The Chelan Lakeshore Trail
On a recent trip to Washington State, we allowed a couple extra days for what we believe is one of the world’s premier backpack trips: the Chelan Lakeshore Trail. You’ll find a complete description of it in our book Hiking from Here to WOW: North Cascades. We hope the following field report will nudge you to pick up a copy.
Last winter left a deep snowpack in the mountain ranges of western North America. Trails that would typically be hikeable by late May remained snowbound this year. Lake Chelan, however, though wedged between lofty mountains, had been snow-free for several weeks prior to our arrival. And while unusually cool, rainy weather continued badgering western states and provinces, the conditions at Lake Chelan were ideal when we arrived: sunshine, blue sky, daytime highs of 25°C (82°F).
So Lake Chelan earns The Opinionated Hikers’ Seal of Approval for early-season availability. Yet there’s another, even more compelling reason to hike here: four-star scenery.
For the two or three days you’ll follow this trail—among stately pines, over exposed rock, past exuberant wildflowers*, in and out of lush drainages—the lake is constantly visible. So are the North Cascades rising abruptly from the far shore. Sometimes you’ll drop to lake level. Occasionally you’ll contour steep cliffs. Often you’ll rise over headlands granting a godly perspective of this 55-mi (88.5-km) long, inland fiord.
We’re continually surprised to discover Lake Chelan is not as well known as it deserves to be. On our way there, we stayed with friends in Kelowna, B.C., who’d never heard of it. After leaving Chelan, we stayed with friends in Seattle who’d never heard of it. “Where’s Lake Chelan?” they asked. It’s on the east side of the North Cascades, off Hwy 97, about 45 minutes north of Wenatchee.
The elevation of Lake Chelan is 1098 ft (335 m), which explains why it’s reliably snow free in early season. The peaks directly above rise to 5000 ft (1524 m). The water is 1486 ft (453 m) deep, plunging 388 ft (118 m) below sea level. Measured from the lake bottom to the height of land, it’s a deeper abyss than the Grand Canyon.
From the town of Chelan, drive to Fields Point Landing, on the lake’s west shore. Leave your vehicle in the spacious, secure (locked nightly) parking lot. Board the Lady of the Lake II, a tour boat that departs daily at 9:45 a.m. Disembark at Prince Creek, on the east shore. From there, follow the trail north 18 mi (29 km) to the hamlet of Stehekin (lodge, campground, store, cafe, bakery). Then catch the Lady at 2 p.m., returning down-lake to Fields Point. The round-trip boat fare is $40 per person.
On day one, we hiked 11.5 mi (18.5 km) to Moore Point. (That distance includes the 0.5 mi / 0.8 km spur down to the campground.) The total elevation gain on this undulating leg is about 1000 ft (305 m). It’s also possible to hike just 8 mi (12.9 km) and camp at Cascade Creek. From Moore Point, on the morning of day two, we hiked 0.5 mi (0.8 km) up to the lakeshore trail, then 7 mi (11.3 km) north to Stehekin.
It’s possible to catch the first boat, which departs Stehekin at noon. But why? We spent the morning doing lazy yoga on the old wharf at Moore Point. We reached Stehekin in time to slowly pick apart a locally baked cinnamon bun big as a frisbee. We caught the Lady at 2 p.m. We were back at Fields Point, loading our packs into our car, shortly after 5 p.m. A few minutes later, we pitched our tent and took hot showers at nearby Chelan State Park.
For more details about the Chelan Lakeshore trail (and other trails up-valley from Stehekin that afford several more days of fruitful exploration), purchase our book Hiking from Here to WOW: North Cascades. You’ll find it at Mountain Equipment Co-op, REI, Indigo/Chapters, Amazon.com, and right here at hikingcamping.com.
*The wildflowers we saw in early June, 2011, included lupine (purple), columbine (orange and yellow), penstemon (lavender), paintbrush (red), and Goat’s beard (yellow).