Mild or Wild at Lake Chelan
A sunny resort town and mountainous wilderness meet halfway in Central Washington
As the sun sank below the shoulders of Stormy Mountain in central Washington, long, amber shadows crept across eastern Lake Chelan’s rolling, sun-burned hills. The lake’s chop—stirred by watercraft and stoked by wind—smoothed and lay silent. Feeling flush from a day of swimming, sunbathing, boating, and wine tasting, my family and I ate grilled chicken on our condominium deck near the town of Chelan, savoring the desert scenery and balmy weather.
A day later and about 55 miles to the west, we gathered for a different experience. Sitting at communal tables at the Stehekin Valley Ranch dining hall, we and other guests awaited sizzling top-sirloin steaks and cowboy coffee. The western end of Lake Chelan is fed by the glacial waters of the Stehekin River, making it too frigid for most people to enjoy water sports. Instead we would 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 change in topography, culture, and climate in just 55 miles,” Cliff Courtney says of the lake’s two ends. He is a member of a fourth-generation Stehekin family that runs many of the businesses in the valley. “Rather than the dry hills of Chelan, you’ll find rugged, snowcapped peaks here and heavy evergreen forests, much like 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 and visitors from Chelan to Stehekin. Service began in 1889 with the historic steamer Belle of Chelan.
These days, as the boats cruise uplake, Chelan’s tawny, bone-dry hills give way to forested cliffs. Eventually, full-fledged forest beards cling to the cheeks and jowls of rocky mountainsides, and you arrive in a place so peaceful that you may do a double-take. Besides a few cabins and vacation rentals, the only major places to stay in Stehekin are a national park—operated lodge and a family-owned resort; the only places to eat are the restaurants within those lodgings and a pastry shop/cafe. And the only people who stay for more than a few hours—longer than the typical visitor who rides the Lady Express round trip simply to wander around the ferry landing and visitor center—are those interested in exploring the pristine beauty of the Stehekin Valley.
Deeply Different Worlds
The abruptly changing landscape explains the extreme contrasts between Chelan and Stehekin. “The best thing Stehekin has for its continued protection is not rule or regulation but, rather, lack of access, large amounts of wet snowfall, and pure, cold water—none of which is conducive to large-scale tourism,” Courtney says.
Since 1968 Stehekin has been part of the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, which is administered by the National Park Service. (The northwest end of the recreation area borders North Cascades National Park, so many of the valley’s hikes are in National Park land.) Past struggles between residents and regulators have resulted in limited development and a recreation-friendly landscape that’s been preserved in pristine condition. “The remoteness and the community make Stehekin unique,” Courtney says.
But just as Stehekin residents treasure their solitude, the town of Chelan prides itself on its accessibility—it lies next to Washington’s scenic Cascade Loop highway and caters to motorists and RVs. Apples and grapes grow plump in the desert heat, and old-time resorts like Campbell’s Resort, the town’s most popular waterfront lodging since 1901, draw sun-loving crowds.
“Besides the many recreational opportunities, great climate, and beautiful lake, the town of Chelan has a small-town, all-American feel,” says Clint Campbell, a member of the family that owns the historic resort. “The town allows you to really slow down and enjoy your visit.”
In its own way, the fun-in-the-sun spirit of Chelan, like the wild feel of Stehekin, is an outgrowth of the lake’s constant, powerful presence. At 55 miles, Lake Chelan is one of the West’s longest natural lakes, and the mountain gorge it fills is incredibly deep, dropping about 10,000 vertical feet from the ridge tops to the lake’s bottom. With a depth of 1,500 feet, it’s the third-deepest of the Lower 48’s lakes, and—at least in terms of the surrounding topography—one of the most diverse.
For all its contrasts, though, the lake’s pleasures are in fact very simple. Dive into Lake Chelan’s crisp waters and you’ll feel summer wash over you. And come sunset, no matter what side of the lake you’re on, you’re guaranteed a grand finale to a day well spent.