Aerial view of Campbell's Resort in Chelan, Wash. Image courtesy of Campbell's Resort
It’s the perennial vacation dilemma for parents: Should we choose a destination that’s got a lot of stuff for the kids — swimming, waterslides, scoop shops, mini golf? Or can we get away with a grown-up escape this summer: wineries, spa time, sophisticated food? Good news! There is a magical place, just a three-hour drive from Seattle, where you won’t have to choose: Lake Chelan.
The family-delighting array of tourist offerings centered around the lake didn’t develop overnight. Creation of this beloved recreational paradise began a really long time ago, forming gradually over millions of years as a giant glacier carved the lakebed from the Cascade Crest nearly to the Columbia River. Other glaciers moved in and did some additional remodeling. The result is Lake Chelan, a roughly 50-mile-long lake snaking so far east that it ends in a landscape with a high-desert climate, offering the kind of bone-warming 90-degree days that mossy Seattle families crave.
The grown-up attractions are much newer. In 1998, the Kludt family ripped out some unprofitable apple trees and planted wine grapes. That experiment grew into Lake Chelan Winery, which germinated AVA (American Viticultural Area) status for the area in 2009. Hear those corks popping? That’s the sound of new wineries being born, more than 30 and counting. What does that mean for moms and dads who don’t want to spend their vacation imbibing soft drinks by some motel pool? There is an increasingly sophisticated wine industry in Chelan that’s adding its own indulgences to the existing lake resort amenities.
The granddaddy of resorts
For “one-stop shopping,” a smart choice for families is to stay at Campbell’s Resort. The pioneer who started it all in 1901, Clinton Campbell, wouldn’t recognize the place today, with its 170 guest rooms, two swimming pools, a flagship restaurant with an award-winning wine list, a spa and an outcropping of modern buildings hugging more than 1,000 feet of prime lake frontage. He would also be shocked to find rooms going for $300 a night instead of the 50 cents he charged. But what makes that price worth it for today’s families is all that there is to do at Campbell’s, much of it free for guests. There’s a marina — and boating on the lake is big — and water-sports amenities, such as floating swim platforms, are a hit with older kids and teens. If you have little ones, what do you say to dropping them off at the two-hour craft class or a fishing lesson while you slip away to the spa?
I can vouch for the Bellamia Spa just a couple of blocks from Campbell’s. It’s part of a small chain that focuses on therapeutic massage with results that last longer than an aromatherapy candle. “Relaxation is wonderful,” masseur Garrett Maxwell said while kneading deeply into my sore upper back. “I also like to fix things.” When the hour-long massage was over, my “computer hunchback” did feel better!
If you have adrenaline junkies in your clan, the town of Chelan has them covered. Slidewaters is a 7-acre waterpark offering everything from fast tubes to a lazy floating river. A few years ago, Slidewaters added what it claims to be the world's largest stationary waves. Waves reach as high as six feet and can be surfed with standard-size ocean boards. Slidewaters is typically open from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Back on the lake, you may spy people dangling under rainbow-colored parasails high in the air. You might jump to the conclusion that a high-flying sport like parasailing would be for grown-ups only, but even little children can sail above Lake Chelan as long as they are accompanied by an adult. “Kids love it,” says mom Claudia Shipman, who took her 5-year-old daughter parasailing. “As soon as it was over, she wanted to go back again! It’s not at all scary!” Chelan Parasail & Watersports also rents boats (party boats and pontoons and sport boats, oh my!), Jet Skis and other lake-ready gear.
Is parasailing too tame? For adult adventurers, there’s also skydiving. Skydive Chelan has something called a Tandem Winery Skydive: You jump out of a plane with the instructor, freefall, then parachute onto a grassy field in a vineyard. Which is convenient, because after that, you will need a drink.
We wanted to stay in a vineyard, so we booked the guest house at Nefarious Cellars. Located about three miles west of town, it is surrounded by gorgeous vineyards. The first and last thing you will remember about this place is the view: Soaring windows frame a vision of vines spilling down the hill to the lake and then up to 7,000-foot Cascade peaks. The two-bedroom house, modern and stylish, is attached to what we concluded is the best tasting room in Chelan.
Nefarious is a play on the last name “Neff.” Heather and Dean Neff are the winemakers and owners; she makes the whites, and he makes the reds. Don’t miss the elegant Defiance Vineyard Syrah, which is grown on the vines you’ll gaze upon while luxuriating, glass in hand, in an Adirondack chair on the patio. Hey, where did the kids go? Whew! There they are, over on the play equipment.
Adjacent to Nefarious is another winery, which folks around town recommended as having some of the best wine in the Lake Chelan AVA. It’s called Fielding Hills Winery. And yes, the wine is wonderful, and the tasting room is beautiful, with its circular bar and stunning views of green vines, a purple haze of lavender and brown hills. You can bring a picnic to eat outside. Kids are welcome here, inside or out (something we found to be true about all of the Chelan wineries). The bottle you’ll want to take home is the estate “Tribute”; it has something mysterious in its flavor profile — tea or maybe crushed roses?
Hang a left on Lakeshore Road, and in about a mile, turn left into Karma Vineyards. A few things set this place apart. It makes sparkling wine, and it has fancy snacks, too. Tastings happen on a patio that abuts a koi pond, sure to captivate the littles.
Every family’s food mood and craving can be satisfied in Chelan. Local Myth Pizza has earned its name: The pesto chicken pie nearly levitated off its thin crust, it was so loaded with roasted garlic! The chicken fried steak at the Apple Cup Cafe was not greasy — a miracle given that it was blanketed in delicious milk gravy.
For a day filled with treats, take a short road trip north of the town of Chelan through a lovely countryside quilt of orchards, hills and little lakes. A key attraction around here is Blueberry Hills, a 20-acre U-pick berry farm and down-home country restaurant, located in nearby Manson. The day we visited, fifth-generation orchardist and owner “Blueberry Kari” Sorensen was designing the summer’s T-shirt: It featured the image of a screaming woman on the front, and on the back, it reads “Line Survivor.” Yes, you’ll have to wait in line to get into the restaurant during high season, but that’s also the only time to see this place in full swing and in all of its glory: giddy city kids picking fat, juicy berries; members of a motorcycle club kicking back on the deck; and dogs munching on the free marrow bones Blueberry Hills offers to all of its canine visitors.
If you hit Blueberry Hills for breakfast (and you really must make a point of it), after eating, pick berries and then play at one of the little lakes nearby. You’ll be hungry again for another summer tradition on the way back into town: the “BBQ in the Vineyard” at Lake Chelan Winery. While grown-ups swoon over perfect Pinot Gris, Cajun-style prawns and fall-off-the-bone pork ribs, kids run wild on the wide-open lawn as they play with Hula-Hoops — once again, demonstrating how the Lake Chelan area is a perfect vacation spot for all ages.
If you go...
Find it: The town of Chelan is a beautiful three-hour drive from Seattle via I-90 east over Snoqualmie and Blewett Passes, or over Stevens Pass on Highway 2. It's about 40 miles north of the city of Wenatchee, off U.S. Route 97.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2019 and has been updated for 2022.