Being from the east coast, I’m not used to the wavy, brown mountains of the high desert in Eastern Washington. It’s not just me of course, my east coast friends and family were surprised to see how different the landscape changes on the drive from Seattle to Chelan in July, from low-hung gloomy rain clouds, to pristine mountains dense with lichen pine trees, to the mighty Columbia River where the grapes are plenty, sky a cobalt blue, and air that sucks all of the water out of you. By this time of the year, it’s hot and dry, so dry in fact that you’ll use a tube of lip balm in about two days time, your skin will burst red without sunscreen, and if you even think of lighting a match the entire state will light up in flames. Seriously, don’t light matches or burn a campfire, wildfires have devastated so much of the west.
It’s the little things in Chelan that make it fantastical in its own right. The quails with little fascinators loping out of their heads while running across the road and making one swerve a little (not too much or off the cliff side you’ll go!). Quirky, colorful ore-shaped signs along the road announcing each families residences, many stacked tightly up and down old wooden posts. Red and yellow lights, the big bulbed kind, stuck in cement under the Ruby Theater overhang. They punch you with the nostalgia of vintage carnival car rides, round and around, honking and honking we go. Wildly teetering tree houses perched on the banks of the freezing, clear blue waters. So freezing in fact that my feet and bum went tingly after a very ungraceful jump off the dock into a tube. If you’re brave and cross into the northern and deepest part of the lake, you’ll oftentimes be met by six-foot waves bashing you around your boat. It’s best to stay close to land in case you need to bail. But, you’ll also see single family retreats, only accessible by boat or seaplane, that will have you aching to go back to simpler times. This is the Chelan I know.
For those that don’t know, I’m officially a Washingtonian, which to me means nothing other than experiencing this great state, inch by stunning inch, while I’m still here (I tend to move a lot). I also just married an Eastern Washington man, one whose grandfather lives in Chelan and he himself lived there for some time, so things have definitely been incredible the past few years while I’ve had my own Washington tour guide to show me around.
I married my husband in July in Lake Chelan! It was spectacular - low-key, rustic meets boho, sunny, and to me, what sums up West Coast chill. There are a ton of Seattle folks who flock to Chelan each summer. They are getting their much-deserved sunshine in after being rained on for, well always, so this place teems with tourists in the summer months. Don’t let that stop you! If you’re like me and want to experience a bit more of the rustic (cabins and camping anyone?), mixed with a little fancy (wine please!), and adventure, you’ll have to deal with tourist, but not always, as you’ll soon find out.
I’d love to say that Chelan is all about wine, and it is easy to fall into that thinking since there are almost 30 wineries, but to me, it’s more about the lake itself! The lake has incredibly clear water, so beautiful and fresh that you’ll want to jump right in. Boating, floating, kayaking, canoeing, jet skiing, tubing, fishing - you can do it all here and you should. It’s really cold though, even in the summer months, so certainly you’ll want to be in the water and in the sun at the same time.
Chelan is a well-rounded place that has something for everyone. I also really need to stress that this is not like Lake Tahoe, people say that and it’s just not. In this part of Eastern Washington, you are in the high desert. In the summer, you will see beautiful brown mountains sprinkled with the loveliest of pine trees. The water is cold (as mentioned above), you’re near Canada for goodness sake! I add that as a warning, don’t expect it to be like anywhere else, because it isn’t.
Lay of the Land
Lake Chelan is the deepest lake in the state and the third deepest in the US at 1486 feet. It is 50.5 miles long with downtown Chelan being on the south end and Stehekin and North Cascades National Park on the north end.
A few things about where to stay in Chelan. The further away from downtown Chelan you go the less boat and jet ski traffic you’ll encounter. This is especially good to know if you’d like a quiet kayak or canoe session, looking to catch some fish, or just want a quieter overall stay. Think of downtown Chelan like the middle of everything, it is literally the center of the south-most end. Depending on how long you’re staying you’ll likely pick one side of the lake to kind of hang out on most often. The lake is so big that it can take a bit of time (over 35 minutes in summer traffic) to drive from Hollywood Beach on the west side across the lake to Manson on the east side. The road literally ends on either side of the lake at some point and the only way to access the most northern reaches is by seaplane, hiking in, or by taking the Lady of the Lake ferry, which I’ll get into later.
Staying in Chelan
Renting a house or cabin
Renting a house or cabin can be a bit pricey during the high season, however, if you’re coming with a group this is a really great way to stick together. I’ve had the best luck finding either a house or cabin on VRBO
, or by visiting local sites such as Chelan Vacation Properties
(which uses Vacasa as their booking agent) or Sage Rentals
. Tip: Everything books early so if you’re thinking about visiting get on accommodations asap.
South Shore - West Side
is a lovely place to make your home while you’re in Chelan. Walking in through the small convenience store and to the front desk, you quickly realize that this resort is quaint, comfortable, and welcoming. As you scan the room you’ll notice the lounge, fireplace, and the beautifully maintained deck with an incredible view of Lake Chelan. Walk a little farther into the space and you’ll wonder what that little sun-drenched room off to the side is…but, of course, it is a coffee and wine bar, perfect! Kelly’s resort offers 11 cottages, 4 condos, a swimming pool, a sandy beach, mooring, canoes and kayaks, and a wooded trail. There isn’t too much more you could ask for if you’re looking for a rustic retreat on the lake.
Watson’s is a fun spot, the little kids loved it here, with mooring, fuel station, and a lovely sandy beach that we really enjoyed.
Lake Chelan State Park has a long sandy beach, an ADA campground with restrooms and showers, hiking and walking trails, watercraft launch, a playground for the kiddos, and paddleboard rentals.
Twenty-Five Mile Creek State Park
is essentially at the end of the road making it more remote than Watson's or Lake Chelan State Park.
The park has 25 standard campsites, a few hook-up sites, bathrooms, and showers. There is also a boat launch, mooring, and a small convenience store. Lake Chelan gets very deep up here, it's a pretty wild place and can become windier with really big waves.
Food + Beer Downtown
Stormy Mountain Brewing and Local Public House has delicious tacos, fantastic homemade brats, and great beer.
Local Myth Pizza is a local favorite and comes highly recommended by, well, everyone!
Lakeview Drive-in is just good old vintage fun and has been open since 1957.
is a cafe during the day and turns into a lively bar at night. This is another local favorite spot and brings in musicians from all over the Northwest.
With almost 30 wineries in Chelan, it’s a bit challenging having to decide between only a few, therefore I recommend taking a wine tour if you have the time, money, and desire! Otherwise here’s just a few wineries to get you started, I suggest checking out Lake Chelan Wine Valley for more in-depth information.
South Shore Wineries
Nefarious Cellars has beautiful views of the lake.
Tsillan Cellars boasts loads of awards and lovely architecture.
Hard Row to Hoe is on almost every Chelan winery list.
Winegirl Wines is just a tipsy walk across the street to lodging. Stop in for a drink, check out their vintage-inspired pin-up girl wine labels, and stay longer for some live music or trivia.
Getting tired of wine? Check out Rootwood Cider, they have two locations - one at their beautiful orchard and one downtown.
Walk along Woodin Avenue, the main drag in downtown Chelan. This is where a cluster of restaurants, boutiques, gift shops, specialty shops, breweries, and wine tasting rooms live. All of the above can also be found down the side streets off Woodin Avenue as well so I recommend just taking a stroll and exploring, as the downtown is very easily walkable in just a few hours.
Rent a kayak
and take explore the lake at your own pace. Golf at Bear Mountain Ranch
. Rent a boat or a jet ski! Shoreline Watercraft
has pretty good reviews and three locations. Speed up on a Jet Boat ride.
Live like a local and go fishing
for Chinook Salmon, Lake Trout, or Cutthroat Trout. You can fish along the lake or hire a fishing guide, here are the best in Lake Chelan: Darrel and Dads
, Moons Guide Service
, Slammin Salmon Guide
, Lake Chelan Adventures
Tired of lake water (hopefully not), Slide Waters
is a super popular waterpark in Chelan.
How about some mini-golf? Well, they don't do kitsch at this spot but you can get an 18-hole round in at this putting course, conveniently located along the lake at Don Morse Memorial Park
Chelan River Park is a lovely 1-mile river loop trail and the Riverwalk Pavilion has music in the park hosted by Historic Downtown Chelan Association.
Chelan Evening Farmers Market is a great place to see what the locals have to offer. The market is on Thursdays from 4pm-7pm in the summer.
If it rains, too smoky from wildfires, too hot, or too cold and windy head over to Lake Chelan Lanes bowling alley.
You Pick + Eat
This isn’t just a u-pick farm! Blueberry Hills
is known for its country-style cooking. Make this a destination and stay for a few hours.