Unique Lake & Waterway Tours

Photo © Waterton Shoreline Cruise Company

by Susie Wall

Lady of the Lake II & Lady Express
Lake Chelan, Washington

Where other boats listed here are for pure pleasure, the Lady of the Lake ferry is the workhorse shuttling forest service workers deep into the woods and transporting residents of the tiny enclave of Stehekin, Washington, back home. But all passengers on the Lady are granted a marvelous tour into the mysterious Cascade Mountains that surround the third deepest lake in the United States.

Prepare for a full day’s ride as you catch the boat in Chelan, Washington. Ninety minutes after leaving the sage brush hills dotted with wineries and stunning homes the road abruptly ends, and the lake is the main thoroughfare. Four hours into the ride you dock at Stehekin, deep in the evergreen cliffs of North Cascades National Park. Disembark here for a 90-minute exploration of town or stay overnight at one of the few lodging options.

During your layover you can take a short hike, hop on the Rainbow Falls bus tour or dive into a dish of ice cream and watch the assorted group of residents, Pacific Crest Trail hikers and tourists go about their day. The ride back to Chelan is the perfect time to chat with your fellow passengers and follow along with the captain as he points out old prospecting sites and ancient glacial carvings off in the distance.

A popular cruise option is one way on the slower Lady of the Lake II and the return on the faster Lady Express.

Schedule: Year round. Round trip cruise duration: a full day.  Adult tickets: $40.50 – $61.00 round trip. ladyofthelake.com, lakechelan.com

The Far West
Flathead Lake, Montana

It is said The Far West is the largest boat in Montana, but a cruise on this 65-foot ship will make you feel it was personally chartered just for you as you cruise Flathead Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Great Lakes. The beauty of these waters and the soaring Mission Mountains will astonish you.

The cruise starts in Lakeside, Montana, and travels down to Somers Bay where eerie remains of train tracks come to an abrupt end offshore, a remnant of the once thriving logging industry powered by the mighty Flathead River. Along the way, Captain Art offers historical facts and current happenings about both the boat and the lake while First Mate Bob strolls around the decks chatting up the passengers.

Tourism is the big draw today on Flathead Lake, evident by the sleek sailboats and buzzing jet skis that cruise past. Chances are slim that you’ll see Flessie, the elusive Flathead Lake monster, but keep an eye out for the just as elusive celebrity property owners inhabiting the fabulous mansions that dot the mountainsides.

Schedule: Mid-June – early September. Cruise duration: 2 hours. Adult tickets: $22.00. flatheadlakeboattour.com, glaciermt.com

M.V. International
Upper Waterton Lake, Alberta & Montana

Get in the front of the line to secure a spot on the top deck of the historic M.V. International. Here you are guaranteed a premium view of Upper Waterton Lake and the spectacular Canadian Rockies that jut from shore. As a voyager on this 165-passenger vessel sailing since 1927, you will begin your journey in Canada and one hour later find yourself in the United States when the ship crosses the boundary.

Embark at Waterton Village, Alberta, an intimate and welcoming hamlet nestled in the corner of Waterton Lakes National Park just across the Montana border. The ship slowly cruises through the heart of the lake and your eyes will be drawn to the rocks to look for bears and bighorn sheep. Both the captain and crew are locals who share their intimate knowledge of the area’s zoological and geographical wonders with some good-natured ribbing between them thrown in for laughs.

Aside from the stunning views, another treat of this cruise is the 30-minute layover at Goat Haunt, Montana, where you can wander the quiet, forested beach, check out the small visitor center, hike back to Waterton or continue into Glacier National Park. If you do decide to hike across the border, remember to pack your passport as custom officials are waiting at the trailhead.

Schedule: Daily from May to mid-October. Stops at Goat Haunt are only made June through September. Cruise duration: two hours. Adult tickets: $47.00 Canadian.watertoncruise.com, mywaterton.ca

Coeur d’Alene
St. Joe River

At the far end of Lake Coeur d’Alene lies the entrance to the St. Joe River, the highest navigable river in the world. A geographical wonder, the unassuming St. Joe is actually a tributary of the enormous lake. Visit this amazing river in style by buying a ticket with Lake Coeur d’Alene Cruises.

Your ride will begin in town at Independence Point under an impossibly blue Idaho sky. The trip across the lake is long but time is spent viewing local birdlife, watching water-skiers slice up the lake and feasting on a buffet of fried chicken, potato salad and watermelon while building your own Bloody Mary.

Eventually you leave the bustle of the lake and both the boat and your mind slow down as you enter the quiet St. Joe. In these waters, kayakers paddle the calm current and rafts of coots glide pass as the river narrows. You begin to wonder how the boat will ever turn around, but sadly that moment will come and the captain will spin back toward the dock.

Schedule: Sundays June – October. Cruise duration: six hours. Adult tickets: $53.75. cdacruises.com, coeurdalene.org
Hells Canyon Adventures

Jet Boat
Hells Canyon, Oregon-Idaho

To board the thrilling Hells Canyon Adventures cruise, head to Hells Canyon Dam, a 2 -hour drive from Baker City, Oregon, on the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway. Here the Snake River divides Idaho and Oregon. Arrive by 9:30 a.m. to board the jet boat, and be sure to wear water-resistant clothing (you’ll regret wearing jeans), bring a waterproof camera bag, and be prepared for a ride on one of the wildest, remotest and most scenic rivers in America. You will get wet, which is part of the fun.

It’s common to spot bighorn sheep and other wildlife on the shores and canyon walls. If you make reservations for the Kirkwood Adventure, your boat will stop at the remote Kirkwood Living Historical Ranch, where you will be served lunch and have an opportunity to explore the original ranch buildings, most preserved as museums.

Skilled captains deftly navigate over white water rapids and around rocks, while passengers hold on and enjoy the ride. This wild river cruise is suitable for beginners and even children, five and older.

Schedule: May – September. Cruise duration: five hours (Kirkwood Adventure). Adult tickets: $177.00 (includes lunch). adventurecentral.com, eova.com

Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler
Cascade Locks, Oregon

Stepping onto the sternwheeler is like stepping back in time. This 147-foot triple-deck paddle wheeler is powered solely by the bright red paddle protruding from its stern. You will find it hard to take your eyes away from the mesmerizing turn of the great wheel as it churns up the currents of the bitterly cold river.

An engineering wonder, the boat is made to ride in only five feet of water, giving it the ability to dodge the obstacles lurking just below the surface. The captain’s narration will educate you on the history of the boat and the surrounding Columbia River Gorge.

Catch the sternwheeler at Marine Park in Cascade Locks, Oregon. The ‘Gorge’ous Excursion Cruise treats you to impressive views of the cloud-draped Cascade Mountains and multi-colored kite surfers racing at impossible speeds. Buy a drink and a snack at the full bar on board before departing, then find a chair along the outer decks. View herons and osprey, float below the Bridge of the Gods and watch Native American salmon fisherman reel in their monster catch from rickety docks jutting out from shore.

The captain will turn back toward the dock just before the Bonneville Dam while explaining the intricate lock system.

Schedule: May – October. Cruise duration: two to five hours, depending on the cruise you select. Adult tickets: $23.00 – $88.00. portlandspirit.com, cascadelocks.net

Argosy Cruises
Seattle, Washington

Focusing on the waters of Seattle and environs, Argosy Cruises offers several options for sightseeing, whether it’s a harbor cruise around Elliott Bay, a cross-sound cruise to Tillicum Village for a salmon feast, a Lake Union cruise in the throbbing heart of the city or a Lake Washington Cruise.

Passengers opting for the latter will depart from Kirkland and sail on this narrated cruise along the tony Lake Washington shoreline with views of Seattle, Bellevue and several small enclaves hugging the shore. Bring binoculars—on this cruise, voyeurism is permitted. All heads turn toward shore as the homes of Bill Gates and other Seattle personalities and business moguls sprawl along the waterfront.

Schedule: May 20 – September 5. Cruise duration: 1.5 hours. Adult tickets: $31.00. argosycruises.com, visitseattle.org