Remote village at end of Lake Chelan edges beautiful North Cascades wilderness.
STEHEKIN, Chelan County — After nearly 20 miles of trekking through wilderness, nothing is more appealing than a bakery. Or, as my husband, Bill, said as he sat in the sun outside the Stehekin Pastry Company and contemplated a fluffy slab of coffee cake after two days on the trail: “I’m pretty sure this is heaven on Earth.”
Of course, a bakery always looks good, and you don’t need to suffer through a couple days of campstove fare to delight in a giant pastry. Stehekin, at the far northwestern end of Lake Chelan and not reachable by car, gives you other options for burning off those calories: cycling on a rented bicycle, horseback riding, day hiking or paddling a kayak around the north end of Lake Chelan.
For the uninitiated, Stehekin is a remote cluster of lodging and grandfathered private homes at the far end of 55-mile-long Lake Chelan. It’s also part of the North Cascades National Park Service Complex, so it has rangers, interpretive sites, guided walks and food and lodging for visitors.
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On our first visit, Bill and I met a couple from Wenatchee who had backpacked the 19 or so miles from Highway 20. We realized we had a third option for reaching Stehekin and vowed to try it someday.
Another way in
Last year, we and some backpacking buddies planned a five-day, four-night trip including a night in the North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin. We could sleep in a bed, share a bottle of wine and eat in a restaurant right in the middle of an on-foot journey through wilderness!
But the ravenous fires gobbling up parched vegetation around Lake Chelan closed our route and kept us away. We weren’t the only ones. Although everything in Stehekin itself stayed open, visitation was down about 60 percent in August 2015 compared to the previous year.
It was a scary time for residents and park employees. “It never really burned in the valley, but while it was burning, you could see flames from the porch of the lodge, both in the daytime and at night,” said Denise Shultz, chief of interpretation and education for the park complex, which includes Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, which surrounds Stehekin.
A firebreak stopped the flames a couple ridges down the valley from Stehekin. Beyond that, swaths of blackened trees stand on hillsides like thousands of burnt matchsticks. But bright-green undergrowth is already sprouting up.
Visitor numbers have bounced back, and for good reason: A relatively wet start to the summer means the whole region is staying greener longer this year, and the Stehekin Valley is lush and cool. In July, we finally followed through on our plans from the previous year.
Our route had us coming in from Rainy Pass trailhead on Highway 20 via McAlester Pass and leaving via Bridge Creek (along the Pacific Crest Trail). The hike features rivers (and various types of water crossings along with them), meadows, lakes and primitive open-air pit toilets with fantastic views.
Hundreds of miles of trails crisscross North Cascades National Park, with about 140 campsites along the park’s backpacking trails.
Some trails to Stehekin run roughly parallel to the lake. The “slow boat,” the Lady of the Lake (ladyofthelake.com), can drop hikers off at Prince Creek, about two-thirds of the way up the 55-mile lake. From there, hikers can either hug the lake on the 17-mile Chelan Lakeshore Trail or combine cross-country trails for a more strenuous up-and-down route over the mountains.
Even if you don’t backpack in, day-hike options are enough to keep you busy. Some are short and pleasant, including interpretive trails past homesteader cabins near the lodge. Others scale the steep slopes that rise above the valley and range from three to 16 miles.
Rainbow Loop is one good option, at 4.4 miles one way (if you use Stehekin’s red national-park bus as a shuttle). It goes beyond Rainbow Falls, one of the valley’s most popular attractions, and gives high-up views of the valley below.
However you burn off those calories, be sure to avail yourself of the local cuisine. I’ve learned to lower my expectations at many national parks, but the restaurant at the lodge and the chuckwagon dinner at Stehekin Valley Ranch (a nine-mile shuttle ride up the valley) are almost as impressive as the bakery — and that’s saying something.
One of Shultz’s favorite spots in the valley is the historic Buckner Orchard, which hosts an annual Harvest Fest each October. Meander through at any time of year and muse on what life was like for the valley’s pioneers. Consider pairing your tour with a stop to buy fresh fruit nearby at The Garden, a small farm and one of the secrets behind Stehekin’s unusually tasty grub (stehekingarden.com).
If you go
Backcountry camping in the national park requires a permit. To plan a trip, start here: nps.gov/noca/planyourvisit/wilderness-trip-planner.htm
If you’re hiking in to Stehekin from the north, stop in at the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount to ask about trail conditions and weather forecasts. The center also has bear canisters to lend.
Most of Stehekin’s lodging options are open year-round. Two choices:
• North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin: lodgeatstehekin.com
• Stehekin Valley Ranch: stehekinvalleyranch.com
During high season, it’s a good idea to book well in advance. There are also national-park campgrounds near town.
Like many things in the valley, the Stehekin Pastry Company is open seasonally from mid-May to mid-October: stehekinpastry.com
• Information on all kinds of hikes, including trip reports, is on the Washington Trails Association website: wta.org.
• Be sure to bring detailed hiking maps, especially since there are many trails in the area, signs and junctions may not be obvious, and cellphone coverage is close to nonexistent.