Three hours east of Seattle, on the other side of the Cascades, Chelan County is primarily made up of national forest and a skinny glacier-carved lake that’s 1,486 feet at its deepest point: Lake Chelan. It’s the third-deepest lake in the nation, just behind Oregon’s Crater Lake and Lake Tahoe, on the California-Nevada border. Unlike the latter, which has many communities dotting the water’s edge, the 51-mile-long Lake Chelan has only three: Chelan, Stehekin and Manson. Chelan is the largest, with 4,000 residents, though its population swells to 45,000 in the summer when the lake becomes a hub for water sports.
But there’s a reward for those who wait until the leaves turn. To enjoy Lake Chelan in the fall is to appreciate the absence of the season before it. The water is calm, the weather has cooled, the crowds are gone, and the trees turn gold. Yes, some shops and attractions operate on limited hours, which might make you think you’ve come too late. But one glance at the quiet cobalt lake will affirm the contrary: You’re right on time.
When you arrive, you’ll want to set aside about 20 minutes to acquaint yourself with the town by driving from one tip to the other. Chelan, like the first letter of its name, curves around the southern end of the lake in the shape of a C—an easy fact to help keep you oriented. Apple orchards and cider can be found at each end, so you can stock up for the weekend. Washington produces 58 percent of the apples grown in the United States, and they’re Chelan Valley’s largest crop. On the southern end of town, you can press cider at Sunshine Farm Market using a hand-crank press.
On the northern end of town, the fruit stand on Dietrich Road does all the work for you, with bushels of apples that represent all 20 varieties grown in the region. Once you’ve bought your fill of fresh fall produce, you can park near downtown to explore the heart of Chelan, along East Woodin Avenue, on foot. Catch a matinee at the Ruby Theatre, which claims to be the oldest continually operating movie house in the state, having opened in 1914. The tin-ceiling interior and steel-framed opera chairs harken back to simpler times. Stay in the past after the credits roll by heading across the street to visit the Chelan Museum, which displays Wapato Indian artifacts that shed light on the region’s Native American history, and antique kitchen equipment from local families.
Afterward you can walk down the road to Campbell’s Pub and Veranda for an early dinner. To sample some of the best of the region, start off with the Washington cheese plate with apples, followed by the sirloin sourced from local ranchers, such as Rinker Ranch, an hour east. After a glass of Benson Estate pinot noir, call it a day—you’ll need to rest up for the early trip the following morning.
Pristine and remote, the 95-person community of Stehekin is accessible only by boat or plane. All cars are ferried in, and there’s no cell service. (Consider scheduling your weekend visit for a Saturday as some businesses close on Sundays.) It’s also the last point at which hikers of the famous Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from Mexico to Canada, can pick up supplies they’ve sent themselves in advance before reaching the end.
To get there you’ll sail with Lady of the Lake, a boat service that operates out of its own dock in Chelan and brings visitors 51 miles north to Stehekin. Before your 8:30 a.m. call time, fuel up at Bear Foods Natural Market and Café-Crêperie. The Stehekin Trail Mix, with almonds, apricots, dates and sunflower seeds, is a tasty and packable snack. The trick is to ride the Lady Express on the way up and catch the Lady of the Lake II on the return so that you get three hours in Stehekin instead of one. The captain tells passengers about interesting points along the route (for example, he’ll let you know when you’ve reached the deepest part of the lake) and unexpected sightings (mountain goats can often be spotted near the shore).
When the Lady Express docks in Stehekin at 11 a.m., you’re officially off the grid. (There’s no real town to speak of here, and you may notice residents unloading packages and groceries from the boat that they picked up in Chelan.) Your layover can be spent on foot, on a bike (you can rent one on the honor system through Stehekin Discovery Bikes) or on an excursion with the Stehekin Valley Shuttle. The latter goes to the High Point trailhead, which coincides with the Pacific Crest Trail. On the way back to town, the shuttle makes a stop at the Stehekin Pastry Company, which bakes cinnamon rolls that will satisfy the most active of hikers—or sightseers. During your last hour in town, explore the sprawling Buckner Homestead and Orchard to learn about early settlements (there are old buildings on the property) and pick apples. If you want to stay overnight and see Rainbow Falls or go horseback riding the following day, there are cabins available. But if reality beckons, the Lady of the Lake II departs at 2 p.m. for a scenic four-hour ride back. What could seem like a long trip flies by, and it’s not uncommon for folks to play a friendly pickup card game. Once you’ve returned to Chelan, ease yourself back to civilization with an Italian dinner at Sorrento’s Ristorante at Tsillan Cellars; the pesto prawns and gnocchi carbonara are bound to hit the spot.
Just north of Chelan, a mere 15-minute drive away, is Manson, where the bulk of the wineries and orchards surrounding the lake are located. Start off your morning with breakfast at Blueberry Hills, located on a 13-acre farm. On the menu, you’ll find eggs every which way and blueberry-leaf tea, harvested on-site. Blueberry leaves have 31 times more antioxidants than the plant’s berries, making whatever it is you’re having along with the tea feel slightly more virtuous—be it the Danish Yeast Waffles or the Best Eggs Benedict Known to Mankind. There is character here, from the records hanging from the ceiling to snarky signs warning those driving too fast on the road to “Back off you city slickers! You got nowhere-da-be so quitcher belly-achin’! Have a bran muffin or sumpthin’.”
Next up: a (slow) drive around Manson’s Scenic Loop to Echo Ridge, a network of 25 miles of trails. The Shoe Trail is great for a walk. Scenic is an understatement—along the hilly 15-mile route, you’ll spot vineyards, apple orchards, orange foliage and meadows. After you’ve walked around the Shoe, reward yourself in downtown Manson at the Rootwood Cider Taproom, which pairs hard cider with local meats and cheeses. You can pick up a sandwich to go at Green Dot Sub Shop; the Lady of the Lake Tuna is a reminder of the trip you took the day before. Consider taking your meal down to the Manson Bay Marina, steps from downtown. If you make it a picnic, you might see the Lady of the Lake II itself sail by. Having seen the lake by car and boat, consider ending your trip on a high note. Lake Chelan Helicopters can take you to the skies for a recap of your weekend—snowcapped mountains set against trees of gold near Stehekin, the orchards and vineyards in Manson, and the glittering Lake Chelan. You may be planning your next visit before you land.
Bear Foods Natural Market and Café-Crêperie
125 E. Woodin Ave., Chelan; 509-682-5535; bearfoodsmarket.com
1315 Washington St., Manson; 509-687-2379; wildaboutberries.com; breakfast for two, $20*
Campbell’s Pub and Veranda
104 W. Woodin Ave., Chelan; 509-682-2561; campbellsresort.com; dinner for two, $80
Green Dot Sub Shop
15 Hale St., Manson; 509-888-7688; greendotsubshop.com; lunch for two, $20
Rootwood Cider Taproom
45 Wapato Way, Manson; 509-888-7215; rootwoodcider.com; flight for two, $24
Sorrento’s Ristorante at Tsillan Cellars
3875 U.S. Hwy. 97A, Chelan; 509-682-5409; tsillancellars.com; dinner for two, $70
Stehekin Pastry Company
102 N. Main St., Stehekin; 509-682-7742; stehekinpastry.com; pastries, from $3
Sunshine Farm Market
179 U.S. Hwy. 97A, Chelan; 509-682-1350; sunshinefarmmarket.com
Buckner Homestead and Orchard
Buckner Lane, Stehekin; bucknerhomestead.org; admission, free
204 E. Woodin Ave., Chelan; 509-682-5644; chelanmuseum.com; admission, free
Manson Bay Marina
142 Pedoi St., Manson
Washington Creek Rd., Manson
Lady of the Lake
1418 W. Woodin Ave., Chelan; 509-682-4584; ladyofthelake.com; round-trip boat rides, $61 a person
Lake Chelan Helicopters
2813 Totem Pole Rd., Manson; 509-860-9058; lakechelanhelicopters.com; half-hour tours, $295 for up to three people
135 E. Woodin Ave., Chelan; 509-682-5016; rubytheatre.com; adults, $9; children, $7
Stehekin Discovery Bikes
Five-minute walk up the valley from the dock, Stehekin; stehekindiscoverybikes.com; three-hour rentals, $10
Stehekin Valley Shuttle
Stehekin Landing, Stehekin; round-trip shuttle service, $8 a person
RCI® affiliated resorts near Lake Chelan include:
Right off the Manson Bay Marina, with 116 acres of activities, including tennis, miniature golf, paddleboating and canoeing. 1 Wapato Way, Manson
Member Review: “Spacious and sizable units.”
This resort’s stucco architecture and red-tile roofs stand out against the Pacific Northwest scenery. 100 Lake Chelan Shores Dr., Chelan
Member Review: “Nice and quiet setting.”
Guests can unwind at the property’s two pools and on-site sauna at the foot of Mount Baker National Forest. 10500 Mount Baker Hwy., Glacier
Member Review: “Wonderful place that’s great for hiking.”
Within walking distance of downtown shopping, dining and wine tastings. 103 N. Park St., Chelan
Member Review: “Spectacular view of Lake Chelan.”
For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.
Non-RCI affiliated resorts
104 Woodin Ave., Chelan; 800-553-8225; campbellsresort.com; doubles from $160 a night
North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin
Stehekin Valley Rd., Stehekin; 509-682-4494; lodgeatstehekin.com; doubles from $151 a night
- *Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
- NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
- Published: Fall 2017