A North Cascades Oasis
I’ve been coming to the town of Stehekin off and on for a few years now and it has earned its place on my “I’d Move There in a Heartbeat if I Could” list. Only reachable by boat, plane or on foot, it attracts both adventure – seekers and those looking to escape from the modern grind equally. Located at Lake Chelan’s headwaters, it has often been a jumping off point for modern travelers looking to get from Washington State’s interior into the beautiful North Cascade Mountain Range. In fact, the name “Stehekin” is based on a Salishan word meaning “the way through” and was once part of a main route used by many native americans in the area to access other tribes on the Pacific side of the North Cascades. Those who have managed to find a way to hang their hat here more recently are an interesting offshoot of the human population. Especially in our age of needing to be constantly stimulated and “plugged in”. Happy to be independent and carrying on the pioneering spirit that once thrived in the area. Happy to be surrounded by a largely untamed wilderness. And happy to be a part of something so unique and isolated from the madness of the outside world. It’s this population, their genuine friendliness, and their appreciation for the natural world that has led me to love this town with surprising depth.
On this trip in particular I decided to take the ferry from the town of Chelan up lake the full 51 miles to get me to Stehekin in a much quicker fashion (3 hours) than the usual 17 mile hike from Prince Creek. (The hike in from Prince Creek still requires a ferry trip from Chelan. Only much shorter. Allowing you to spend a day or two hiking the Lakeshore Trail on your way into town. This trail is extremely popular and sees a large amount of traffic. Go during the spring or late fall for the best conditions.) Taking the ferry the full length of the lake this time allowed me to bring my mountain bike along. There is a bicycle rental service in town if you’d rather leave your wheels at home. However, the maintenance on the fleet is questionable and if you go early or late in the season there may not be anyone working the rental stand at all. So if you’re in doubt, take your own wheels. From the ferry landing there are approximately 22-25 miles of road up the Stehekin Valley. 4 are paved. From that road there are a number of trailheads and points of interest to explore, which I strongly recommend. If you plan on making base camp somewhere in town like I did you have two options; Purple Point campground right at the end of town or Harlequin campground about 4-ish miles up the road. Both are good but I prefer Purple for its easy access to the lake and its absolutely insane views of the “B’s” (Boston Peak (8,894 ft), Buckner Mountain (9,112 ft) and Booker Mountain (8,220 ft)). Three mountain peaks at the far north end of the lake that sit together like a stoic stoney gate into some of the most breathtaking country on this planet.
If you’ve never had the fortune of visiting the North Cascades I sincerely hope you jump at the opportunity if it arises. This sliver of the country, this slice of the Pacific Northwest, has a beauty and a pull that has so far been unmatched by any other place I can recall in my adult life. I spend my winters plotting ways to spend more time here and I spend my summers resenting the time I don’t dedicate to staying here.
The North Cascades are a place that happen to you. No matter how you enter or with which intentions, these mountains have the power to change you and the course of your life thereafter.
Those hearty few that call Stehekin home understand that. They’ve opened their arms and hearts to one of the last places I know of in the Lower 48 where homesteading or a lifestyle “off the grid” is largely untouched and often unnoticed by the outside world. Preserving a tradition of self-reliance and all around independence that can only come from giving yourself completely to a place so awesome as this.
As I packed up camp and prepared to leave on my last morning in town, I was completely taken over by the feeling that I belonged here and would be a fool to leave. Thoughts of my family before me, homesteading in Alaska and living so similarly to the people I had met in this town, carried a weight that made me dizzy. I realized that if anyone were to carry on that tradition in my family it would have to be me. And to know that such a place, not that far from the city, exists, makes every bone in my body long to be there. I made a pact with myself; to return to Stehekin during the winter next year, and to spend more nights in the Cascades this summer than anywhere else. And if the longing is still as great after those indulgences as it is now, find out what my options are and get to building. Life’s too short to not answer the call.
Go in early Spring or late Fall to avoid crowds and often high temps.