Lake Roosevelt is huge — more than 130 miles long, winding through a vast stretch of Central and Eastern Washington. But for all its size, it remains a mystery to many who live on the state’s west side.
When Grand Coulee Dam was completed in 1941, federal officials and local tribes and townspeople had to decide what to do with the vast waters building behind it. Their solution: Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, administered by the National Park Service.
Most people use the lake’s southwestern section, a sprawling oasis in the middle of the desert, but the northern end is both more beautiful and less crowded, with limestone walls and verdant valleys replacing yellow-topped volcanic cliffs.
We stayed at the Lazy Daze log-cabin lodge in Northport, on the lake’s far northeastern edge. The proprietors, Nevada natives Art and Nina Grobben, dreamed of owning “a cabin by a little fishing stream” and got much more than that when they bought land beside Lake Roosevelt. Now, they’re full of advice on what to do around the region.
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The area is one of the longest continually populated sites in the United States. For 9,000 years, native tribes thrived on the massive salmon runs that dam construction ended. In 1841, explorer Charles Wilkes estimated it was possible to catch 900 fish in one day at Kettle Falls, renowned as a center of native trading and cross-cultural exchange.
Rowdy towns, red lights
At the turn of the 20th century, the area was full of rowdy towns, productive farms and thriving red-light districts.
Those boomtowns are mostly gone, though the mining and forestry continue. Hillsides around the lake are dotted with picturesquely toppling wooden barns and cabins from the pioneer era. A handful of preserved buildings at Fort Spokane tell of a military force sent to defend against attacks that never happened.
Lake Roosevelt is no secret to those who use it. The lake sees 1.5 million visitors a year. The most popular activities: boating and fishing. You can do any kind of boating, from chugging along in a giant houseboat complete with hot tub to pulling water-skiers to leisurely kayaking. Many extended families or other groups rent massive houseboats and find secluded camping spots, some of which are boat-in only (note that there are small fees for boat launches and camping).
The second most popular activity: fishing. The fishery produces 750,000 rainbow trout a year as well as a healthy walleye population that inhabits the southern sections.
We fly-fished with local guide Justin Hotchkiss for redband rainbow trout, with perfect air temperatures and fish chowing down on the bugs of the day (and on our flies, when we were lucky). Hunting is also popular in season.
Digital age is here
One of the best sources for information on the lake is the Lake Roosevelt Forum, a nonprofit dedicated to the region’s economic and environmental well being. Within the next few weeks, the forum will launch an interactive version of its website. Visitors will be able to use their computers, tablets or phones to select activities or amenities that interest them and create their own itineraries.
The site will also have updated fishing information as well as data on lake levels — important for boaters looking for camping spots and launch sites in a place where the lake level drops as much as 80 feet through the summer.
“Knowing which boat launches are open at which elevations is a really big deal,” said Andy Dunau, the forum’s executive director, adding that the lake’s 180 miles “is a long way when you’re in the middle of nowhere. You really have to know what you’re looking for, or you could spend a day and a half finding it.”
Hiking is a mixed bag. The lake itself makes up the vast majority of the recreation area, which means that aside from some lakeshore campgrounds and boat launches, you don’t have to go far before you encounter private land. This means most hikes near the lake are level, skirting its edges.
For longer and steeper hikes, head for one of the nearby national forests (including the vast Colville National Forest, which lies just to the west of the lake’s northern segment). “That whole area up there is hiking, hiking, hiking,” Dunau said. “If you do a nice hike during the day, you can end up at the lake at the end of the day and jump in to cool off.”
Christy Karras is a Seattle-based freelance writer.