Seattle's secret is out: Lake Chelan, Washington

If you live in Seattle or Spokane, Lake Chelan is your summer go-to spot. Best of all, few Californians know of it. But that's about to change.

Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times

Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times (m3d62qpd20120516162133/600 )

CHELAN, Wash. — Just say the words "summer at the lake" in certain company, and you'll get a wistful smile, possibly followed by stories about fishing contests, belly-flops, mosquito bites, campfire songs, sexual awakening, lingering regret, family feuds, winterizing expenses and the prospect that the mortgage interest tax deductions for second homes might someday be disallowed.

Now, say "summer at the lake" to a room full of Seattleites, and talk will likely turn to Lake Chelan.

Lake Chelan, about 50 miles long and 11/2 miles wide at its broadest, begins about 50 miles south of the Canadian border, roughly midway between Seattle and Spokane. It meanders among the green slopes of the Cascades and stops at the modest resort town of Chelan, about 175 miles east of Seattle. It's perfectly placed for Seattle weekend people, a spot unknown among Californians.

The population is about 3,900. Across the lake you see 7,000-foot mountains. A few miles north of town, you find the lakeside village of Manson (tough break, that name) and just beyond it, a trio of tiny neighbor lakes. At the far end of the lake is the settlement of Stehekin, its lodge, cabins, waterfall and pastry shop accessible only by passenger ferry, private boat, float plane and hiking trail.

Meanwhile, in the hills around Chelan, that gurgling sound you hear is that of wineries proliferating.

In other words, it's a place worth knowing. On the way from Seattle to British Columbia last summer, my family and I spent three days in Chelan, and we started by checking in at the most obvious place.

Campbell's Resort has 1,200 feet of lake frontage, two pools, a spa, a marina and a fire pit that's usually surrounded well before the sun goes down. It's not only the biggest resort in Chelan proper (170 guest rooms in five buildings on eight acres), but also the oldest, going back to 1901.

There have been many upgrades, expansions and a couple of fires, so the resort's history isn't obvious. Also, its rates are regrettably up to date: $245 to $330 a night in summer. But it's comfortable, and there's no better location on the lake.

In fact, the first view of the lake from our balcony half-paralyzed us, it was so idyllic. Little kids splashed in the shallows and crafted sand castles on the beach. Teens lay siege to the floating diving platforms. And a circle of moms gathered to sip adult refreshments while the water lapped at their knees. (They were back the next night too.)

In part because the resort is at the shallow end of the lake, the water is warm — often 78 degrees in August. We swam and drifted on floating toys, did cannonballs off the floating platforms and then retreated to the balcony to play cards, eat cherries (just harvested) and watch an arriving float plane, brilliant orange, as it gently eased onto the blue water.

There's no telling what the lake will inspire you to do. About a month after our visit, 28-year-old Montana attorney Emily von Jentzen waded into the Stehekin end of the lake and started swimming south. Nearly 36 hours later, Von Jentzen reached shore at Chelan, having swum about 50 miles in windy, choppy conditions.

Her swim raised money for a Montana girl fighting cancer and apparently made her the first person to swim the length of Lake Chelan. "I feel like I got hit by a truck," Von Jentzen told the Wenatchee World. "There's a reason why no one has been able to do this."

In December, Washington Post columnist George Will found his own way to wade in. Having learned that the lone ferry company between Chelan and Stehekin is protected from competitors by state law, Will denounced the situation as an assault on economic liberty. (Will was inspired by two Stehekin businessmen who sued the state in a bid to start a rival ferry service. But on April 17, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed their suit.)

We weren't looking to set records or legal precedent. But we did need sunglasses and beach toys.

So we started by nipping across the street to the Variety Store, a local fixture since the '70s at 230 W. Manson Highway. Later, at the Chelan Evening Farmers Market by Riverview Park (every Thursday in summer), we browsed produce from Sunshine Farm and got an up-close introduction to a live barn owl, which some local animal-welfare folks were displaying.

We strolled the main drag, Woodin Avenue, dwindles quickly into rural highway.

We also found our way to the Lake View Drive In, a throwback burger joint overlooking Campbell's and neighboring Don Morse Park. You sit at the outdoor picnic tables with your burgers, fries and milkshake, and it could be 1957, except for all the texting teenagers around you.

These amenities, alongside that beckoning lake, would have been enough to sustain three or four days of swim-read-eat-nap-repeat. But we did widen our circle a little.

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