Long before the first American settlers arrived at the long, narrow lake, Chelan (sha-lan) was the site of a Chelan tribal winter village. The Native Americans would range far and wide on their horses in spring and summer, following the newly sprouting grass from the river bottoms into the mountains; in winter they converged in permanent villages to feast, perform sacred rituals, and wait out the cold weather and snow. During the winter of 1879–80, Chelan served briefly as an army post, but the troops were soon transferred to Fort Spokane. European-American settlers arrived in the 1880s.
Today Chelan serves as the favorite beach resort of western Washingtonians. In summer Lake Chelan is one of the hottest places in Washington, with temperatures often soaring above 100°F. The mountains surrounding the 50½-mile-long fjord-like lake rise from a height of about 4,000 feet near Chelan to 8,000 and 9,000 feet near the town of Stehekin, at the head of the lake. There is no road circling the lake, so the only way to see the whole thing is by boat or floatplane or on foot. Several resorts line the lake's eastern (and warmer) shore. Its northwestern end, at Stehekin, just penetrates North Cascades National Park. South of the lake, 9,511-foot Bonanza Peak is the tallest nonvolcanic peak in Washington.