Photo: Family in a motorboat on Lake Chelan

A family takes a spin in a motorboat on Lake Chelan.

Photograph by Big Cheese Photo LLC, Alamy

By Christopher Hall

The morning sun glints on the water as the Lady of the Lake II embarks on its daily cruise from the town of Chelan to Stehekin, a tiny community with about 80 residents at the far end of Washington’s Lake Chelan. For four hours, the ferry will glide through this 55-mile-long finger of pristine, glacier-fed water, allowing passengers a front-row seat as one of America’s deepest lakes gradually undergoes a startling transformation from family playground into awe-inspiring wilderness.

Located about 200 miles east of Seattle, Chelan (Sha-LAN) is more like two lakes than one. At its lower end around Chelan—a classic American small town—the lake is cradled by broad semiarid slopes dotted with orchards, farms, and vineyards. During the perpetually sunny summer, lake dwellers can paddleboard or water-ski, get a bird’s-eye view while parasailing, play a round of golf, or swim in water that may reach into the 70s. Shave ice from the stand near Lakeside Park is de rigueur.

But farther up the lake, Chelan becomes the domain of hikers, campers, and anglers as you pass through fjord-like gorges and into the heart of the rugged Cascade Mountains. Deep forests cloak the land, and in the distance snowy, 9,000-foot peaks bristle against an intensely blue sky. Some of the ferry passengers will overnight at Stehekin and later hike the trails, raft the rivers, or climb the summits of the 61,958-acre Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. But even for those who return the same day to the gentler summertime pleasures of the lower lake, a memory of this stirring, natural grandeur will likely last a long time.

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