Wenatchee National Forest

Lake Chelan

Most of the upper portion of Lake Chelan is part of the national forest. Often seen as a barrier to progress in the past, these precipitous shores now offer the opportunity to find peace, serenity, and beauty in a world of increasing turmoil and complexity.

1. Chelan River
The Chelan River is only about 4.3 miles long, a very small river to drain the huge volume of this 55-mile-long lake. In the three-mile descent through the gorge to its outlet in the Columbia River, the river drops 390 feet in elevation. The Chelan Gorge is now dry for most of the year due to the operations of the hydroelectric dam, but the power and glory of past times may occasionally be sensed when excess water is released from the dam in early summer. The gorge is extremely dangerous at that time.

2. Hydroelectric Dam
From the time Chelan was first settled by white people, the Chelan River has been dammed for various purposes. Initially, dams were constructed to provide domestic water for the growing town and to raise the lake level so that steamboats could land at the town of Chelan. In 1925-1927, the present (fifth) dam was constructed entirely for power generation. Thus Lake Chelan, a glacially-formed natural lake, took on the appearance of a reservoir, with a yearly lake level fluctuation of 10 to 18 feet.

Tragically, natural beaches, townsites such as Lakeside, Native American archaeological sites, pictographs, homesteads, and historic resorts such as the Field Hotel were flooded as the lake level was raised 21 feet to the current 1100-foot full pool elevation. The lake has also gained about one mile in length due to the dam.

3. Chelan Townsite
The first known encampment at Chelan was a Native American winter village known as "Yenmusi' Tsa" (Rainbow Robe). As European-descended people began to settle in eastern Washington, Chief Moses, representing several local Indian groups, negotiated for a reservation bounded on the south by the shore of Lake Chelan. "Camp Chelan" was established by the army to "protect" the interests of both the peaceable Chelan Indians and white settlers to the south. Strategic location aside, the realities of difficult supply and access along the Chelan Gorge and Columbia River caused the abandonment of the camp just one year later.

As access improved, the desirability of the Lake Chelan area's good climate and availability of water became more apparent. By 1886 pressure from settlers resulted in the dissolution of the Columbia Reservation, and homesteading was legally opened. By 1891 Chelan was a trading center for the booming businesses of prospecting, trapping, speculation, and within a very short time, tourism as well.

4. Knapp's Coulee
When the alpine glaciers from the upper Chelan valley began to melt about 17,000 years ago, the lake level rose nearly 800 feet above the present level. Because the lower end of the lake was still blocked by the continental ice sheet, the meltwaters eventually sought new outlets to the Columbia River through what is now known as Knapp's Coulee (US Highway 97), seen here to the west, and Navarre Coulee farther uplake.

5. Wapato Point
Wapato Point is named for the family of Entiat Indians who chose this area for their "allotment" when the Columbia Reservation was dissolved and opened for white settlement in 1886. At that time local Indians were given the choice of moving to the Colville Reservation (miles from their homelands) or choosing a 640-acre allotment in the former Columbia Reservation and adopting the ways of the "civilized" world.

John Wapato and his son Peter were very successful in their acculturation efforts. They established the first apple orchard on Lake Chelan and raised potatoes, melons, grains and livestock. Peter Wapato had 12 acres fenced and cultivated, built two log cabins, developed a personal system of accounting, worked a mining claim, and conducted weekly services in the Catholic Church he built from salvaged lumber. The land here still belongs to the Wapato family and is leased to a private corporation for development.

6. Navarre Coulee
In the process of building their own outlets to the Columbia River, the meltwaters of glacial Lake Chelan also created a break through the rugged Chelan Mountains that could, with difficulty, be used by homesteaders as an access route to the lake. In 1901 the Navarre Coulee road made news when the road grade was reduced from 25 percent to a more reasonable 6 percent. Navarre Coulee is named for the first official settler on Lake Chelan, Ignatius A. Navarre, who arrived in 1884 and established his family and homestead by 1886.

7. Wapato Basin
The waters of Lake Chelan fill two basins that are separated by a shallow constriction, called the Narrows. Lucerne Basin, the deeper of the two, is to the north. Wapato Basin, on the lower end of the lake, is about 12 miles long. It reaches a maximum depth of 400 feet about two miles uplake from Wapato Point. There are, in addition, about 600 feet of glacial sediments and landslide deposits between the lake bottom and bedrock.

8. Slide Ridge
Also known as Mineral Slide, Slide Ridge is one of the most prominent features of the lower lake. The bright orange face of the ridge is easily recognized. The huge volume of material that slid off the face of the ridge now contributes to the lake bottom, making this end of the lake shallower, warmer and very popular for water-oriented sports.

9. The Narrows
This 1/4-mile-wide constriction in the walls of Lake Chelan marks the southern terminus of the alpine glacier that carved Lucerne Basin 17,000 to 14,000 years ago. At about the same time, a lobe of the continental glacier advanced down the Okanogan and Columbia valleys from Canada. The continental lobe possibly went as far north as Wapato Point, gouging out Wapato Basin. Between these glaciers there was a lake of meltwaters, glacial Lake Chelan.

10. Fields Point
This is the last uplake car-access stop of the Lady of the Lake. Fields Point was developed jointly by the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service to provide orientation and secure parking for visitors to Lake Chelan and uplake areas. Information, snacks, restrooms, picnic facilities, souvenirs, and a pay phone are available at the landing. From this point, visitors can begin to appreciate the ruggedness of the mountainsides farther uplake.

11. Mitchell Creek Fire
Fire and flood wrote the story at Mitchell Creek. Fire is a frequent and natural occurrence in the Chelan drainage, but some fires are more long-lasting than others in the memories and effects they leave behind. In 1970 lightning ignited a blaze that would eventually consume 42,280 acres—most of the commercial timber on the Chelan Ranger District and the largest fire known on the Wenatchee National Forest. Due to an accumulation of fuels and extremely dry weather, the fire was so intense that most of the organic matter in the soil was entirely consumed, making reforestation efforts slow and difficult. In following years the deforested hillsides of the Mitchell Creek Drainage could not absorb spring runoff and major flooding resulted.

12. 25-Mile Creek Guard Station
The task of administering the nearly 1/2 million acres of public land in the Lake Chelan drainage must have been fairly overwhelming to the rangers who first came to what was, in 1908, the Chelan National Forest. To aid in this task, the Forest Supervisor subdivided the Chelan area into several smaller "districts" for each ranger. At one time there were districts established at 25-Mile Creek, Deer Point, and Stehekin as well as in Chelan. Each district had a "Guard Station," a ranger and in some cases an assistant or two.

Boundaries, responsibilities and staff size have changed many times over the years and now the Chelan Ranger District of the Wenatchee National Forest administers the lower two thirds of the drainage and North Cascades National Park administers the upper end of the lake.

The guard station at 25-Mile Creek was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) around 1940, replacing the first guard station built there in 1907.

13. Camas Creek Fire
Camas Creek was the site of another of the "great" fires of the Chelan area. The fire began as a lightning strike in early August 1929 and escaped initial attack on the second day. The fire ran all the way over the Chelan Crest to the Methow River, killed two fire fighters, destroyed miles of irrigation flume and burned for 62 days. The Stormy Mountain Lookout was able to watch the entire progress of the fire and reported a six-mile flame front during the incident.

This fire resulted in a region-wide call for fire roads into National Forest lands to aid fire fighting efforts.

14. Deer Point Winter Range
The region between Deer Point and Safety Harbor is a popular winter range for deer. The U.S. Forest Service, Chelan County PUD, and the Washington State Department of Wildlife have periodically enhanced the deer browse here through "prescribed" burning. Many wildlife food plants, such as bitterbrush, grow quickly and abundantly after a fire. Controlled burning also maintains or creates openings for animals to feed by removing accumulated fuels. Diversity, and therefore stability, in the ecosystem is improved by fire.

Deer Point also has its place in history as the site of "Deer Lodge," the winter range and homestead of Dan Devore, Stehekin's first and most famous horsepacker. His cabins and the Forest Service guard station are gone now and the site is a Forest Service campground.

15. Box Canyon CCC Trail
Difficult access on Lake Chelan is epitomized by construction of the Box Canyon Trail, a CCC project and still faintly visible on the south shore between 25-Mile Creek and Box Canyon. No road has ever been able to reach farther uplake than 25-Mile Creek and even this short trail was extremely expensive due to terrain once described by an early settler as "adamantine and precipitous." When CCC construction crews reached Box Canyon, the hillsides became outright cliffs. Expensive suspension bridges would have been required to cross the canyon and construction ceased. No further efforts to build roads or trails uplake have ever been undertaken, though plans are being made to reopen the trail.

16. Coyote Creek Incline
The half-mile-long scar on the uplake side of Coyote Creek is all that remains of a tramway built in 1920. Lumber and equipment used in construction of an irrigation flume were hauled up the hillside by this incline. The flume, running from Falls Creek to Big Grade Creek and thence on to Antillon Lake for water storage, was mostly destroyed by the big Camas Creek fire of 1929. In earlier days, when the flats above were logged off, a log chute was constructed in the creek bed. The chute was so steep that many of the logs shattered as they careened into each other in the water at the base of the hill, and the chute was soon abandoned.

17. Safety Harbor Fire
Safety Harbor was the scene of several more of Chelan's major fires in 1970 and 1972. The smaller 1972 fire is the more visible of the two, having burned across the face of Big Goat Mountain, just to the north of the creek. The Harbor gets its name from the fact that, unlike most harbors on the lake, it gives protection from both downlake, and the less frequent but equally dangerous, uplake winds.

18. Navigation Reflectors
The yellow metal drums seen at Point-No-Point and numerous other spots along the lakeshore are navigation reflectors once used by the tug boat "E.B. Schley" on its run from the Howe Sound dock at Lucerne to Chelan. The tug hauled ore barges, each typically carrying 285 tons of copper ore from the Holden Mine, which operated from 1937 to 1957. The tug made the run when the barges were full, regardless of weather or time of day. By shining a light on the reflectors, the tug captain could tell where he was on the lake by judging the time between markers and the speed of the boat.

19. Big/Little Goat Creek Winter Range
The steep and craggy terrain between Safety Harbor Creek and Prince Creek is a primary mountain goat winter range. Large herds of mountain goats were a major tourist and big-game hunter attraction in the 1890's. They were often shot from boats and retrieved from the lake after they fell from the high ledges into the water. It was because of this slaughter that a Lake Chelan National Park was first proposed in 1892. When the goat herds became alarmingly depleted in the late 1970's from successive hard winters, over-hunting, and dietary deficiencies, 44 goats were transplanted from Olympic National Park to Lake Chelan in the summers of 1983 and 1984.

20. Lucerne Basin
Deepest Point in the Lake Lucerne Basin, at 1,486 feet, is the deeper of the two glacially carved basins of Lake Chelan, which is the third deepest lake in the U.S. The low point is in the vicinity of Big Goat Creek and lies almost 400 feet below sea level. The walls of the lake between 25-Mile Creek and Canoe Creek are cliffs that plunge more than 1,000 feet.

The basin is U-shaped, a classically carved glacial valley with very steep sides that approach 45° in some areas. More than 92 percent of the volume of water in Lake Chelan is contained in the Lucerne Basin, five percent below sea level. The official depth of the lake was recorded by the Department of Ecology in 1986. Various soundings over the years have yielded differing results due to improved techniques and natural phenomena.

The Monster of Lake Chelan is reputed to dwell in this section of the lake. Though rarely seen, this monster has been known to make lake conditions very rough when irritated. Litter irritates the monster.

21. Pyramid Peak: Deepest Gorge
The Grand Canyon is about a mile deep. Kings Canyon, in California, is about 7,800 feet deep. Hells Canyon, claimed to be the deepest, as measured from the top to the bottom, eight miles away at the Snake River, is about 8,200 feet deep. But if you walked three miles straight out due east from the top of Pyramid Peak (8,245 feet), and then looked down into the Lucerne Basin (386 feet below sea level), you'd be looking into the deepest gorge in the United States (8,631 feet). Peering through the additional 1,500 feet of water makes visualizing this immense chasm difficult, but no less real or impressive.

22. Prince Creek Flood
Prince Creek was named after Henry Domke's pack horse, which was killed after falling off the mountain above the creek in 1886. Stories abound regarding horses slipping on the rocky slopes of Lake Chelan, territory better suited to the mountain goat.

Most of the cobbles and gravels you see here were deposited by the flood of 1948, which changed the course of the creek. A Forest Service guard station, barn, and campground were obliterated and washed into the lake, as were all other Forest Service campgrounds on the lake except Graham Harbor. Sand and rocks buried the dock, and soon the stream was running over it and into the lake.

23. Twin Harbor Glacial Scouring
The valley walls on the south side of the lake above Twin Harbor show the effects of glacial scouring. As a glacier flows down a basin, rock fragments fall from the slopes and are embedded in the ice. Acting like super-coarse sandpaper, the moving ice abrades and scours, stripping the hillsides of footholds for plants and leaving behind bare, rounded rock walls.

From evidence along the valley walls it is probable that the top of the last glacier in the upper lake region was almost 4,300 feet above the present lake level. When added to the depth of the lake, the total thickness of the glacier was nearly 5,800 feet, well over one mile.

24. Domke Falls
Domke Falls, Mountain, and Lake all take their names from Henry Domke, one of the first settlers who attempted to secure a livelihood from the wild but plentiful resources of the uplake regions. Domke is reputed to have tried to harness the power of Domke Falls for a sawmill. The sawmill never produced any lumber—some say the saw ran backwards. Others say that the penstock was smashed to smithereens by the power of the falls. In any case, Domke soon headed downlake for the more civilized regions of Chelan.

25. Domke Mountain Lookout
Early fire lookouts were often nothing more than a tall tree in a prominent place. The fire watcher would climb it several times a day and scrutinize the landscape for smoke. The "crow's nest" on Domke Mountain was abandoned in 1930 when it was replaced by a 100-foot-high steel tower. By 1970, the tower, too, was gone. More sophisticated systems of airplane, helicopter, and satellite reconnaissance, and infrared sensing devices gradually turned the hundreds of mountain top lookout towers in the Northwest into anachronisms.

26. Meadow Creek Fire and Pictographs
The charcoaled hillsides above you are the result of a relatively unusual occurrence in the Chelan Drainage—a major, human-caused fire. Known locally as the "Toilet Paper Fire," this blaze was initiated by a camper who burned his toilet paper on a hillside with unusually dry, early summer grasses. Additionally fueled by an abundance of dead trees from a spruce budworm infestation, the fire took off and was out of control in seconds.

The area now provides habitat for cavity-nesting birds, who may, ironically, help prevent dangerous levels of fuel buildup in the future by contributing to the control of insect infestations.

Before going into backcountry areas, hikers need to check the fire conditions and regulations. Bury toilet paper, pack out all trash, bring a stove, and don't forget your common sense.

Meadow Creek was also the site of several Indian pictographs that were inundated by the waters backed up by the Chelan Dam in 1928. Pictographs are known from several locations along the lake. Paint used for the pictographs was commonly a red ochre or hematite (iron ores). Resin or gum from conifers was added and gave the painting a varnish like quality. The paint was often absorbed and became part of the rock.

27. Lucerne
Lucerne became a small but active community during the early part of this century as development at the Holden Mine progressed. The large low grade copper ore deposit was discovered by J.H. Holden in 1896 approximately 12 miles up the Railroad Creek Valley. Holden spent many years trying to interest various companies in buying and/or developing his mine. The mine was purchased by the Howe Sound Mining Company of British Columbia in 1930 and began production in 1937.

With a post office, tavern, dance pavilion, schoolhouse, resort, and cabins, Lucerne played an active role in providing accommodations for married miners and recreational opportunities for single miners. Lucerne continues to provide a staging area for visitors headed up to Holden and the Glacier Peak Wilderness beyond.

28. Railroad Creek
There never has been a railroad on Railroad Creek, but it wasn't for a lack of trying. Early surveyors for the Northern Pacific Railroad looked favorably on the Railroad Creek Valley as a route to cross the Cascades, but abandoned the idea because of the high cost of laying track along the precipitous shores of Lake Chelan. After the ore body at Holden was discovered, plans were made to lay track from Holden to Lucerne and then barge the ore down lake. Near the turn of the century much work was done on the railroad, but it, too, was abandoned. Trucks became a much more economical method of transporting the ore.

A 2,000-foot incline railway, the scar of which can still faintly be discerned just uplake from the boat dock at Lucerne, was built to bypass the first mile of switchbacks during the construction of the road to Holden. This railway was used to transport supplies until the road was completed.

29. Holden
Sixty-six and one half million dollars worth of copper, gold, and zinc were removed from the Holden Mine during 20 years of production. The mine was the largest copper mine in the State of Washington and played a tremendous role in the local economy. A showplace for the mining industry in the region, Holden Village was built as a model company town with luxuries not to be expected in such a remote location. A movie theatre, bowling alley, and ice cream parlor helped to maintain the morale and cohesiveness of this isolated community. Due to the need to maximize profit while developing a relatively low grade, the engineers at the mine developed many new techniques in mining and ore processing.

Eventually, however, the price of copper dropped and the mine and village were closed in 1957. After several years of unsuccessful attempts to sell the village buildings, they were donated to the Lutheran Church in 1960.

30. Round Mountain
Both Round Mountain and its companion, Domke Mountain on the opposite side of the lake, were once attached to their respective adjacent ridges. It took the violent action of a mile-deep glacier to effect the separation and similarities of the two mountains. This rough treatment left each mountain with its own small lake nestled in the beds of the ice channels that separated the mountains from the ridges above.

31. Moore's Inn at Fish Creek
The first hotel in the upper lake was built here in 1889 by Robert Moore. First catering to prospectors and visitors, it eventually became the mecca for a more exclusive eastern tourist crowd. Locating developments on an alluvial fan can be risky. It may be the only flat ground around the lake, but it is formed by stream deposits coming down the canyon at sometimes terrific speeds. The enormous region-wide flood of 1948 diverted Fish Creek's channels. The stream rushed through the timbers of Moore's Inn, and soon "water and mud was up to the piano keys." The Inn did not open that year. It burned in 1957.

32. Glacier View
Just uplake from Moore's Point, the Stehekin Valley and the head of the lake come into view. From this point, you can see remnants of a few of the many glaciers that carved, created, and decorate the landscape of the North Cascades. In the notch formed by the opposite sides of the valley, one can see three major peaks—Boston, Booker, and Buckner Mountains.

33. Flick Creek
Flick Creek marks the approximate boundary between the Wenatchee National Forest and the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. In 1968 the responsibility for administering some of the public lands in the North Cascades area was transferred from the US Forest Service to the National Park Service.

34. Bridal Veil Falls & Castle Peak
The scenic falls to your left are Bridal Veil Falls, most prominent and spectacular during spring runoff. Looming above the falls is the appropriately named Castle Peak, notable in the autumn for brilliant yellow patches of larch trees. Larch is one of the rare conifers that drops its leaves (needles) in the autumn. It is thought that the larch uses this needle dropping technique as an adaptive strategy to reduce snow-loading in the harsh alpine environment in which the tree survives.

35. Golden West Visitor Center
The Golden West Visitor Center was constructed from lumber salvaged from the Field Hotel when its site was flooded by the Chelan Dam. Operated as a lodge for many years, the Golden West was converted into a Visitor Center in 1972. The National Park Service also provides visitors and hikers with a shuttle bus up the valley road from mid-May through mid-October. Ask at the Visitor Center for details.

36. Stehekin Landing
Twenty-five miles long, the narrow Stehekin River valley drains southeast from Cascade Pass to the head of Lake Chelan. The word "Stehekin" is a loose translation of a Native American word meaning "the way through." Archaeological evidence indicates that prehistoric and historic Indians used the lake, Stehekin valley, and Cascade Pass as a trade route with west side tribes.

In the late 1880's, miners and prospectors came looking for gold, silver, and other precious minerals. They explored and staked claims, and dreamed of wealth. Although some mines were successful and involved extensive operations, few people made their fortunes.

Initially, modest hotels were built along the lakeshore to provide lodging for miners. Even before the interest in mining began to dwindle, tourists began to discover the area. The elegant Field Hotel provided an imposing cultural presence in an otherwise natural environment.

Homesteaders followed miners and innkeepers into the Stehekin Valley. Harry Buckner and his family developed a commercial apple orchard that flourished in the 1920's and 1930's. Today it provides a brief glimpse of what life must have been like in those days.

There has never been road access to the Stehekin Valley. All freight, groceries, and supplies come in by boat or plane; barges bring cars and gasoline for the 25 miles of road within the valley, as well as heavy appliances, building materials, and the like.

The majority of homes in the Stehekin area are privately owned summer cabins. Fewer than 100 people live in the valley year-round. A grade school, the post office, and the boat's arrival provide the focus for social activities in the off-season.

37. Weaver Point
With its comparatively level river delta aspect, Weaver Point was a natural location for settlement by pioneers in the Stehekin Valley. Dan Devore, Stehekin's first commercial horsepacker, built a cabin here in 1889 and the Weaver Brothers operated a taxidermy shop here for many years. The original boat landing and Stehekin Valley road were on this side of the river prior to the raising of the lake level. Daisy Weaver's homestead was immortalized as the setting for the sheep ranch in the 1944 Elizabeth Taylor movie "The Courage of Lassie."

Today, the largest public campground on the upper lake is located at Weaver Point. Boaters should use caution when approaching the campground in the spring as the river delta has many unseen hazards such as sandbars and "dead head" log debris.

38. Field Hotel Site
In 1892, M.E. Field arrived in Stehekin and purchased the small "Argonaut" hotel built by George Hall for the new and booming Stehekin mining district. The hotel was eventually expanded to include 50 rooms and became a well-known resort and landmark. Visitors traveled uplake on the steamboats and stayed for weeks or even months enjoying the peaceful and idyllic atmosphere provided by the Stehekin Valley and the Field family. In 1916 the Great Northern Railroad acquired the hotel and operated it until the railroad's subsidiary company began construction of the Chelan Dam. By 1928, the water was rising behind the dam and the magnificent old hotel had been dismantled.

38. Stehekin River Fishery
Part of the success of the Field Hotel and the resort atmosphere of early Stehekin can be attributed to the legendary fishing found at the mouth of the Stehekin River. Catches of 30 to 40 trout per day were not unusual. Native fish species included the cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden "trout" (actually a char), and the less popular suckers and turbot (also called ling cod).

As early as 1891, overfishing was seen as a potential problem, with predictions that market fishing would soon ruin the fishery. There were other impacts on the fishery as well. Cutthroat spawn was removed for planting elsewhere and very little returned to the lake. Exotic species were introduced, which hybridized and competed with native fish. In addition, the big flood of 1948 destroyed gravel-bottomed spawning grounds in tributary creeks. Though the State Department of Wildlife is now trying to stabilize and enhance the fishery, Lake Chelan is by nature a relatively "unproductive" lake. It is a classic example of an oligotrophic body of water—deep, clean, cold, and nutrient poor. Still, Lake Chelan and its tributaries are popular fishing waters for the avid angler.


park finder
step one
Where are you going?

step one
What do you want to do?

+ More Activities

GEARZILLA: The Gorp Gear Blog

Receive Gear Reviews, Articles & Advice

Preview this newsletter »

Ask Questions