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The High-Adventure High Life at Lake Chelan

Unrivalled access to outdoor activities combined with civilized pleasures of local wineries make Washington state's Lake Chelan the perfect venue for early season adventures
By Peter Potterfield - June 2nd, 2011

Just after dawn the waters of Lake Chelan are still enough to reflect the snow-capped peaks of the Cascades surrounding the lake, some rising to altitudes of more than 8,000 feet. As I paddle past the shore near town, heading uplake toward wilder reaches farther north, the perspective gives me new respect for the sheer scale of the landscape. This is the place ancient Salish peoples called Tsi-Laan, meaning deep water, an apt moniker. The bottom off the lake is some 1,500 feet below my kayak, making it the third deepest in North America. This, the biggest lake in Washington, stretches for 55-miles, from the town of Chelan up into the heart of the North Cascades at Stehekin. But it's only a mile wide, so the impression is one of a mighty fjord slicing into the mountains.

Chelan is unique in that it is both a destination, replete with multi-sport outdoor activities, and the jumping off place for hard core adventures. I've been here before over the past decade, but mostly as the starting point for mountaineering trips into the wild North Cascades. From the town of Chelan, regular boat service by the Lady of the Lake takes sightseerers and hikers up lake as far north as Stehekin, the gateway to North Cascades National Park. (Or, for the impatient, Chelan Airways can whisk you up in a matter of minutes in one of their classic DeHaviland Beavers, turning the journey into a sightseeing extravaganza). But this time, I'm making a point of staying put in Chelan, of enjoying the outdoor fun closer to town, and combining it with a search for extraordinary  food and wine.

A paddle on the lake is a great way to begin. Serious kayakers can travel the entire length of the lake, with interim camps between Chelan and Stehekin, or do a strenuous day trip up to Fields Point on the south shore (where you can stash a car for the trip back to town). But a morning kayak tour around the lower end of the lake is plenty for most, providing both  a perspective on the expanding town site, and an authentic adventure in a setting that rivals even Lake Tahoe for mountain scenery.

Hikers can further explore the townsite on foot by hiking the Riverwalk Trail on an evening stroll, or the slightly more ambitious Reach One Trail, a three mile exploration along the Chelan River. The route up Chelan Butte trail is also relatively short, but affords good views of the lower lake and the town. But by far my favorite route was found at Echo Ridge, an elaborate network of trails almost a thousand feet above the lake that can keep hikers and mountain bikers entertained all day.

This Forest Service recreation area encompasses more than 18 miles of trail. I was impressed by the views of the lake and glimpses into the Sawtooth Wilderness that runs along the North Shore of Lake Chelan. Echo Ridge is only 15 minutes from town, just beyond the village of Manson, with the driving route well-marked with signs. Two trailheads get you onto two different parts of the trail system easily.  I started from the upper trailhead and gradually worked my way through fields of showy balsam root, brilliant yellow in the sun, and gradually around the ridge to the north and east and back down to the lower trailhead. Maps are available at the ranger station.

Originally built for cross-country skiers--a warming hut at the upper trailhead offers welcome respite during  winter tours--the Echo Ridge trail network has become a favorite for mountain bikers. The local practice is to start low and ride high for a maximum workout, but on my hike I found most visiting riders did the opposite to take advantage of the views and minimize the elevation gain. A trail system this robust, with high-payoff views down to the lake and across to the Cascade Crest, is one of the iconic features that make a weekend at Chelan so much fun for outdoor lovers.

There's yet more hiking to be found a short drive along the south shore to 25 Mile State Park, about a half hour away by car. From the park trailhead, the North Fork Trail offers a jaunt through the big woods, and the Pot Peak trail offers a short but steep (read strenuous) route up to Devil's Backbone Ridge  at 6,500 feet. Even if you, like me, planned on doing all your adventuring closer to town, another reason to drive up the south shore of the lake is to visit Field's Point, a great spot for a picnic and a different perspective on  sprawling Lake Chelan itself.

The drive along the south shore of the lake back to town takes you  past a number of wineries, including Karma, where, if you're lucky, owner Julie Piptsinger will share a sample of her signature method champenoise wine, a rare sparkling wine made in the vicinity. One of the elements that makes Chelan unique is the presence of more than a dozen vineyards and wineries. Long a fruit-growing region with hundreds of orchards, the relatively new business of wine growing and wine making has become over the past decade a signature part of the Chelan experience. Wine-making  pioneers such as Steve Kludt at Lake Chelan Winery planted vinifera grapes and refined wine-making techniques to the point where the best wines and vintages here rival any in the Northwest. Chardonnays and pinot noirs seem to rule here, but wine makers create new varieties every year.

A few of the wineries are situated along the south shore, but most are found on the north shore at the lower end of the lake, just minutes from town. After a day of riding and paddling and hiking, it's a nice foil to be able to visit these diverse operations and taste the fruits of their efforts. Wine making is a big business here that's transformed not just the town of Chelan, but the reason visitors come here. I timed my own early season adventure trip to coincide with the area's famous "barrel tasting weekend," when most of the wineries tap into their barrels of French oak to sample the wines aging inside, and offer visitors a glimpse into the wine-maker's art of determining when it is ready to be bottled.

Sampling an already robust syrah right out of the barrel at Benson Vineyard (with perhaps the best view of the lake) offers real insight into what goes in to the success of all the wines made in the Lake Chelan area. It is truly an art.  But it is the chance to meet pioneering wine makers and learn more about favorite grapes that makes these wine tastings so much fun. After sampling his 2009 Malbec right out of the oak barrel,  Steve Kludt showed me some of the equipment Lake Chelan Winery uses to make not just its own wine, but to create and bottle wines for other wineries in the area. Co-owner John Abbot later poured me a sample of his pinot grigio, a white wine so tasty I decided to stick around and have dinner at the informal nightly barbecue held outdoors in the heart of the vineyard. Good food paired with outstanding wines served in the soft warmth of a Lake Chelan evening makes an added  highlight to an outdoor trip here.

The wine tasting was so much fun that when, sadly,  it came time to load the bikes and boats onto the car for the three and half hour drive back to Seattle, I knew there was yet one more thing to do: Stop off at Lake Chelan Winery for a case of that complicated, beautiful pinot grigio.

Planning a Trip to Chelan

Chelan is relaxed and informal, and located within easy reach of Vancouver, B.C., Seattle and Portland. Accommodations line the lake shore in town, but for an adventure trip, it's hard to beat the bucolic cabins at Chelan Rentals. This cluster of 10 cabins spread out over more than 30 acres of hillsides right at the base of Echo Ridge comes with spectacular views and private hot tubs, and lots of space to keep the bikes and kayaks. The cabins are just 10 minutes from town, and even closer to most of the north shore wineries. And if you're looking for a thrill, the "Uncle Tim's Cabins" even have a four-stage zip line on the property.

If you don't want to lug all your heavy gear on the car, check with Pedal Paddle Lake Chelan downtown. They can rent you a kayak (and haul it to the boat ramp for you), and in season offer mountain bike rentals as well.

Dining and tasting wine is a big part of any  visit to Chelan, or at least should be. Many restaurants take pride in serving  carefully prepared food to match standards of the  best tradition of wine growing regions such as Sonoma. Adante, located in the downtown area along gentrifying Woodin Avenue, offers an extensive menu of Italian dishes. Many of the wineries have full restaurants, and I can personally recommend the al fresco dining at Lake Chelan Winery, where one sits right in the vineyard; the pleasant dining room of Sorrento at Tsillan Cellars, with it's floor to ceiling windows, the unusual caverns (or outside on the patio if you prefer) at Karma Vineyards & Cave, and bustling Wapato Point  Cellars and it's storied Winemaker's Grill  restaurant.

For more information on an outdoor adventure trip to Chelan, and a schedule of seasonal events, visit the Chelan visitors website


Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards

I am the winemaker and owner of Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards ( at Lake Chelan and thank you Peter for the great write up of our beautiful region. I invite you all to stop by our winery as well as the others mentioned in the article, when you are visiting the area

Posted on June 8, 2011 - 7:34am
by Judy Phelps

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