Off-the-grid peace with a side of wine
written by Catie Joyce-Bulay
On the map, Lake Chelan is a slender snake wriggling down out of the North Cascades with its head pointing east. The village of Stehekin, sitting atop the glacial lake and nestled into jagged peaks and thick forests, is one of the few remaining towns in the country only reachable by foot, boat or plane. There’s no cell service, and the internet was brought to its ninety-five year-round residents only ten years ago. With a history rife with the pioneering spirit, this village somehow manages to hang on to that feeling while offering tourists as rugged or pampered an experience as desired.
The lake’s southern shores cross over into the dry side of the state and feel like a world away. The small towns of Chelan and Manson rest at its base on rolling hills of shrub steppe, orchards and, more recently, vineyards. This relatively new wine region is a little bit of glam, while still holding onto its Old West vibe. If you’re looking for a weekend getaway that feels like two destinations in one, Lake Chelan is the place.
Before diving into an afternoon of lakeside wine tasting, start with a bird’s eye view of the surrounding valley at Tunnel Zip Lines, just west of Chelan. You’ll run through all four of their courses, building up to speeds of 45 mph to 60 mph on the final run, the fastest in North America. The lines have views of the Columbia River, cherry orchards and Castle Vineyards (open for tasting) below. You may even spy some wildlife. Owner Loretta Kelley often spots a mountain goat or two on the cliffsides, and recalls once having to wait for a bear to leave the platform.
For equally stunning views without the speed, visit nearby Siren Song Vineyard Estate and Winery and take a cooking class. While sipping the eclectic variety of reds and whites, each with a story behind it, take in the lake and begin to let its song seep in.
The Lake Chelan Valley was granted its American Viticultural Area status in 2009. Characterized by mild lake-effect temperatures and coarse sandy soil, it is now home to more than twenty wineries. Lake Chelan Winery was its first. Drive to its northshore tasting room to sample award-winning wines alongside cheeses from around the world from Lake Chelan Cheese Shop, conveniently located inside. Gather your favorite pairings along with charcuterie to take on a lakeside picnic lunch.
The valley has a long history of growing flavorful apples, so it makes sense that cideries are now cropping up in the region. Washington Gold Cider’s tasting room, installed in an old apple packing shed, is located behind the winery—check out the non-carbonated Lake Chelan Heritage Cider.
As you continue your drive up the lake you’ll reach the little unincorporated town of Manson, with expansive views of apple and cherry orchards. Stop at Willow Point Park (2 miles north of town) to picnic on its sandy shore, and take a refreshing dip in the lake.
Back in Chelan lies Grandview on the Lake, a popular hotel with a lakeview pool. For an upscale dinner, make reservations at the stunning Sorrento’s Ristorante at Tsillan Cellars, a short drive away, where Italy is the inspiration for both menu and architecture. End the evening with a stroll through downtown, and get a Wild West-inspired cocktail at Outlaw BBQ and Steakhouse, just off the main strip—try the puckery Annie Oakley.
Grab a fresh-baked quiche and coffee at The Vogue before catching the Lady of the Lake ferry, which arrives at Stehekin in time for lunch (the Lady Express offers quicker trips during high season). Find the best views at the head of the boat, where you can watch the Cascades reveal ever-larger peaks around each bend. The ferry captain narrates points of interest along the way, like the deepest point at 1,486 feet. Watch along the canyon walls for several waterfalls.
Upon docking, if you’re staying at the National Park Service-run North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin, you can unload your luggage and get lunch on the restaurant’s patio. Make sure to leave room for homemade ice cream. Then, hoof it on one of a number of hiking trails that range from easy shoreline or river’s edge paths to steep climbs. Access trailheads by foot or take the antique-like red shuttle bus.
Recommended is the 4.4-mile Rainbow Loop Trail, which winds up the valley through open meadows and sweet-scented conifer forests on moderate switchbacks with 180-degree mountain views. The trail then descends through a 2010 burn area, where barren trees stipple the hillside, making way for a proliferation of wildflowers.
You can walk the road 2.6 miles back to the lodge for dinner, or make arrangements for a shuttle stop if you have dinner reservations at Stehekin Valley Ranch. Its ranch roast is such a favorite with regulars they wouldn’t let the ranch take it off the menu, and cowboy coffee is always brewing over the fire. The ranch is one of a handful of lodging options (including free camping), and also offers guided kayak or horse trips.
Spend a quiet evening back at the lodge in the second floor sunroom and borrow a book or board game off the shelf.
Fuel up with a hearty breakfast sandwich at the lodge’s restaurant before hitting the shuttle with your rental bike. The shuttle ride is a great way to learn about the village’s history as the driver (some are among the few year-round residents) narrates, while the glass roof allows for canyon-top views. We spotted a variety of ducks, mule deer and a black bear from our seats.
The shuttle’s last stop, Highbridge Camp, makes for an easy 11-mile bike ride back to the dock, since it’s mostly coasting downhill—you can also request a closer stop. The Pacific Crest Trail crosses here, and each mid-to-late September hundreds of thru-hikers stop for their last supply drops before they reach Canada—a few days walk away. Thru-hikers are a friendly lot, so stop and chat with them.
The bike ride offers plenty of opportunities to stop and take in views along the Stehekin River or the many creeks. Rainbow Falls, which can be viewed from the road, is a great rest stop. Its upper viewing deck will revive you with a brisk shower from the spray coming off the 312-foot falls. Back on the road, you’ll pass the old one-room schoolhouse, in use (including its outhouse) until 1988, and the new one-room schoolhouse, where twenty or so resident children receive K-8 education.
Lunch at Stehekin Pastry Company is a must. It offers daily sandwich, soup and salad specials, but there are also fluffy savory-filled croissants, and, of course, sweets, including head-sized cinnamon buns.
If you’re catching the 2 p.m. ferry, you might have time to rent a kayak from the lodge. It’s an easy paddle across the lake to view ancient pictographs. But don’t miss out on the number-one Stehekin activity—as our shuttle driver pointed out—relaxing. If you need a little extra help in that department, book a massage at Stehekin Valley Ranch. But finding your Zen is as easy as claiming one of the Adirondack chairs on the lodge’s deck. Shaded by a fir tree, watch the resident sparrows flutter and dive over the sun-stippled aqua lake.