Stehekin – the jewel of the North Cascades

  • Written by Deborah Stone

The Lady of the Lake passenger ferry is the most popular means of transportation to Stehekin. Photo by Deborah Stone.
When I told people I was going to Stehekin for a vacation, the common response was, “Where’s that?” Just guessing, some would say, “It’s in Canada, right?” Others would query with furrowed brows, “Is it in Europe somewhere?” Most had no idea that this gem of a destination happens to be right here in Washington State. Its remote location, though, has kept it a well-preserved secret, known only to those adventurous travelers who desire to go off the grid to access some of the most rugged grandeur in the Northwest.

Nestled at the headwaters of Lake Chelan, the third deepest lake in America, the Stehekin Valley is the gateway to the North Cascades National Park. It’s connected to the outside world only by foot, boat or plane. The journey to reach this area is part of the experience. For the majority of those who make the visit, the Lady of the Lake passenger ferry is the mode of transportation. You can opt for the slow boat, which takes four hours one way from Chelan, or the express, which cuts an hour and a half off the time.

As you travel up lake, you’ll quickly leave civilization behind and enter an unspoiled frontier, forgotten by time. You’ll go from the dry, desert-type climate of the lower Lake Chelan Valley through fiord-like gorges carved by glaciation and head deep into the Cascade Mountains. Along the way, you’ll be privy to Mother Nature’s artistry in the forms of spectacular, craggy peaks and lush, verdant forests. And it you’re lucky, you’ll spot a glimpse or two of some of the wildlife that call this area home. On a recent trip, my fellow passengers and I managed to spy several black bears, including a mother and her cub, scampering up the mountainside.  

The Stehekin Valley Ranch offers good old-fashioned fun, adventure and relaxation, while providing all the comforts of home. Photos by Deborah Stone.
The name “Stehekin” is based on a local Native American word meaning “the way through.” Years ago, it was one of only a few travel routes through the formidable barrier of the North Cascades and served as a trading passageway for tribes, linking groups between the east of the mountains with those on the Puget Sound coast and beyond. Later, railroad and U.S. Army surveyors came to the region to chart routes through the mountains, followed by prospectors who staked their claims. Then came the homesteaders, who left a heritage of independence and self-sufficiency. Today, Stehekin is a community of about 85 year-round residents, scattered over nine miles of valley, who thrive in the isolation of this wilderness area. They’ve opted to create a life in a place lacking of many of the conveniences that most of us take for granted.

For visitors, Stehekin is the ideal escape from the hustle and bustle of our often hectic daily existences. It’s a unique destination that offers world class scenery and a menu of outdoor activities guaranteed to please all ages and adventure appetites. Though a few people only come for the day, most spend several days to a week enjoying all that the valley has to offer.

Despite Stehekin’s small size, it features a range of accommodations. Among them include the Stehekin Landing Resort, a concession of the National Park Service, several housekeeping cabins sprinkled through the lower valley, and a number of public campgrounds. And then there’s the Stehekin Valley Ranch, where I chose to stay during my visit. I was attracted to this property because of the many options it provides, in accommodations and recreational pursuits, as well as the family-style reputation it has garnered over the years. Located nine miles up-valley from “the landing” (the point of arrival for both boat and float plane passengers and considered the hub of Stehekin), the Ranch offers visitors simple, but comfortable and cozy tent cabins with kerosene lanterns for light and communal bath facilities nearby, as well as cabins with private bathrooms and some that include fully-equipped kitchenettes. Those who stay in either of the first two options receive full board and transportation services in the lower Stehekin Valley.

Famed Rainbow Falls is a must-visit attraction in Stehekin. Photo by Deborah Stone.
To get around, as you won’t have a car while at the Ranch (having left it at the boat dock in Chelan), your options include hopping on one of the bright red Stehekin shuttle buses, which make four runs daily between the Stehekin Landing and High Bridge (about 11 miles one way), renting a bike or hoofing it. There are plenty of places to visit during your stay. Start with the Golden West Visitor Center a short walk up the hill from the boat landing, where you can get maps, books, hiking advice and trail reports from National Park Service staff, as well as hear presentations on the natural and cultural history of the Stehekin Valley. Nearby is The House that Jack Built, where you’ll find a wide array of items handcrafted by folks living in the valley. You’ll also want to stop at the lovely, misting Rainbow Falls, as well as pay a visit to the historic Old Stehekin Schoolhouse, which dates back to 1921. Down the road is the “New” Stehekin School, which opened in 1988. This year, it had seventeen students, spanning kindergarten through eighth grade. And then you’ll want to make a beeline for the famous Stehekin Pastry Company with its fresh-out-of-the-oven cinnamon rolls and other enticing baked goods.

Back at the Stehekin Ranch, guests usually congregate in the dining facility, a handsome log building, featuring family-style tables and an enormous crackling hearth where giant pots of cowboy coffee simmer. Here, folks gather for delicious home-cooked meals, while sharing their day’s exploits. The kitchen serves up tasty and hearty grub, from grilled salmon to BBQ chicken and ribs, accompanied by all the fixings. And it really shines when it comes to desserts. Pies in every flavor beckon and like a kid in a candy shop, you’ll be overwhelmed by the bounty. With all the activity that I did during the day, I found it easy to justify my nightly slice (or two) of pie – with whipped cream, of course!

You’ll never lack for things to do in Stehekin and the Ranch allows you to choose your own adventures. There’s exciting river rafting on the Stehekin River, kayaking on peaceful Lake Chelan, fly fishing, adrenaline-thumping mountain biking, guided scenic trail rides to picturesque Coon Lake on the Ranch’s steady Norwegian Fjord horses and hiking opportunities galore, from easy nature walks to more challenging climbs. As far as scenery goes, the Agnes Gorge Trail gets my vote for the perfect half-day hike. Its rewards are jaw-dropping views of majestic Agnes Mountain and the deep Agnes Gorge with its thundering 15-foot waterfall.

Hop on one of the Ranch’s steady Norwegian Fjords for a trail ride to picturesque Coon Lake. Photo by Deborah Stone.
You can do it all, sample one or two of the activities, or simply do nothing but curl up with a book and doze off in one of the conveniently situated hammocks or Adirondacks at the Ranch. As you breathe in the fresh air and feast your eyes on the glorious scenery, you‘ll realize just how much you needed to disconnect and disengage from that rat race you call life. Your senses will come alive in this natural, unspoiled piece of paradise and you’ll understand why so many folks make Stehekin their annual pilgrimage.

Cliff Courtney, who was born and raised in Stehekin, and owns the 20-acre Ranch together with his wife Kerry, notes that close to sixty percent of their guests are repeat customers. They continue to come because they value the Stehekin experience. He says, “People have to really want to come here because it takes work to get here. Once they do, they realize what a special place it is and how untouched it is from outside influences.” He adds, “Many of our clients have travelled the world and they all agree that Stehekin is second to none. We like to say the Ranch is close to home, close to heaven.”

The frequent visitors I spoke with all emphasized the sense of family that exists at the Ranch and the way the staff makes them feel so completely at home. Intimacy is retained because there are only a few dozen people staying on the property at one time. Everyone’s on a first name basis and employees freely circulate among the guests, getting to know their preferences in order to provide personalized service.

It’s important to note that the Ranch is not your typical dude ranch establishment. Don’t expect nightly sing-a-longs, country line dancing or flashy horse show events. This is a laid back, casual place where people make their own entertainment. For most, evenings are spent reading, chatting near the fire, playing cards or board games in the upstairs game room, or taking a stroll to visit the horses. You’ll fall asleep to the sounds of the river and the great outdoors, and the last thing you’ll remember contemplating before your head hits the pillow is, “I wonder what kinds of pie they’ll have tomorrow?”


If you go:

For general visitor information about Stehekin:

Stehekin Valley Ranch: or 1-800-536-0745

Lady of the Lake:

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