Stehekin: Washington’s Perfect Carfree Vacation

May 6th, 2010

Lake Chelan Looking Toward Stehekin, Winter

One thing I’m keen to do in this blog is diversify people’s perceptions of the car-free life.  It isn’t just for faux-European types living the bi-coastal liberal dream, or for crunchy urbanites who have forsaken our rural, pastoral, or forested landscapes in favor of the concrete and steel of the city.  If my goal of evangelizing this lifestyle is to succeed, I’ve got to transcend the reductive and the sanctimonious.  Too many people, usually well-meaning but silly environmentalists, have made such lifestyle asceticism into a deflating postmodern virtue, telling us to just take the proverbial medicine (the spoonful of sugar be damned).

Rather, I want to convince people that the carfree life liberates our pocketbooks, deepens our experiences, heightens the senses, improves our health, and is just plain fun.  Earlier I focused on rural transit in Washington State, trying to show that carfree rural travel, while sometimes difficult, is quite possible.  But what about having fun?  Feeling radically free?

Thus I’ve decided to do a series of occasional posts about carfree excursions and vacations, usually drawing from my own travels.  Today’s post is from perhaps my favorite locale on earth:  the tiny hamlet of Stehekin, Washington.

Glacier Peak from the summit of Mt. McGregor, by Zach Shaner

Stehekin is the most remote community in Washington State, a small village made all the more diminutive by the massive scale that surrounds it.  Part of the North Cascades National Park complex, the populace is evenly split between Park Service employees and 60 or so hardy locals who live there year-round.  Tucked between glaciated 9,000′ peaks, fjord-like Lake Chelan, and the low valley of the Stehekin River, Stehekin is a stunning study in environmental contrast.  If you’re standing on the valley floor, amidst dry Lodgepole Pine parklands, the scents of Eastern Washington prevail.  Adjacent to the river, cottonwoods and maples add lime-green accents to the sea of evergreen. Walk for 30 minutes up the flank of any of the adjacent mountains, and the pines fade to Douglas Firs and moisture slowly returns to the nose.  Continue upward to 4,000 feet and the needle-like steeples of Subalpine Fir appear, anchoring carpets of short-lived wildflowers and the the glaciated remnants of the last Ice Age.   In short, it’s paradise.

Zach and Sarah on the Stehekin River at Harlequin Bridge

My wife Sarah and I lived in Stehekin for 5 short months in 2008, and it was an unforgettable and sublime experience.  Since Stehekin is 12 gorgeous hiking miles from the nearest road, the only access for most people is the Lady of the Lake ferry, a two-to-four hour daily cruise up Lake Chelan. Every day in summer (and thrice a week in winter) the ferry delivers the mail, brings groceries and critical supplies, and brings scores of fannypacked and awe-struck tourists.  Arriving at the ferry dock, you are greeted by the dedicated staff of the Stehekin Landing Resort, offered the requisite cheeseburger, and shuttled up the valley for a quick tour of 312’ Rainbow Falls.  Most people mistakenly stay just a couple hours, experiencing only the hustle and bustle of the ferry sailings.  But if you go, do stay overnight.  The real uniqueness of this place arrives at sunset, when the silence is beautifully deafening and the sunset behind Mt. McGregor bathes the sky in tangerine and velvet.  On precious wind-free days, a solo kayak across the lake allows you to hear nothing but your paddle strokes and your panting breath.  In early autumn, as the apples ripen and the community takes to the cider presses, the river turns blood red with the arrival of hundreds of sex-crazed Kokanee Salmon keen to just get-it-on-and-die.  Black bears are always just a step off the trail, while silent cougars watch you vigilantly but don’t allow you to return the favor.

Lost Bear Cub in Winter, by Heidi Bozard

Stehekin is also an interesting place to experience the strange legacy of land-use management in the West.  Never have I seen a place in which two groups so mutually interdependent are so hostile towards each other.  The Park protects the land and offers locals a monopoly of business opportunity, while without the locals Stehekin would just be woods, a wilderness paradise to be sure but one incapable of being experienced by the general population.  Locals are resourceful and incredibly entrepreneurial, offering not only top-notch restaurant meals, but also a full-service bakery, a ranch, cabins, horseback rides, rafting, kayaking, etc… and that’s just one family. Locals are generally outspoken, fierce libertarians under the unfortunate tea-party illusion that they are self-made men who don’t need anything from their government.  But they’re just so incredibly good at what they do, and they clearly love doing it.  They really make Stehekin what it is.  For its part, the Park Service offers quality interpretive services, operates a visitor center and a 10-mile shuttle up and down the valley, and provides limited law enforcement, while bringing the inevitable trappings of stale bureaucracy along for the ride.  They occasionally thumb their elitist nose at the locals, making critical land-use decisions from offices in Oakland and evincing clear condescension towards a local population that top Park administrators sadly view as nuisances.  (Park employees that actually live in Stehekin are wonderful.)  The two camps need each other and benefit each other, but you’d never know it from their banter.

Rainbow Falls in June

Empire Builder through the Mountains

So how to get there car-free?  Here’s a 5-day, 4-night sample itinerary…

Seattle to Stehekin by Train, Bus, and Ferry

Along the Sound, Across the Mountains, Up the Valley, Up the Lake…

Day 1

Depart Seattle’s King Street Station at 4:40 pm.  Amtrak’s Empire Builder will take you along the Seattle waterfront and the gorgeous shore of Puget Sound, and at Everett the train will turn east to cross the Cascades.  You’ll travel through the old railroad town of Skykomish, through the northern fringe of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, underneath Stevens Pass in an 8-mile tunnel, and then finally into the Bavarian town of Leavenworth before descending into the dry Columbia River Valley and into Wenatchee.  Arrive at downtown Wenatchee’s Columbia Station at 8:42pm.  Walk to the hotel of your choice.

Emerald Pool (Boulder Creek Waterfall) on a Hot 102° August Day

Days 2 and 3

Walk back to the Wenatchee Amtrak station and catch Link Transit’s bus route #21C at 6:30am. (or 7:15am on Saturdays, no Sunday service). For a low fare of just $2, the bus will take you 39 miles along the Columbia River and into the town of Chelan.  Tell the driver you need to get off at the Lady of the Lake ferry dock.

Once at the ferry dock, you can take the slow boat (4 hours, $39 round-trip) or the express boat (2.5 hours, $59 round-trip).  From June to September, both boats depart Chelan at 8:30am.  (In May the express boat only runs on weekends). The 55-mile ferry begins in the dry low hills and orchards of southern Lake Chelan, and along the cruise the trees slowly begin to colonize the hillsides until you arrive in Stehekin flanked by forests and glaciers.  Arriving at “the Landing” in Stehekin, check into your room ($100-$200) or set up your campsite (free!), and get ready to play. Have lunch either at The Landing (burgers and fries, etc..) or the fantastic Pastry Company (a scenic 1.5-mile walk, bike ride, hitchhike, or shuttle trip).  Now just play for two days.  With the rest of Day 2 you can kayak, walk the Lakeshore Trail or the Rainbow Loop, visit the Buckner Apple Orchard, visit Rainbow Falls, and have a fine steak dinner at The Landing or the Stehekin Valley Ranch.

With Day 3 you can be more adventurous.  Take the first shuttle of the morning, grab a cinnamon roll and coffee when it stops at the bakery, and ride to the current end of the road at High Bridge.  Walk the 5-mile roundtrip along the north ridge of spectacular Agnes Gorge or pick huckleberries along the trail to the unfortunately-named Coon Lake.  Check in at the Ranch about rafting the river, a breathless experience when the river runs high in late Spring.  Adequately sore and tired, come back to the Landing and watch the sunset with a couple glasses of wine.  If it’s a summer weekend, you might even get some live music from the local makeshift cover band.

Marmots Love Attention, by Zach Shaner

Day 4

Sleep in late, grab a breakfast omelette, people-watch, and wait for the arrival of the ferry.  Take either boat back down to Chelan, catch Link #21 back to Wenatchee, and check into a hotel.

Sarah in the Alpine Meadows at Cloudy Pass

Day 5

Catch Amtrak’s Empire Builder back to Seattle.  Depart Wenatchee bright and early at 5:35am, ride back to the mossy side of the mountains, and arrive back in the Emerald City just after 10:00am.

In 4 days and 4 nights, you will have crossed the Cascades 4 times, with any luck seen a couple of bears, and had an experience you’ll be telling everyone about for years.  No car required!

*Optional Change for the Adventurous:  If you’re feeling fit or have someone with a car willing to pick you up, on Day 5 you can hike out of Stehekin.  From the shuttle stop at High Bridge, it’s a 6-hour, scenic 12-mile hike to the North Cascades Highway at Rainy Pass.  Surprisingly, you’ll get back to Seattle more quickly than taking the ferry/train combo, and you can forego the second night in Wenatchee.

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