Just below the resort town of Chelan, the utility district operating several area dams has built a new trail overlooking one dam and exploring the wild Chelan River gorge below it.
CHELAN — To our right the early-morning sun highlighted the towering north face of 3,800-foot-high Chelan Butte, which was populated by homesteaders in the late 1800s, by gold miners a few decades later, and now is a popular launching pad for parasailors and hang gliders.
On our left, sunlight diamonds danced across the surface of the Chelan River as it tumbled into a gorge from the hydroelectric dam on the southeast border of Lake Chelan.
That 55-mile-long, glacier-fed lake on the other side of the dam has been our focus on previous visits to this small orchard town that’s now also host to Washington’s newest wine country. Changing direction on a recent trip, we set out on foot to explore the Chelan Dam and the river that flows through it into the Chelan Gorge on its way to the Columbia River.
We followed an easy asphalt and gravel walkway, the recently constructed Reach 1 Trail, a $581,000 project of the Chelan County Public Utility District (PUD) to provide public access to the upper part of the river’s gorge.
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From the trailhead, we joined bikers, joggers and dog walkers on a half-mile paved section enjoying the panoramic views of the dam and its spillways. The best views are from the trail’s two fenced overlooks equipped with interpretive signs and benches.
Panels tell about the Chelan Dam, which provides enough hydropower to supply about 30,000 Northwest homes, and explain the power tunnel (or penstock), an underground pipe, 14 feet in diameter, which draws water from the lake at the base of the dam and carries it to a powerhouse two miles away at Chelan Falls.
From a second trailhead, where a 1.1-mile gravel trail merges with this newer paved section, we continued through a buckwheat grass-covered field, down a sloping hillside into the Chelan Gorge and along the river.
Interpretive signs at three riverfront overlooks explain the geology, plants and wildlife, and Native American history in the area. Here, basalt cliffs form a scenic, narrow gorge for the river as it nears the Columbia. Wildlife nearby include bighorn sheep and mountain goats on rocky slopes, mule deer, raptors such as ospreys and eagles, and rattlesnakes (watch your step in warmer months).
We did the 3-mile-plus round trip on Reach 1 — paved and gravel sections — in two hours, with short stops at the overlooks. The trail is wide and level, though the dusty gravel portion is not as easy to walk as the paved. Its elevation change from the river’s edge in the gorge to the upper field is 130 feet in a rather short 500-foot distance.
Jackie Smith is a Kirkland-based freelance writer whose husband grew up in Chelan.