I never heard of Lake Chelan until our visit to Leavenworth, but not I can’t wait to go back one summer! Tucked on the Eastern side of the Cascade Mountains is the large Lake Chelan (and the handful of small towns that dot the shores.) A local described Chelan Lake to me as Washington State’s ‘Lake Tahoe’ and I think that description fits well. Local dining, craft breweries, parks, wine tasting, miles of hiking, water activities, ski hills, mountains… it’s a unique destination experience that makes a fantastic place to digital detox year round. These are my top Lake Chelan activities (your ultimate city guide!)
Lake Chelan tourism is the busiest during the summer months as it’s one of the largest, most popular Washington lakes. We visited during December and I loved how it felt like we had the whole lake to ourselves, plus waking up to snow on the mountain caps in the distance was beautiful! That being said, I googled photos of the lake during springtime and summer when the hills are all green and holy moly, I want to go back for a girls wine tasting trip during the warm months! It looks like Lake Tahoe meets The Sound of Music.
Got any Lake Chelan questions? DM me on Instagram @thewhimsysoul and I’d be happy to help!
*A star means we ate here, did this thing, stayed at this hotel… basically it’s our personal stamp of approval!
LAKE CHELAN WINE TASTING
We decided to visit Lake Chelan Washington without researching too much about it first. See, we were planning on a spending a few days at the Leavenworth Christmas festival and added on a top to this famous lake. Sometimes it’s really fun just showing up to a new place and learning all about it. Well, we were really surprised to learn that Lake Chelan is a major wine valley! The entire area is home to about 40 wineries and quickly become one of our favorite wine regions in the United States.
Chelan County is well suited to grow a variety of grapes due to the climate and glacial soil. They grow and produce all sorts of varietals but have a special knack for killer syrahs and merlots. If you’re looking for Lake Chelan things to do, a day (or two!) of wine tasting should be on the top of your list! We had a chance to visit a lot of local wineries, plus get the scoop on some other ones. These are the best wineries to visit on the lake according to a local som + our favorites.
*Cairdeas Winery: Simple tasting room with friendly staff & some outdoor seating during the warm months. Their dessert wine is very unique because it’s not incredibly sweet like most. We loved it!
Nefarious Cellars: A cute winery award-winning reds AND whites, along with some outdoor seating and lake views.
*Lake Chelan Winery: We randomly discovered this winery because I saw a sign for a cheese shop and made us stop! Inside, you’ll find a delightful small cheese shop with cheeses from around the world. Pick up some goodies and then pop over to the other side of the room for a free wine tasting. We loved their reds, but especially their 2015 Pinot.
Benson Vineyards Estate Winery: We’re told this winery has the best views in the wine valley. It’s up a curvy mountain road, so perhaps visit first in the day.
*One Wine: A truly unique winery and a must-stop on a wine tasting trip around Lake Chelan. You won’t find a flight of 4 different cabs here. They have just three wines to taste: one rose, one white, one red, each with a small food pairing. We brought home a bottle of their One Red.
Tunnel Hill Winery: While driving into town, we passed Tunnel Hill and saw a sign that said “Come sip by the fire”. We didn’t wine taste here, but we are told Tunnel Hill has a great fireplace for winter tastings and a nice waterfall outback in the summer.
Succession Wines: An up-and-coming winery in the Lake Chelan area that has great reviews on Trip Advisor for the friendly staff. Plus, those mountain views have me swooning.
Steelhead Cider: If you’re anything like me, I usually always need a break from wine during wine tasting trips. When you’re in Chelan for lunch, make sure to set aside time to visit Steelhead Cider!! We loved this little local cider house that’s home to chill vibes, lots of outdoor seating, top-notch local cider and an owner who’s passionate about his work. We tried all his ciders and loved the Boysenberry the best for it’s unique flavors. Don’t liek cider? Steelhead also offers wine and beer.
BEST LAKE CHELAN OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES
Washington as a whole is a haven for the outdoors but the Lake Chelan location makes it EXTRA fun to explore year round.
We were low-key too lazy to go hiking during our visit but we did check out a trailhead and I knew that spring-late fall, the hiking in Lake Chelan must be off the hook. I just pictured the beautiful rolling hills, glimpses of the lake or mountains between them…there’s over 60 miles of backcountry trails to hike!! I’d recommend the Eco Ridge Trail (the one we viewed…from our car) but any of them would be fantastic. Learn about all the trailheads here.
Come winter, you can snow-shoe many of the trails! Learn more here.
During the summer, grab your swimsuits and head to the lake! The lake is the most ideal to swim in from July – August when it has a chance to warm up a bit. Does lake Chelan freeze? Apparently, it did… once, in 1893. It does get cold over the course of the winter which is why the later summer months are the best time to swim. There are over 50 miles of shoreline on Lake Chelan, so plenty of beach and swimming options. Locals consider the South End to be perhaps the best swimming, as the lake is really clear here, but we heard the North End is more rugged and stunning. If you are unsure where to head, perhaps a visit to the Lake Chelan State Park is a good place to start.
Boating / Water Activites
Rent or bring your own boat for a day on the lake! Or… go kayaking, snorkel the clear lake, waterski, paddle board, water tub… almost anything you would want to do on the lake, you can do at Lake Chelan! Find a Lake Chelan Washington map here detailing marinas, etc along with more information about boating safety on the lake.
Come summer, Lake Chelan camping is a THING. The Lake Chelan State Park has over 130 acres of camping grounds alone! Alta Lake is another popular place to go camping in the area. Check out my Big Sur camping guide for a list of things to bring with you when camping for the first time!
Lake Chelan fishing is a very popular low-key activity for locals and tourists alike. Each year, stocking programs release 100,000 Cutthroat and 500,000 Kokanee into the lake, so you if you love fishing, this is the place to be! If you’re looking how to fish Lake Chelan, you MUST register with the Department of Fish and Wildlife for a fishing permit, which is available to obtain at local Kelly Ace Hardware and the Chelan Walmart. Check here for a full list of nearby lakes.
Lake Chelan is just on the edge of the Cascade Mountains, making it an easy drive to find ski hills. There’s Mission Ridge about 90 minutes from Chelan, and also the Echo Valley Ski & Tubing Area just about 25 minutes from town. The later is great for families! Unfourantly when we visited, the tubing hill wasn’t opened yet, but we went night tubing in Oregon earlier this year and fell in love – make sure to do this (no matter your age!) when you visit Lake Chelan in the winter.
Another fun winter thing to do in Lake Chelan is snowmobiling! You can find a list of sno-parks here. You’ll need 60-day registration permit.
Almost every local we met made sure we knew about Stehekin and they sold it so well that I would easily fly back to Washington just to visit this town. Stehekin is a small town with no roads leading into it… that’s right! The only way to get here is by boat or plane! A popular way to arrive is the Lady of the Lake passenger ferry or personal boats, though you can hike in or horseback ride in as well. There’s only 95 full-time residents in this remote village, making Stehekin a giant nature’s playground. When visiting Lake Chelan, make sure to set aside at least one day to explore it!
If you need more info on things to do in Lake Chelan, I found the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce site to be really helpful to learn about local things to do, events, a map of Lake Chelan directions, etc, etc.
LAKE CHELAN HOTELS + LODGING
Our general take away was that there are 3 main different types of lodging options in the Chelan County area. Vacation rentals, small hotels and Cambells, the large resort on the edge of Chelan.
We stayed in a very spacious vacation rental a few steps off of the lake, which we loved. If you are coming with a large family group or are looking for more secluded space to lounge then one of Lake Chelan rentals is probably the best option for you! We stayed at the Chelan Resort Suites (hello fireplace and self-check-in!) and you can find a large list of other Lake Chelan house rentals here.
Airbnb: Our favorite place to find vacation rentals when traveling is Airbnb. There are a LOT of Lake Chelan cabins, homes and condos for rent on Airbnb. My favorite is THIS amazingly charming hobbit-style home just outside of town. Next time we visit, we’ll be staying here!
Use THIS LINK for $40 off your booking on Airbnb!
Lake Chelan Hotels/Motels
There’s also some small hotels and motels in the area that you can book an affordable night in! If you are in a small group or on a budget, check out one of these hotels in the Lake Chelan area.
When you drive into the town of Chelan, you’ll probably pass right by Cambell’s Resort. It’s historic and one of the oldest buildings in town, and also the most popular Lake Chelan resorts (home to the Lake Chelan water park!) This resort has beach-front access on one side and is literally steps away from downtown Chelan, making it a great place to stay if you are looking for a resort-style lodging and/or plan on spending a lot of time dining and drinking in the town.
WHERE TO EAT IN LAKE CHELAN
The Chelan County is pretty big and there are many great dining options. These are the ones we recommend!
Blueberry Hills Farm: Hands-down the best eggs benedicts I’ve ever had (this is coming from the gal who orders eggs benedict 90% of the time during breakfast!) This family-run joint is tucked away outside of Manson and 100% worth the drive in. They specialize in blueberry things (hence the name) but have an all-around great menu. I would easily have eaten there multiple times a day and sit on that porch with that view each time. It gets PACKED during the summer so make sure to come early if you want to make sure to grab a bite in this famous local gem!
Wapato Cellars: If you’re looking for upscale dining in Lake Chelan, this is the spot! Beautiful interior decor, a fantastic wine flight of local wineries, and good food. Robin loved his burger (the best thing to eat after a day of wine tasting!)
Stormy Mountain Brewing: We love locals breweries for their relaxed atmosphere. We happened to visit Stormy Mountain on Wednesday, aka their trivia night! If you’re in town on Wednesday, plan on grabbing dinner and drinks here. I recommend their 25 Mile Cascadian Dark Ale to start off with!
Local Myth Pizza: My new favorite small-town pizza joint! The staff here are incredibly nice and the pizza is outstanding. We ordered the Pep Crunch, which features double baked pepperoni (yum!) Make sure to order yours with feta for an extra cheesy kick. They also have take-and-bake pizzas if you want to bring it back to your vacation rental!
Lake Chelan Artisan Bakery: For breakfast, make a run to the Artisan Bakery for bagels and/or pastries! We ate there as we had already checked out, but the interior is pretty plain/basic, so I would have loved to bring our haul back to our rental and eat breakfast next to the fireplace. The locals come here a lot, and I got the sense all the best bagel flavors went fast, so come here first thing after waking up.
HOW TO PRONOUNCE LAKE CHELAN + OTHER FUN FACTS
- I spent almost my whole trip saying “Shal-len” as until I realized all the locals were pronouncing it more like “shuh-LAN”. You can say it anyway, but that’s how the locals say it!
- Lake Chelan is the 3rd deepest lake in the United States
- Chelan is derived from the Salish word “Tsi-Laan” which translates to deep water.
- Wildflowers are rampant here. They bloom from March to late June.
- The local population is about 4,000 but during the summer months, the population around the lake is usually around 25,000.
- The Chelan area is known for apples!!
I hope this helped you plan your trip to Lake Chelan! We love our visit and can’t wait to return to the PNW soon. What I would love to do one day in the summer is explore much more of Washington. See Olympic National, Forest, more state parks, loop up to the North Cascades National Park(maybe even pop into Canada!), see Eastern Washington and go to Lake Chelan again.
If you have anything fun to add to this list, leave a comment below! Got questions? Leave a comment or contact me via DM me on Instagram @thewhimsysoul and I’ll do my best to help!