If you’re ready to dive headlong into summer, the Lake Chelan region may fit you like a swimsuit. Perched on the Cascade Mountain range’s eastern side just 179 miles from Seattle, the region soaks up 300 days of annual sunshine — don’t forget the sunscreen. Dozens of warm-weather activities are on offer — including claims to the world’s largest stationary wave.
In fact, water-lovers may find particular joy in the region due to the variety of H2O options on or near Washington’s largest natural lake, and the nation’s third-deepest lake: boating, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, jet skiing, along with waterslide and surf facilities. In a friendly competition for visitor affection is another popular liquid: wine. The Lake Chelan Wine Valley is known for 30-plus wineries, tasting rooms, vineyards and more.
From Seattle, you’ll drive east on I-90 until just east of Cle Elum, then north over the beautiful Highway 97. The road forks at Highway 2 (West takes you toward Leavenworth). Head east, and pass Cashmere — the home of our region’s famous Aplets & Cotlets. Stop by Liberty Orchards’ factory to grab a bag or box.
As you make your way along the highway, gorgeous views unfurl beside you — including rolling hills of fruit-bearing orchards — before you come to Lake Chelan’s 1,486-foot-deep, 50.5 mile-long waters. The town of Chelan, right at the lake’s southeastern shore, makes for a solid home base for exploration.
Chelan’s historic downtown offers shops, restaurants, hotels and entertainment, including Chelan’s Ruby Theatre, Washington’s oldest continuously operating theater, screening first-run films since 1914. On Thursdays between 2-6 p.m. until October, Lake Chelan’s Evening Farmer’s Market presents crops from surrounding farms, including peaches, cherries and apples — although there are artisan cheeses and crafts, too. And live bands play for the Summer Concert Series Riverwalk Park on first and third Sundays from 6 — 8 p.m. through Labor Day weekend.
The region hosts a half-dozen golf courses, a go-cart track and a network of hiking and biking trails on the local ski hill. But water and wine are truly the main attractions. Slidewaters Waterpark is one of the Pacific Northwest’s largest outdoor waterparks, with 19 water attractions over 12 acres, including a 400-foot tube ride, body slides and a lazy river. Next door is Lakeside Surf, an outdoor surfing facility replicating the big waves and atmosphere found in more tropical locales. In May, Lakeside Surf opened the world’s largest standing wave — up to 6 feet tall and 54 feet wide.
At Lake Chelan itself single and double kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals are available at LakeRider Sports, while suppliers such as Shoreline Watercraft & Boat Rentals offer small watercraft and Jet Skis. Parasailing first took off in Washington state at Chelan Parasail, which also rents inner tubes. Tubers often head to Don Morse Memorial Park, where floaters and sunbathers congregate.
If haven’t yet tried casting a line, Lake Chelan could earn you bragging rights for The Big One. The lake is stocked annually with hundreds of thousands of fish, and you may snag species such as Chinook salmon, lake trout and the three-spine stickleback. Some fish grow family-meal-sized (10+ lbs.) in the landlocked lake; read more at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Fish from the shoreline at the public dock or boat launch at the 139-acre Lake Chelan State Park, with 6,000 feet of shoreline and campsites.
Many families rent vacation homes through Airbnb, VRBO or resorts like The Lookout in Chelan or Wapato Point in Manson. The latter two options come with pools, tennis courts, playgrounds, and other on-resort, family-friendly activities. Hotels with direct Lake Chelan water access (and beautiful rooms to boot) include Lakeside Lodge and Suites and Campbell’s Resort. Campbell’s Resort offers on-site dining, and is within walking distance of downtown Chelan’s attractions and restaurants, including the savory and sweet crepes at Bear Foods Natural Market.
For day two, choose between water or wine. Around 30-plus wineries and tasting rooms dot the Lake Chelan American Viticulture Area. This designation means Chelan’s hot days and cool nights, volcanic pumice-enriched soils, long growing season and lakeside environment distinguish it from other wine-producing regions. Yet the region is still small enough that you’ll often get to discuss vintages with the winery owners.
Many of the valley’s wineries offer views with the vino, in addition to small plates, cheese cooking classes, music, and food and wine events. Use the map at Lakechelanwinevalley.com to find both well-known and more obscure wine rooms, or sort by your requirements (such as outdoor seating, family-friendly, or dog friendly). Or you can leave the decision-making up to Chelan Electric Bikes, which takes experienced cyclists on a 4-hour tour of three wineries.
If you’d like a more unusual — and quieter — water-based experience, consider visiting the very, very tiny town of Stehekin (pop. 75), at Lake Chelan’s northernmost tip, carved by glaciers. You won’t find an ATM, roads, or cellphone reception. You will, however, find tranquil, unspoiled hiking, bike rentals, pastry shop, organic orchard, one-room school, trail rides and other back-to-nature activities amid the North Cascades National Park.
Most visitors make the 1.5-hour one-way journey to Stehekin on the ferry Lady of the Lake, which runs daily, year-round. If going for the day, plan a whole day for the journey — departing at 8:30 a.m. near Chelan, 90 minutes in Stehekin, followed by 2.5 hours back to Chelan. But many are enchanted enough to stay overnight at lodging such as the North Cascades Lodge or off-grid Stehekin Valley Ranch … if they were in the know, and planned and reserved in advance. Consider yourself informed.
Note: Be prepared to respect any local rules or changes for recreation, dining, parks, and hotels regarding COVID-19 requirements. Whenever possible, make reservations, which could reduce your chances of disappointment. If you decide to take up a new sport or activity (such as jetskiing), ensure you understand all safety precautions, and don’t drink and drive — no matter how great that wine tastes.
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