Views of Lake Chelan from any angle at any time of year rarely disappoint. And when you amble along the Lakeshore Trail, you gain a new appreciation for this scenic gem in Central Washington.

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The Lakeshore Trail

The trail I’ve been hiking over the past three days has been full of crags and sheer drop-offs into the nation’s third-deepest lake.

Views of Lake Chelan from any angle at any time of year rarely disappoint. And when you amble along the Lakeshore Trail, you gain a new appreciation for this scenic gem in Central Washington.

There are times when you’d be hard-pressed to find a flat patch of ground to pitch a tent. But every few miles there’s a haven for backpackers who want to sleep in the middle of the wilderness, surrounded by emerald waters.

Nestled into cozy thumbs of land, these campsites along the lake are some of the finest places a person could choose to spend a fall afternoon.

This classic hike has been on my bucket list for a long time, and I finally got my chance this fall. The adventure is full of spectacular views, crystal-clear water, rattlesnakes, ferry rides and the promise of fresh cinnamon rolls at the finish line.

A surprising landscape

Anyone who has ridden the Lady of the Lake up the 50-mile Lake Chelan knows that the most eye-popping mountain scenery begins roughly two-thirds of the way up the lake from the town of Chelan.

That’s where the ferry drops you, and from Prince Creek you bob and weave along 17 miles of footpath to uber-cute Stehekin.

I had ridden the ferry to Stehekin numerous times — and while it’s a terrific trip that gives you a grand overall experience, I’d always longed to explore the nooks and crannies of the shoreline.

On foot you have time to enjoy the subtle features — like the owl that buzzed my tent early one morning, or the way the driftwood logs spend years getting battered against the boulders, carving scalloped grooves into their trunks.

Surprising little streams dot the route, and my first night near camp I stumbled upon a private waterfall with slot canyon grotto — seemingly out of place on the sun-baked shoreline.

While it’s true that the Lakeshore Trail is relatively flat, that’s only compared to the knee-destroying climbs nearby. A more accurate name for this hike might be the Cliffshore Trail — that’s how it feels most of the time.

“It only gains about 500 feet, but you do it a bunch of times,” said the ranger at the National Forest office in Chelan. Indeed, on my second day, I totaled over 2,200 feet of elevation gain and loss in 8.4 miles.

At times you’re up on bluffs with sweeping views of the lake and then you weave into lush drainages, then ramble near the lakeshore before you switchback through fire scars to a rocky outcrop. The whole time, undulating views of Lake Chelan backed by jagged mountains keep you company.

With the exception of the last three miles into Stehekin, most of the time you’re a few hundred feet above the lake, yet the campsites drop down to the water for afternoon swimming.

After the smoke clears

Chelan endured wildfire smoke throughout most of the summer but the air is clear now, and the views are back to being spectacular.

From my campsite at Cascade Creek, I tiptoed the 10 steps from my tent to the shore and plunged my feet into the freezing water while enjoying the grizzled face of Domke Mountain across the lake.

At Flick Creek the 180-degree view of the Chelan Mountains was surreal, especially when the stars emerged to fill the inky black sky.

As the seasons change and the weather cools, the hiking is more comfortable and you may witness dramatic storm clouds rolling through the mountains. From now until November the big-leaf maples and ground foliage adopt golden hues to add flair to the scene.

Snakes and bears

As I disembarked the ferry at Prince Creek, I heard our captain call out: “Look out for rattlesnakes!”

Animal lover that I am, I was keen to see one (from a safe distance, of course), and the Shoreline Trail is notorious rattlesnake territory. With every rustle of leaves my eyes darted, but on the first day, lizards were my only prize.

Two hours into my second day, I heard a soft tick-tick-tick to my right. I froze and stared at a fallen tree near the trail. Nothing moved, so I gently tapped the log with my toe, and then a steady buzz began a few feet away. Suddenly the snake materialized, as if out of thin air. It glared at me for a few seconds and slid under the tree.

Bears are also fairly common, as proved by the plentiful trail scat and the bear cub my campground companions spotted on the second day.

Stehekin

The ruggedly cute village of Stehekin awaits you at the end. The community retains its homestead vibe thanks in great part to limited access: The only way to reach it is by foot, boat or plane.

The community is dotted with log cabins, orchards and a quaint schoolhouse. Drawing backpackers two miles from the ferry landing, the Stehekin Pastry Company tempts weary walkers with gooey sticky buns, sandwiches, coffee and scratch-made pastries.

From Stehekin you can continue backpacking into the North Cascades. But if you must return, a fitting goodbye is a relaxing ferry ride downlake, where you can relive all the hard, beautiful miles you just enjoyed.

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If you go

How to hike the Shoreline Trail

The 17-mile trail begins 35 miles uplake from the town of Chelan. Take the Lady of the Lake II (the slow boat) and disembark at Prince Creek, finishing in Stehekin.

It’s also possible to do shorter segments using the ferry stops at Prince Creek and Moore Point, or as an out-and-back trip from Stehekin.

When you arrive at Stehekin you can return on the ferry, or schedule extra time in town. Until Oct. 14, trips can be extended using the shuttle bus to connect you to trailheads serving the North Cascades.

You can hike the Shoreline Trail in two days (stopping halfway at Moore Point), or three (stopping in Cascade Creek or Meadow Creek the first night and Moore Point or Flick Creek the second). Campgrounds are free and first come first served, and you may be sharing with boaters (dock permits required for boats).

Campsites are snug, so expect to share with new friends, but the afternoon wind and lapping waves tend to drown out noise. If campgrounds are full, dispersed camping is allowed in the national forest, but beware of private property and practice leave-no-trace camping.

When to go: In theory the trail is open year-round, but the ferry will stop dropping passengers at Prince Creek and Moore Point on Oct. 15. After that you need to do an out-and-back from Stehekin.

Fall trips let you dovetail a hike with a wine tour during Chelan’s fall crush (Oct. 6-7, Oct. 13-14).

If you miss your fall window, the Lakeshore Trail is one of the first to melt out, so it makes a great spring option.

More information: wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/chelan-lakeshore