Hike along the shore of America's third-deepest lake, from a drop-off point from the Lady of the Lake excursion boat to the remote Cascade village of Stehekin. Watch for rattlesnakes and bears along the way.
STEHEKIN, Chelan County — OMG: Ice-cold beer in a frosty mug.
A modest pleasure if you’re relaxing at home, but at trail’s end, after a long hike, cold beer is like manna from heaven. And usually a fantasy — in the wilderness, backpackers are thrilled to find water to drink and a flat place to sleep.
But here is an ordinary Sierra Nevada Pale Ale granted miracle status by the 11 miles I just hiked with 35 pounds of food, clothing and shelter strapped to my back.
I’m drinking this miracle while sitting outside the Stehekin Landing Resort — actually more of a motel — in the tiny lakeshore village of Stehekin, terminus of the Chelan Lakeshore Trail. Not exactly wilderness, barely civilization.
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The sun’s disappeared behind the darkening spires across the lake to the west, leaving only an electric-blue evening sky and one solitary, snow-patched mountaintop washed in pink light. Below it, Lake Chelan is a silent, silver mirror.
This is as good as life gets.
A Northwest gem
The Lakeshore Trail is what brought me here. Its 17 flattish miles hug Lake Chelan in one of Washington’s premiere low-elevation, multiday hikes, accessible early in spring when other mountainous areas are still submerged in snow. The lake is 200-some miles from Seattle.
But the Lakeshore Trail isn’t just a trip of convenience. It’s a Northwest gem.
Chelan is dramatically fjordlike, a snaking sliver 55 miles long and about a mile across. Along its northern half, glacier-carved, tree-lined banks rise to 1,000-foot peaks seemingly straight out of the lake. Westward, over their shoulders, peers a second row of spires, taller and sheerer, from the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Their height is reflected in the lake’s depth: At 1,486 feet, Chelan is the third-deepest lake in America, after Tahoe and Crater Lake.
The Lakeshore trailhead at Prince Creek is accessible only via boat, floatplane or foot. I parked and caught the ferry out of Fields Point Landing, midway up Lake Chelan’s western shore. The 20-mile ride to the trailhead aboard Lady of the Lake II was a garrulous hour, with hikers, climbers, tourists and locals trading pleasantries about the weather, 32-year veteran Captain Ken Wilsey rattling off local lore, the 100-foot cruiser’s motor droning like an airplane’s.
Like Wilsey, second mate Andrew Vanwechel, 30, and deckhand Marci Larson, 65, had made the trip uplake more times than they could remember. Both were lifelong fans of Chelan’s scenic allure. Each warned me of rattlesnakes and ticks on the trail.
A couple hearty-looking guys — Tom Sjolseth, 34, and Daniel Jeffrey, 31, both Seattleites — sat at a table inside the boat’s cabin. Climbing gear — ice axes, snow shoes, carabiners — dangled from their packs. They said they were heading out of Stehekin to spend a week in the backcountry of Glacier Peak, exploring new routes up Gunsight Peak and Bannock Mountain.
I asked them why here, why Chelan.
“It’s Washington,” Sjolseth said. “This is the best place on earth. I’ve been to the Himalayas, I’ve been all over the Rockies, I’ve been everywhere pretty much except for Alaska and this for me is the epitome of rugged wilderness.”
Nose-first, the boat nudged onto the rocky beach at Prince Creek. I stepped down the metal gangplank to the shore, followed by a couple from Burien, Blair and Karen DuBois, who immediately hit the trail.
I was left alone as the boat, its mechanical drone and civilization slowly departed. Crickets hummed. Waves slapped in time against the smooth stones at my feet. Prince Creek gurgled its final rush to the lake.
As I walked, the wilderness peaks and the lake itself were my constant companions. The lake took on different jeweled colors at different angles, its surface serene in the morning and evening, rough and white-capped in the afternoon winds. The peaks, too, revealed shifting vistas of pinnacles and steep creeks dropping into waterfalls emptying into the lake.
The trail was well marked and mostly level. Bugs were minimal. Spring and fall are prime hiking seasons along the lake — temperatures in late May were comfortably in the mid-80s during the day and mid-50s at night. They can reach into the hundreds in the summer — something that might appeal to Seattleites still grumbling about the long, cool spring.
Cascade Creek was my first stop, six miles in. The roomy lakeside campsite was all mine — I read in the shade of a cottonwood tree, took a chilly dip in the lake and sun-dried on a wooden dock, catching a light breeze off the lake. Later I cooked and ate dinner at a lakeside picnic table, then slept on the dock underneath a tapestry of stars.
In two days on the trail I spied a brown bear cub, three small rattlesnakes, a mama deer and fawn, and a host of different birds. (No ticks.) Only other people I saw on the trail were the DuBoises. The ferry and a few motorboats cruised the lake, audible well before and after they were visible. Saturday afternoon, a trio of F-18 fighter jets screamed low over the lake. Otherwise, all was solitude, and the solitude was glorious.
Night two was spent at a smaller, forested site in Stehekin, camped within earshot of a marina and a short walk to the resort and its amenities.
Stehekin calls itself “Gateway to the North Cascades.” An easy bike ride a few miles up the paved valley road proved the claim — I saw as many peaks as people. Within a few miles of the landing is a 100-year-old one-room schoolhouse and a 312-foot waterfall you can practically stand underneath.
Stehekin and its environs, in fact, deserve their own trip.
Jonathan Zwickel writes about arts and entertainment for The Seattle Times.