You can’t reach Stehekin by car. The tiny town occupies a small flat at the head of Lake Chelan – a long, fjord-like body of water that winds deep into the rugged heart of the North Cascades Mountains in the state of Washington – and the only way in is by boat, float plane, or muscle power. It’s the water gateway to North Cascades National Park, a regular reprovisioning stop on the Pacific Crest Trail, and about as close to an Alaskan wilderness outpost as you can find in the Lower 48.
Melody and I arrived in the little city of Chelan, Washington, at the eastern end of the lake, toward the close of a gray July day in 2016. We checked into Mom’s Montlake Motel, at the east end of town – a lovely little holdover from the 1940s, in a quiet neighborhood a block off the main drag – and wandered down to the waterfront. The vast, choppy surface of the lake stretched beneath roiling clouds toward a distant blue wall of mountains, nearly ten miles away. The lake appeared to end there, but we knew better: though it is rarely more than a mile or two wide, Lake Chelan is more than fifty miles long. It would take us four hours on the Lady of the Lake passenger ferry to reach Stehekin the next day.
It was a delightful four hours. The 100-foot-long, double-decker Lady can carry up to 285 passengers, but the clouds, which were still present in the morning, seemed to have dissuaded many; the boat felt uncrowded. We moved sedately up the lake at a leisurely 15 miles per hour. Shoreline scenery scrolled gradually past – farms, vinyards, and the occasional housing development for the first twenty miles or so, then increasingly steep cliffs and crag-topped mountainsides for the remainder of the journey. Isolated cabins appeared, tucked into small flat spots at the mouths of creeks; the boat occasionally stopped at these to deliver mail or passengers. Glaciers came into view beyond the head of the lake. Eventually we pulled up to the dock at Stehekin, right across the street from the rustic North Cascades Lodge (“street” is a relative term here, but a few cars have been barged in, and there is a bus line, the Red Bus, that transports visitors from the dock to the national park, 11 miles up the Stehekin River). Our reserved room was waiting for us, with two white swans, folded in origami fashion from bath towels, adorning the bed.
The pictures below will tell most of the rest of the story. After checking in (we’d had lunch already, in the Lady’s snack bar), we grabbed a Red Bus and got off three miles up the road, at 312-foot Rainbow Falls. We walked back, visiting the old Stehekin Schoolhouse on the way, and making the de rigeur (for tourists) stop for cinnamon rolls at the Stehekin Pastry Company. A gentle rain blew in, providing a nice, low-key view of the Stehekin River’s delta; a bright yellow float plane landed on the lake as we watched. Evening was romantically misty, fading to a sable sky decorated by a nearly full moon and about a billion stars.
The rising sun seemed to be setting the mountains around the head of the lake on fire when we awoke the next morning. We slipped into the lodge for breakfast when the display seemed over and came out an hour later to a skyful of small cotton-candy clouds reflected perfectly from the mirror-still surface of the lake. A long morning allowed us a chance to walk the Lakeshore Trail to Fourmile Creek and back – and a close-up and personal encounter with an osprey on its nest – before hopping on the Lady Express, a smaller, faster version of the Lady of the Lake, for the 50-mile ride back to Chelan and Mom’s Montrose Motel.