forests, muchlike you would have seen before settlers came."

The link between these two worlds goes back more than a century.Four times a day, Lady of the Lake boats ferry residents andvisitors from Chelan to Stehekin. Service began in 1889 with thehistoric steamer Belle of Chelan.

These days, as the boats cruise uplake, Chelan's tawny, bone-dryhills give way to forested cliffs. Eventually, full-fledged forestbeards cling to the cheeks and jowls of rocky mountainsides, andyou arrive in a place so peaceful that you may do a double-take.Besides a few cabins and vacation rentals, the only major places tostay in Stehekin are a national park�operatedlodge and a family-owned resort; the only places to eat are therestaurants within those lodgings and a pastry shop/cafe. And theonly people who stay for more than a few hours �longer than the typical visitor who rides the Lady Express roundtrip simply to wander around the ferry landing and visitor center� are those interested in exploring the pristinebeauty of the Stehekin Valley.

Deeply different worlds

The abruptly changing landscape explains the extreme contrastsbetween Chelan and Stehekin. "The best thing Stehekin has for itscontinued protection is not rule or regulation but, rather, lack ofaccess, large amounts of wet snowfall, and pure, cold water� none of which is conducive to large-scaletourism," Courtney says.

Since 1968 Stehekin has been part of the Lake Chelan NationalRecreation Area, which is administered by the National ParkService. (The northwest end of the recreation area borders NorthCascades National Park, so many of the valley's hikes are inNational Park land.) Past struggles between residents andregulators have resulted in limited development and arecreation-friendly landscape that's been preserved in pristinecondition. "The remoteness and the community make Stehekin unique,"Courtney says.

But just as Stehekin residents treasure their solitude, the townof Chelan prides itself on its accessibility � itlies next to Washington's scenic Cascade Loop highway and caters tomotorists and RVs. Apples and grapes grow plump in the desert heat,and old-time resorts like Campbell's Resort, the town's mostpopular waterfront lodging since 1901, draw sun-loving crowds.

"Besides the many recreational opportunities, great climate, andbeautiful lake, the town of Chelan has a small-town, all-Americanfeel," says Clint Campbell, a member of the family that owns thehistoric resort. "The town allows you to really slow down and enjoyyour visit."

In its own way, the fun-in-the-sun spirit of Chelan, like thewild feel of Stehekin, is an outgrowth of the lake's constant,powerful presence. At 55 miles, Lake Chelan is one of the West'slongest natural lakes, and the mountain gorge it fills isincredibly deep, dropping about 10,000 vertical feet from the ridgetops to the lake's bottom. With a depth of 1,500 feet, it's thethird-deepest of the Lower 48's lakes, and � atleast in terms of the surrounding topography � oneof the most diverse.

For all its contrasts, though, the lake's pleasures are in factvery simple. Dive into Lake Chelan's crisp waters and you'll feelsummer wash over you. And come sunset, no matter what side of thelake you're on, you're guaranteed a grand finale to a day wellspent.

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