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Backpacking into Stehekin: wildflowers, mountain views, and freshly baked pastries

  • Written by Kirsten Abel, Features Writer

“Cold beer and a cinnamon roll. Cold beer and a cinnamon roll,” was the motivational mantra I chanted to myself during the last few hiking miles into Stehekin, a tiny village on the upper northwestern edge of Lake Chelan, unreachable except by foot, float plane, or boat. 

The land routes into Stehekin are varied. You can travel through a number  of different  North Cascades passes (Cascade, McAlester, War Creek, Purple, to name a few), but all paths lead to the same delicious destination: the Stehekin Pastry Company.

photoThe Bridge Creek-McAlester Pass trail takes hikers a little over 19 miles into Stehekin. (Photo by Shane Collins)Gigantic cinnamon rolls and sticky buns the size of your face, gooey peanut butter cookies and warm ham and Swiss croissants—all baked fresh every morning to feed the daily influx of tired hikers.

After devouring a chocolate chip cookie or a blueberry scone, or both, you can walk or bus (for a $5 fee) two more miles into town along Stehekin Valley Road. The town consists of several campgrounds, a hotel and restaurant with an outdoor seating area overlooking the lake, a ranger station, and a small convenience store that sells wine, snacks, small goods, and the aforementioned sought-after cold beer.

We began our Stehekin backpacking trip 19 miles away from the bakery at the Bridge Creek trailhead off Highway 20, about 40 minutes west of Winthrop.

My group consisted of three: Andrew Lacko, a Seattle architectural designer, Shane Collins, a winemaker based in Chelan, and me. I was the newbie; Lacko and Collins have hoofed it into Stehekin twice before. It’s become an annual tradition for them.

backpackingOur small backpacking crew, from left: Shane Collins, Andrew Lacko, and Kirsten Abel (Photo by Shane Collins)From the Bridge Creek trailhead, we descended into the dark, cool forest toward McAlester Pass. The temperature there remained pleasant despite the 90-plus weather out in the Methow Valley sun.

We crossed creeks with the aid of rocks and sanded-down logs. We traipsed through open green meadows bursting with wildflowers and humming with bees.

Most of the time, the trail was empty of animals and other humans. The only wildlife I spotted was a hoary marmot, a furry, beaver-sized creature that ambled leisurely across our path. 

After about eight miles, we reached our stopover point for the first night: McAlester Lake. One edge of the small alpine lake was dotted with primitive backcountry campsites and a few open pit toilets, which, despite their lack of comfort did boast stunning views.

waterAndrew Lacko filters water from a creek near McAlester Lake. (Photo by Shane Collins)After setting up our tents, we made a fire, partly for warmth (it can get chilly at night, even in late July) and partly to ward off the mosquitos, which were numerous and unfazed by bug spray.

Our food in the backcountry wilderness generally consisted of easy just-add-water meals: freeze-dried chicken fried rice, freeze-dried chili mac, ramen noodles, and oatmeal.

The next day, we restock-ed our water supply in a nearby creek with a handy Sawyer water filter and began our final trek into Stehekin.

Once we reached McAlester Pass, a little over a mile of uphill switchbacks past the lake, the trail turned downhill, and mostly stayed that way. We passed through several burned out sections of the forest where blackened trees towered over bright green new growth.

Eventually Lake Chelan came into view.

At one point we stopped at a river to again refill our water bottles. There, we met fellow hiker Mitchell Luce, a Carnation-born physical therapist who works all over the Pacific Northwest. Luce was on a solo trip up from Twisp, through South Creek, and into Stehekin.

“I like to plan a loop hike if I can so that I can see different areas on the way out,” Luce said. When he left Stehekin, he hiked the Purple Creek and War Creek trails back to Twisp.
“At some points I was hiking through wildflower patches that were chest-high,” he said. “Lots of lupine, fireweed, Indian paintbrush and even some Old-Man-of-the-Mountain.”
And it wasn’t just flowers that lined the trails. Wild huckleberries were plentiful too.

“It definitely slows down the hiking when you stop to pick a handful of berries every 20 minutes,” Luce said.

forestWildflowers grow among trees charred in past forest fires. The upper portion of Lake Chelan can be seen in the distance. (Photo by Shane Collins)While Luce doesn’t usually backpack alone, he said it’s nice sometimes to get away, to contemplate life. (Stehekin has zero cell service.)

“I have some of my best ideas while hiking and being outside,” he said.

On our second day we logged about 13 miles, 11 to the bakery and two more into town. We stayed that second night at Purple Point Campground in Stehekin and then took the Lady of the Lake ferry back to Chelan the following day.

A few tips for the trip: wear comfortable shoes. Bring a water filter and a detailed hiking map. Get a backcountry permit (www.nps.gov/noca/planyourvisit/permits.htm) and check out the boat-out options (www.ladyofthelake.com). Also, if you want to sleep in a real bed, book far in advance (Stehekin Valley Ranch and the North Cascades Lodge are two popular spots).

Even if you don’t do much hiking, you can still enjoy backpacking. Luce just suggests doing a few shorter, warm-up hikes before taking on Stehekin.

“I have treated a lot of people after backpacking trips with minor knee, ankle and hip injuries because they did not train for it,” he said.

Oh, and most importantly, save room at the end of your 20-or-so mile hike for a well-deserved treat at the Stehekin Pastry Company.

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