Updated: Apr 24, 2021
Growing up I heard stories from my mother of a magical land where the cinnamon roles were as big as your head, the granite peaks shot upward from a crystalline, snowmelt-fueled river, and an infamous red shuttle bus plied a single dusty road up the valley floor which terminated at a trailhead accesses hundreds of miles of wilderness trails. I’d also heard that the only way to access this seeming paradise involved a many hours long ferry ride from the nearest small town, a town already a long way from a lot of places, sandwiched between northern Washington’s rolling golden hills and the runout of the eastern slope of the North Cascade Mountains. Thus, for many years stories of Stehekin, the tiny community nestled at the northwest tip of Lake Chelan, existed only in the corners of my mind, taking on a mythical quality, more illusory than real.
Deciding it was time to do some investigation, I recruited a friend. Relaying stories of the otherworldly qualities of the destination made it an easy sell. We traced a line up the Cascade Crest. First Mount Adams, then Mount Rainier, and finally, the beautiful Enchantment range fell away behind us as we flew north. The mountains began to take on a more rugged look, punctuated by sapphire alpine lakes so numerous they didn’t even get a name on the map. Descending towards the grass landing strip we cut across the corner of Lake Chelan and I gauged the wind by looking at the direction of the ripples on the lake. We cleared the final set of trees that guarded the approach end of the runway touched wheels to grass. The landing strip abuts North Cascades National Park and camping at Harlequin Campground was only a quarter-mile walk away. Even better, two-wheeled carts for carrying food and camping gear from plane to campsite were locked to a nearby tree. To unlock the carts you simply had to know the numbers of the local pilot radio frequency, making me feel all the more part of a special club as I wheeled a cart towards the plane. It was Friday afternoon and although we had to be back at work in Oregon on Monday morning, the magic of flight meant that we could enjoy the whole weekend here before making an escape in the calm early Monday morning air and heading south to the office.
We quickly set up camp along the river and hailed the shuttle bus down to Stehekin Landing, where the ferry arrives on its up-lake journey and a smattering of homes and a couple of lodges adorn the lakeshore. We perused the village and eventually settled down on the deck at the Lodge at Stehekin
for a sunset cocktail. The next days were chock full, exploring new trails and punctuating the sunny hikes with icy dips in nearby creeks. Lest you think we forgot about the cinnamon rolls, let me assure you we did not. Multiple visits to Stehekin Pastry Company yielded a verifiable menagerie of both sweet and savory treats, keeping us well fueled.
As the light faded on Sunday evening and I reluctantly gave in to a bit of pre-flight planning for the trip home, I could definitively say that all the stories I had heard of this place; they were real.
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