Cascade Pass to Stehekin
Stehekin, WA, is a wilderness-edge town in the North Cascades, on the shore of Lake Chelan. It’s notoriously difficult to get to: foot, boat, and plane are the only ways in and out. I chose to hike in for my first visit, along my favorite trail.
The ancient Cascade Pass trail offers a tour of all different types of scenery available in the Northwest mountains. It begins in a dense wet-side forest, which slowly opens to a meadow, then the trail crosses the Cascade Crest and the scenery changes abruptly. All of a sudden the peaks are more bare, the woods become more spacious and less dense, the meadows seem more full of life. The trail winds down talus slopes into a narrow river valley, coming into an open, airy, park-like forest, passing through burn scars, past rocky outcroppings, and eventually coming to a 50 mile finger lake. As the trail winds on, the Stehekin River grows from a small creek into a powerful and swift glacial river.
I spent my first night out in Pelton Basin, a small camp east of the pass. The camp – currently being upgraded to grizzly standards – sits in the end of a grove of trees that reach down into a wet meadow basin. For water, you hike out to the creek running down the center of the broad valley, and come to Pelton Creek, one of the sources of the Stehekin River. I stayed here a year ago and explored the meadow extensively, boulder hopping to keep my feet dry.
The next morning I packed up and made a side trip to Horseshoe Basin before descending into the Stehekin River Valley. Horseshoe Basin is a gorgeous place, but not an easy one to photograph, and you should see it for yourself.
After visiting the basin, I hiked on to Cottonwood Camp, a lovely and small corner of the wilderness, on the banks of the river, with a view of big peaks. This is where the forest begins to “close in” on the trail. In fact, this is where the Cascade Pass Trail ends, and is replaced by a century old wagon road, so overgrown in places that it’s invisible.
I carried an orange for two days, and ate it on the banks of the Stehekin River outside of camp. It may have been the sweetest thing I’ve ever had to eat.
My plan was to take five or six days to hike, but by this point my sleeping schedule had come pretty well in sync with the sun. The next morning I was on the trail by 8 am, and reached the next camp on my permit by 10 am. I wanted to continue hiking, although I might have built camp and explored the park-like surroundings. Instead, this became a 15 mile day, which is further than it sounds with a heavy pack that includes 10 pounds of camera gear.
For a long while, the hike becomes a river walk; the river isn’t always in sight, but it’s almost always within earshot.
After the long third day, and after reaching Stehekin, my legs were a little stiff. I stayed in the Lodge at Stehekin that night, which let me soak them (my legs) in the cold lake water, and then in a hot bath. It also let me wash up, although the town has showers for campers and thru-hikers.
Stehekin has volatile weather, and clouds make for great sunsets, although they aren’t so good for stargazing. For a while, I thought the sky might be on fire. I fell into a peaceful sleep, hoping for a clear night before I had to leave. I didn’t have to wait long for it.
The town is a small one, run by the national park service. There’s a hotel, a restaurant, and an NPS information center. All along the lake are small boat docks for people who want to avoid the Lady of the Lake, chairs and benches set up for the public, and open views of the water and the mountains beyond. The next night I wandered around these places, watching the night sky as the moon came up.
A bright day followed a cool night. While I was there I spent a day kayaking, another day on a bike exploring the old wagon roads, and managed to enjoy a cold swim.
Ultimately, I took the Lady of the Lake (ferry) to the city of Chelan, and met a friend who brought me back to the Cascade Pass trailhead, so that I could get home.