Washington State’s Best-Kept Secret Is A Sun-Soaked Lake Paradise
Clear skies, great wine, can’t lose.
Washington State is synonymous with overcast skies and buckets of rain. But what outsiders don’t realize is there are pockets where it actually rains less than the rest of the country. And one of those pockets is a mountain lake whose combination of lush land and average 300 days of sunshine have made it a magnet for adventurers, wine lovers, anglers, and anyone who can appreciate laid-back beach and mountain-town vibes: Lake Chelan.
Getting to this scenic gem is part of the fun. The three-hour drive from Seattle winds through the evergreen canopies of the Cascade Mountains. You’ll zip past sparkling lakes, rural homesteads, antiques shops, old-fashioned burger stands, and the occasional deer or mountain goat. Then, once you’ve been effectively hypnotized by the greatest-hits parade of Pacific Northwest beauty, you get to the main event.
I have to catch my breath every time I catch my first glimpse of the lake. The water is the color of a robin’s egg, and so clear you can see fish from the shore. It’s a staggering 50 miles long, but comparatively narrow, snaking like a sapphire serpent through land hugged by vineyards, orchards, forests, and purple-colored mountains that seem to rise from the depths of the water.
This natural beauty isn’t merely decorative. Every beautiful thing is woven in the tapestry of life here year-round. Here’s a taste of all the things to do at Washington’s sun-soaked lakeside dreamland.
Hang out on the water
Chelan comes from the Salish word Tsi-Laan, which means deep water. There’s a good reason: The lake is nearly 1,500 feet deep and so long and narrow that you feel connected to both lake and shore at the same time. Everything feels like it’s an arm’s reach away, including the bald eagle swooping down to catch a fish and the mountains and trees reflected in the glittering waters.
You can rent kayaks and paddleboards at LakeRider Sports, or upgrade to speedboats and jet skis at Chelan Parasail and Watersports. The Lady of The Lake ferry, meanwhile, will carry you to Stehekin, a tiny community at the far end of the lake only accessible by seaplane or boat. There are a handful of businesses there, including Stehekin Pastry Company and the North Cascades Lodge, but the main attractions are the 100-foot tall trees looming above you in the ancient forest of the ruggedly beautiful (and wildly underrated) North Cascades National Park.
Explore Washington’s most criminally overlooked wine region
Viticulture has been active in the Lake Chelan region for more than 100 years thanks to the unique terroir left behind by the ancient glaciers that formed the lake. Today, it’s home to more than 30 tasting rooms. (Tip: although a few are clustered together, you’ll need a car to really experience them… Uber is your best friend here).
There’s no signature wine style in this officially designated American Viticulture Area, but with more than 20 different grapes, you’ll find a good variety of flavors—pinot gris, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and less common Washington varieties like tempranillo and carmenere are common. Standouts include Succession Wines, Amos Rome Vineyards, and Cairdeas Winery, all within a stone’s throw of each other and overlooking the lake. The majority of the wineries are boutique businesses, too, so the person filling your glass is often the owner or winemaker.
Get to know downtown Chelan
You know those Hallmark Christmas movies where a spunky gal with a fancy job in the city travels home to her impossibly charming small town for the holidays? Downtown Chelan could be all of their inspiration. Think century-old architecture, quirky shops where you can buy half a ball of yarn or homemade treats for your dog, and most of all, sidewalks full of smiling people who nod and say hello as they pass.
In the warmer months, the Chelan Farmers Market is alive with live music and booths full of hand-picked produce, artisan cheeses, and fresh-cut flowers. When the weather turns cold, the streets are strung with twinkling lights. Winterfest draws visitors every January who bundle up to marvel over intricate ice sculptures, ride in apple bins pulled by tractors, and revel in firework displays.
Play in the snow
Although Lake Chelan doesn’t get much rain, it averages 34 inches of snow in the winter. The lake has only frozen once in recorded history—way back in 1893—so no matter how cold it gets, hardy souls in proper apparel can still fish and kayak. However, come winter, the mountains are the real star.
The Echo Valley Ski Area is a powder-covered, volunteer-driven nonprofit with a base elevation of 3,000 feet and a peak at 3,900. Here you’ll find over 70-acres to ski, snowboard, or tube. The Lake Chelan Nordic Club, meanwhile, maintains trails for snowshoeing and cross country skiing ,and there are also five different Sno Parks for snowmobilers complete with warming shelters and built in alcoves to breathe in spectacular views of the lake and valley below.
Where to eat
Lake Chelan is farm country, and that’s very evident on area menus. Fresh produce, local beer, cider, and wine all factor in big here. And most restaurants are casual enough that you can come right off the lake in a t-shirt to snag a table.
My first night is always spent at downtown’s colorful, laid-back Local Myth Pizza. Here, thin, chewy pies are topped with gourmet ingredients and house-made sauces (I think about the creamy garlic leek way, way too often). Snag a seat in the bar and you might make a friend for life: I still keep in touch with the friendly couple I met here on my last visit.
For something more upscale, Campbell’s Pub & Veranda at Campbell’s Resort is located right on the water. They offer a rotating seasonal menu with dishes like pumpkin bisque with crab or pan-seared duck. They’re also famous for craft cocktails incorporating fresh fruit and berries when in season. It’s one of the more expensive options around, but “expensive” here is on measure with Seattle.
For breakfast or lunch, Blueberry Hills Restaurant and Farm in nearby Mason is worth the extra effort. Their angus beef burgers are juicy and flavorful, but “blueberry” is right there in the name, so go with blintzes and an enormous muffin.
Where to stay
One of the best things about Lake Chelan is that there’s someplace to stay for almost every style and budget. On my last trip, I shared a two-bedroom, two-bath condo with a girlfriend at Grandview On the Lake. If you prefer a traditional hotel experience, the historic Campbell’s Resort across the street has a variety of room options, each with a view of the water and a private balcony or patio.
Lake Chelan is also a major draw for campers. There are approximately 20 campgrounds to choose from, but I’m partial to Lake Chelan State Park, with over 100 sites to pitch a tent, park your RV, or rent a cabin. You’ll have access to 6,000 feet of shoreline, and two-miles of gorgeous hiking trails. And camping is an option year round. Sure, it might be cold in the winter, but at least you’re almost guaranteed to have sun.