Chelan Butte rises a couple of thousand feet above the city of Chelan on southwestern edge of Lake Chelan. It is easy to understand why there was once a fire tower on the top, as the summit provides sweeping views of Lake Chelan, the Columbia River and the surrounding mountains. Chelan Butte is a popular hiking destination in the warmer months, and makes a great winter outing as well, both for snowshoeing and ski touring.
In the winter, one can start from the Chelan Butte trailhead and follow in the general direction of the summer trail, however you may find snow coverage lacking down towards the lake. Often, a more preferable option is to drive up Chelan Butte road, gaining close to 700 feet of additional elevation in about a mile, and park in a small turnaround near where the plowed road ends. From here, you can follow Chelan Butte road all the way up to the summit or opt to venture off the road once it starts switchbacking. If you are on skis, you can scope your descent on the way up, as there are a couple of nice ridges that will deposit you back down on the road.
It was a nice sunny afternoon and a perfect chance to explore a new area around Chelan. The previous summer, I hiked up Elephant Head but had yet to explore Chelan Butte proper. While driving into Chelan for errands over the previous month and a half, I eyed Chelan Butte for a ski, but wasn't confident the snow pack would hold up down by the lake and my excursions around the area had been focused on higher elevations.
I heard that Chelan Butte road was plowed part way up and there was a turnaround for parking. The extra elevation and ability to skin along the road made me confident snowpack wouldn't be an issue - at least when compared to what I had been skiing in the area. Sure enough, there was a decent amount of snow on the ground, and the road was well covered. I looked like some sort of snowcat or groomer had been up the trail, but maybe it was compact with tracks from numerous snowmobiles.
The first mile or so of the road was straight, with a small amount of elevation gain, after which point, the road began a steady climb up the mountain. It was nice easy skinning, and at the first switchback I encountered, I decided to keep skinning up the road rather than taking a more direct approach up the drainage or nearby ridge. Off the road, the slopes were on the steeper side, at least for skinning, and given the firmness of the snow, I felt the road would be much easier and wouldn't take much additional time.
As I made my way up the road, I was treated to nice views of Lake Chelan, which only got better the higher I progressed. Once the road reached the ridge, I was able to catch glimpses of the Columbia River as well. I made a mental note to come back here and check out the ski down the Columbia River - The slope descends straight down to the river and could make for a scenic ski, although its southern facing and snow coverage may be an issue farther down the slope. Another ski to check out in the Chelan Valley, although I think I may have missed the window for this year.
I caught a glimpse of something moving up on the ridge farther ahead, and I concluded it must have been a coyote. It was far away and I couldn't tell for sure, but it was either a dog or coyote. I didn't see any indication that someone was up here with a dog, and it seemed unlikely a dog would venture this far up on its own, so I'm going with a coyote.
I reached the final switchback and noticed the sun was getting close to dipping behind Chelan Butte. I would still have plenty of daylight available, but for some reason, I was really hoping to ski down with the sun at my back, rather than in the late afternoon shade. I picked up the pace, and was out of breath when I neared the top, and decided to transition for the ski down.
While skinning up, I had thought about skiing down a ridge near the road. But the ridge would have required a bit of a traverse to get to, and there was a nice open slope below me that was begging to be skied. I dropped in, and the skiing was great. The snow was firm, but edgeable and smooth and there was a nice consistent pitch. Eventually I made my way into some trees, and the snow became uneven, with evidence of tree bombs on the slope.
While continuing to ski down into the drainage, I tried to work my way back over to the ridge. Eventually I decided to traverse over through a stand of trees, and skied down the ridge. The snow wasn't as smooth on this section, but it was still fairly open and a fun ski.
Towards the bottom of the ridge, I had to figure out the best place to get back onto the road. The embankment directly above the road was either fairly steep or was covered in bushes. Eventually I found a spot that looked ok, and navigated through a hundred feet or so of bushes to get back on the road. The snow was still firm on the road, which made it a quick out to the car as I was able to ski almost the entire way back.
This is definitely a ski tour I will be doing again, as it's close by and can be done in a short amount of time. The skiing off the top was great and the views of the lake only help. I don't know that I chose the best line down, but I'm sure I will have more chances to explore the area and narrow in on the best descent.