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A six hour plane flight, a three hour car ride, and 2.5 hours on an express boat – that’s what it took to get away from it all in Stehekin, one of the most isolated communities in the North Cascades area of Washington state.
For this summer’s long July 4th weekend, my husband and I decided we wanted to get away from it all for a few days – no e-mails, no cell phones, no WiFi, no TV, no CNN or FOX news. Since I was going to be in the Seattle area, my husband would meet me there, and then we would drive to the North Cascades, a park we had not visited in over twenty years.
Planes, boats and automobiles – getting to Stehekin
The North Cascade National Park Complex is one of the least developed national parks in the lower 48 states of the US. The North Cascades Park Complex is actually made up of three units: North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. The park complex has over 400 miles of hiking trails, over 300 glaciers and boasts over 127 alpine lakes, and with 93% of the land protected as a wilderness, it is not easily accessible. Access by car exists only within the recreation areas, and even that is limited. Otherwise, the rest of the park can only be accessed by hiking and backpacking. For our trip, we chose to visit Stehekin, which is at the extreme northern tip of 55 mile long Lake Chelan, and can be reached by hiking, boat or float plane.
Once I joined up with my husband in Seattle, we drove a little over three hours to the town of Chelan which sits at the southernmost point of Lake Chelan. Initially, our drive through the Cascade Range had the typical northwest scenery we expected – dense evergreen forests with high snow covered peaks in the distance. But eventually, we crossed from the west side of the Cascade Range to the east side and entered into the rain shadow of the peaks that have been called “America’s Alps”. As we approached the town of Chelan, the mountains became hills, the trees and vegetation disappeared almost completely, and the scenery turned from lush green to dry and rocky desert. This was not the scenery we were expecting to enjoy on our long weekend break.
To go the 55 miles up lake from Chelan to Stehekin, we had two choices – hike in or take one of the two Lady of the Lake boat options (the float plane was not available this summer). After spending the night in Chelan, we took the Lady of the Lake Express at 8:30 the next morning, which would get us to Stehekin by about 11. The sister boat, Lady of the Lake II takes a more scenic four hours to do the same trip. I was glad I had made reservations in advance because our boat was full at the beginning of this long holiday weekend.
As we enjoyed our cruise up lake, the scenery slowly changed over the course of the 2.5 hour trip. The houses around Chelan gave way to complete wilderness. The low hills got bigger and the vegetation slowly increased, so that by the time we reached Stehekin, we were seeing the classic northwest evergreens and high peaks we were expecting, though the landscape was still drier than on the western side of the park. With a depth of almost 1500 feet, Lake Chelan is actually the third deepest lake in the US after Crater Lake in Oregon and Lake Tahoe in California, though it is not quite as famous as its two neighbors.
Stehekin – unplugged and disconnected
Most of the passengers on our boat seemed to be day trippers, and would go back to Chelan after a short layover in Stehekin. But some, like us, got off with baggage. I have to admit, as we got off the boat pulling our roller bags behind us, we did feel a little old and out of place. It seemed that everyone around us was carrying large backcountry backpacks and were in their 20’s or 30’s.
We learned from the local ranger that Stehekin is a popular start for many of the backcountry trails that access the undeveloped areas of the Cascades. Apparently, the community used to be visited more by retirees, but in recent years, the demographic changed with a younger, more adventure seeking crowd coming in. Well, we have done our share of backpacking in the past, and these days, we prefer a nice comfortable bed and a shower to a sleeping bag and a tent.
Surprisingly, there were actually quite a few accommodation options to choose from in Stehekin, a community that only has about 90 year round residents. We opted for the North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin because they offered rooms with deck views overlooking the lake. It turned out that the lodge also has the advantage of being right by the marina, so we did not have to go very far lugging our bags on a gravel road.
After a very efficient check in we checked out our room which was one of their kitchen units. The room was well appointed with a king sized bed and a huge deck looking out over the lake – it could not have been any better. Had we wanted to cook meals, the kitchenette had everything we would need.
We grabbed lunch at the lodge restaurant, and then went walking to explore the area. In one direction was the Golden West Visitor Center, the overflow campground and The House that Jack Built – a small shop selling local crafts. In the other direction was the ranger station, post office, a building with showers, laundry and a phone booth (with no cell service, the phone booth is a local necessity), an activities and bike rental office, and the public dock and the campground. That was it – that’s all there was to downtown Stehekin. A couple of miles down the road is also the Stehekin Pastry company which is open only during tourist season from May to October.
The 30 or so households that make up the community are scattered throughout the valley, connected by an 11 mile gravel road. Our lodge only had a small gift shop geared to tourists – there was no grocery store or other convenience store in the community. To grocery shop, residents send a list to Chelan, and then the Lady of the Lake II brings the supplies (talk about planning ahead). Large items have to be barged in. And as for WiFi, you could get access at our lodge gift shop for a fee if you really needed to connect. Until 1988, the local school was a one room log cabin, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places. And while the “new” 30 year old school building is significantly larger, they still only have one teacher and less than a dozen K-8 students. The community has no formal governance other than the school board.
The tourist activity clearly revolved around the arrival and departure of the two Lady of the Lake boats. The distinctive Red Bus shuttles
met the boats to take interested day trippers to the 312 foot Rainbow Falls, or to the Stehekin Pastry Company. These tours were scheduled to bring folks back in time to take the boats back to Chelan. By 2 PM, once all the day trippers had gone, “downtown” Stehekin became blissfully quiet. We sat on our deck, caught up on our reading with a bottle of local wine, and watched the sun go down over the lake and the mountains in the distance. We had definitely succeeded in “getting away”.
Our Version of a Triathlon
Unlike day 1, day 2 in Stehekin was going to be an active one. We rented bikes and caught the 8 AM Red Bus shuttle to the end of the road. The bus has a bike rack on the front and you can get on or off at a number of stops that lead to the various trail heads in the area. We got off at the literal end of the road, 11 miles from our lodge, which is where we planned to start the day with the 2.5 mile hike to Agnes Gorge. The trail was fairly level and easy. The dirt path meandered through the cool woods. We were the only ones on the trail, and the only sounds were those that belonged in a forest. At one point, we went around a sharp bend in the trail, and all of a sudden, the woods opened up, and Agnes Mountain loomed over us, her snowy cap shining in the bright summer sun. Before long, we reached Agnes Gorge with its rushing river and roaring waterfall. Had we planned ahead a little better, this would have been a great spot for a picnic lunch.
Once we enjoyed the view, we hiked the 2.5 miles back to the trail head where we had left our bikes. We planned to bike the 11 miles back to the lodge – fortunately it was downhill most of the way, so there was a lot of coasting and not too much pedaling. If you don’t want to bike, you can catch the Red Bus shuttle back, but you’ll need to keep an eye on the clock because the bus only makes a few scheduled runs a day.
The bike ride along the Stehekin river was very pretty and really not that hard. But even going downhill most of the time, biking 11 miles after just having hiked 5 miles, was tiring, especially for two out of shape “weekend warriors” who hadn’t sat on a bike seat this long in years. It was also hotter than we had anticipated and we had not taken enough water with us. We had not accounted for the drier air on this side of the mountains, the warm weather or our level of exertions, and the two liters of water we had with us went fast. (So much for “with age comes wisdom” – we really should have known better). So by the time we reached the turn off for Rainbow Falls, we were no longer interested in the scenery, and just couldn’t wait to get to the Stehekin Pastry Company for a drink and a snack. Once we got there we each drank about a quart of water, and had the best tasting ice cream cones ever – after all we had just earned them.
Eventually we felt rested and rehydrated, and biking the remaining two miles back to the lodge went quick. We had just completed two legs of a “triathlon” – so why not add a swim to our exercise that day?
Lake Chelan is fed by glacier run off, and even in the height of summer, the water temperature is brisk to say the least. Even though it was quite warm in the sun that day, swimming in 50 degree water was out of the question. But dipping our toes in for a few minutes to cool off was not, which is exactly what we did. So, as I see it – we completed our version of a triathlon and had great fun doing it. The reward was a cool shower and another glass of wine on our deck while we watched the sun set over the lake. It had been a great day.
Unplugged for one last day
Day three in Stehekin started with a very tasty and leisurely breakfast at the lodge restaurant followed by a short hike along the Lakeshore Trail, and some more reading while we waited for the boat. At noon we boarded the Lady of the Lake Express for the return trip to Chelan and the drive back to the Seattle airport where we spent the night before flying home to the east coast.
We probably spent almost as much time getting to and from Stehekin as we did in Stehekin itself. But travel is as much about the journey, as it is about the destination. Having to put in the effort to get to such an out of the way location made the time we had in Stehekin all that much more valuable. I am glad to have had this unique experience and have a huge amount of respect for the hearty homesteaders who make their home there year round. The best part was that we could experience the peace and quiet and beautiful scenery of the North Cascades without having to backpack or hike for miles.
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