Smoke was billowing up the lake from two separate forest fires when I arrived. But even on a “bad day,” Lake Chelan is a charming place to be outdoors.
Dozens of trails in North Cascades National Park and the Glacier Peak Wilderness had been closed just a few days earlier. Since then, most of the restrictions have been lifted. But in early August, my plans were toast.
I wanted to hike the 17-mile Lakeshore Trail and off-shoots into the high country, but a hiker, according to reports, had accidentally sparked a fire on July 26 in Flick Creek near the boundary of the Wenatchee National Forest and the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area.
No problem. I’d come prepared for alternatives, and the 55-mile long Lake Chelan and surrounding area kept me busy and active for days.
After visiting the National Forest-National Park visitor center in Chelan, I drove up to the nearby Echo Ridge Nordic Ski Area, which doubles during summer and fall as a virtually undiscovered mountain biking destination. The 20 miles of double- and single-track trails were vacant. Only some knobby tire tracks in the dirt indicated that others had made the discovery.
I literally rode into the sunset with a million-dollar view of a lake that’s heavily developed in the lower third while the majority of the uplake surrounding terrain is unroaded wilderness.
“That’s why the water is so clean,” said Gordon Cammack, a retired Air Force fighter pilot whose grandfather bought property on Lake Chelan in 1907. For 16 years, Cammack has run The Tour Boat, catering to couples and small groups willing to pay $85 an hour or $350 a day to charter his service on a 25-foot boat, including personal shuttle service on land at the isolated tourist facilities uplake in Stehekin.
Lake Chelan is an Ice Age-carved alley that links the North Cascades to the Columbia River. It’s fed by more than 55 named creeks and the Stehekin River, with most of the flow coming out of undeveloped backcountry, snowfields and glaciers.
It’s a recreational magnet.
Luckily, I’d found an isolated place to camp that first night. All of the public campgrounds accessed by 30-some miles of roads bordering the lower end of the lake were full, and there was precious little vacancy for spontaneous travelers in area accommodations.
Chelan comes alive after dark during the summer vacation months, the streets buzzing with sun-tanned crowds of visitors hopping from eateries to the live music at bars and the cozy wine bar and coffee shop.
There’s plenty of wild life around the lower third of Lake Chelan. Wild life of another sort is found in abundance farther up the lake.
Despite serious efforts by miners in the past 125 years, the steep slopes dropping into Lake Chelan have precluded roads and even trails for much of its length. More than 60 percent of Lake Chelan’s shoreline can be reached only by boat, the primary mode of transportation to reach most of the lake’s treasures.
You can sail three ways:
Private boats are plentiful on the lower end of the lake, but the traffic thins out dramatically in the upper half despite a dozen or so excellent boat-in campgrounds. Boaters with vessels under 24 feet must be particularly wary of winds that can quickly turn a lake with such an unforgiving shoreline into a monster.
Kayakers can paddle the lake from camp to camp, but they must build time into their trips to wait out blows that can last days.
The boat-in campgrounds are free, but boaters must secure a $5 dock permit at national park or forest ranger stations in order to tie up to the docks. Kayakers who pull up on shore do not need the permit.
Note: Big Creek Campground was completely wiped out by a flash flood in June. Safety Harbor and Corral Creek are among the better boat-in camps with good protection from both uplake and downlake winds.
Lady of the Lake, and two smaller and faster vessels operated by the Lake Chelan Boat Co., ferry hundreds of passengers up and down the lake on regular daily sailing schedules. The boats depart from Chelan and stop 12 miles uplake at the developed area in Manson, 18 miles uplake at the popular public parking facility at Fields Point Landing, 40 miles uplake and beyond access roads at Lucerne (with bus shuttles to Holden Village and trails into the Glacier Peak Wilderness), and 50 miles uplake at Stehekin and its wonderland of options including hiking, fishing, biking, kayaking, rafting, horse packing, eating and more.
The ferries also will stop for hikers at north shore trailheads at Prince Creek and Moore Point.
Costs start at about $38 round-trip. Reservations can be made to haul up to three kayaks at a time on the ferry for an extra fee of $30 each way.
The Tour Boat, is a year-round private option for a small group of people with a skipper who will go anywhere on the lake. Cammack even has an old beater pickup in Stehekin to shuttle guests to trailheads and destinations.
“We’re mostly word of mouth,” he said, as we motored out of Lake Chelan Marina. “That keeps me busy.”
Anton Jones of Darrell & Dad’s Family Fishing Guide Service was already on the lake at 8 a.m. One of his clients held up a nice lake trout as we passed. Jones said the fishing for chinook salmon, kokanee and trout can be excellent at certain times of year, including winter.
The roads end at Twenty Five Mile Creek State Park, and so does most of the recreational boating traffic as we entered the straits of Lake Chelan.
“If there’s wind on the lake from any direction, you’ll get it here,” Cammack said, noting that the strait has only a few safe places to get out of the wind. “And cell phones don’t work past Twenty Five Mile Creek.”
From a hiker’s viewpoint, the most interesting boat-in camps on the south shore would include Domke Falls, Refrigerator Harbor and Weaver Point, all of which have access to trails. Lucerne is a Lady of the Lake port with bus shuttles up an old mining road to Holden Village and the trailhead for routes into the Glacier Peak Wilderness as well as a route that can be hiked north into the Agnes Valley to Stehekin.
The north shore has six campgrounds with trail access starting with Prince Creek, which is a flag stop for the Lady of the Lake ferry. Hikers can get off at Prince Creek and hike 17 miles to Stehekin or vice versa. This Lakeshore Trail is one of the first in the region to be free of snow in the spring.
Prince Creek, incidentally, is on the dusty side, with a decent rattlesnake population, and among the least pleasant of the lakeside camps. It contrasts starkly with the shady, flatter expanse of Moore Point, an area used in the 1944 Courage of Lassie movie starring Elizabeth Taylor.
Signs of forest fires, present and past, are apparent on the steep slopes along mile after mile of the lake this month. But fire never stops the recreational activity for long. Deer and bighorn sheep seem to cope well with the aftermath of fires, and so do boaters and hikers.
Stehekin, with its National Park Service facilities, ferry landing and small community isolated from outside roads, is the uplake hub of activity.
Visitors arriving at Stehekin via Lady of the Lake or airplane have numerous options. Head up the slope and downlake to the national park’s Golden West Visitor Center for hiking options. Follow the road uplake a short way to the Courtney Log Cabin, the clearinghouse for renting bicycles, booking raft and kayak tours, horse rides and scenic air flights. You can rent a bike and do the breakfast ride or sign up for the hearty ranch dinner served nine miles up the road at the Courtney Stehekin Valley Ranch.
Raft trips are on the lower 11 miles of the glacial Stehekin River. Kayak tours are in hardshell boats for two hours in the upper bay and at the mouth of the river.
Although there’s no road access into Stehekin from outside the valley (big items are barged in), a 23-mile road system services the scattered community with access to the Stehekin River and nine trailheads.
Rent bicycles or take advantage of shuttle buses (shuttle fees run $2 to $5) that depart on regular schedules to take visitors to attractions, including trailheads, an old one-room schoolhouse and viewpoints such as 312-foot Rainbow Falls, which is up the road 3.5 miles from the landing. The Stehekin Pastry Co., two miles up the road from the landing, is a stop few visitors can resist, even if they have to hoof it.
Naturalist programs conducted by the National Park Service during summer include evening programs, naturalist talks, guided walks, children’s activities and historical bicycle tours. Info: Golden West Visitor Center 360 856-5700, extension 340, then extension 14.
A restaurant operates year-round with limited service in winter.
Laundry, shower and public telephone are 200 yards uplake from the landing and open April-October.
A 2003 flood washout has blocked vehicle access on the road 13 miles up the valley leaving hikers with an extra three miles of road walking before reaching a few trailheads. The routes to Cascade Pass and Rainy Pass areas are among the most popular, but you now have to walk three miles of road from where the shuttle bus drops off, making the trek to Rainy Pass 16 miles and 22 miles to Cascade Pass.
Campsites are available, and accommodations include Park Service cabins, Silver Bay Inn, the Courtney Stehekin Ranch and several small rental cabins.
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