I feel like I have started every blog post since early summer with “Back when I was here in 2014….” This will be the last time I do this, as every stop from this point forward will be forging new territory. But as I was saying….“Back when I was here in 2014,” I planned to explore the southern approach into the North Cascades National Park. While touring the Newhalem Visitor Center, I learned of a town on the southern edge of the park, Stehekin, only accessible by hiking, float plane, or boat ride 50 miles up Lake Chelan.
If one is to hike in, it’s a 30 mile hike beginning at Cascades Pass. There is no type of shuttle service, so this would require a good bit of coordination and more than one vehicle. It would also require considerable planning, as a minimum of two overnights would be required to reach Stehekin from Marblemount on the western side of the National Park. Although this would be a dream, I am ill prepared for this kind of hike after sitting out the summer.
Float plane would be a fun adventure, but $79 each way makes it a bit pricey for such a short hop. Besides, I wanted the experience of cruising the sites along the 50 miles up the deepest lake in the nation, Lake Chelan.
To reach Lake Chelan, the launch point for the Lady of the Lake, one must leave the North Cascades National Park and drive through the Methow Valley, around to Chelan, WA. Although Stehekin is only 30 miles from Marblemount “as the hiker hikes,” it requires a 180 mile drive around to reach the mouth of the lake. During 2014, this route was experiencing some intermittent road closures due to forest fires. Still working a 9-5 at the time, I had to abandon my plan to visit for fear of being trapped in Chelan by road closures. So Stehekin was one of my “don’t miss” stops of this PNW trip.
During peak season, there are two boats plying the lake which makes it possible to have a 3 hour stopover in Stehekin. But now that fewer people are visiting in the fall, only one trip per day is operating, limiting the time in Stehekin to only 90 minutes. In order to have more time to experience the area apart from the “daytrippers,” it would require an overnight. After a lot of research, I finally decided that the North Cascades Lodge would offer the best access for the buck.
We would leave our rigs parked in the lovely BeeBe Bridge RV Park right alongside the Columbia River, thanks to a recommendation from my friend Contessa, who spends winters just 170 mile across the border from Lake Chelan. Beebe Bridge is one of the nicest county parks I have stayed in, operated by the Public Utility District. They offer an off season rate for only $15, with water and electric hookups. So no hesitation in “leaving home” for a night.
The Lady of the Lake II, launched in 1976, is the largest of the fleet and the only boat operating this late in the year. She is 100 ft long and holds 285 passengers, but thankfully today, the boat is only about 20% full. Cruising speed is 15 mph up the lake. During peak season, a second faster option, The Lady Express, cruises at 28 mph with 150 passengers.
We board at 8:00am, which means an early wake-up call for a couple of slow starters. There are snacks on the boat, but we opt to bring our own, and Don whips up a recipe of his famous Bloody Marys to take the edge off what we thought would be a long boat ride. Turns out, the four hours passes in the blink of an eye, as the scenery morphs from the arid lower Lake Chelan valley through the increasingly green lush foothills, gradually probing deep into the stark Cascade Mountain Range where no roads have been built due to the rugged terrain.
The Lady of the Lake boat ride is narrated, but not so much as to be annoying. We learn that we will be cruising through the deepest gorge in North America and the third largest lake, only surpassed by Crater Lake and Lake Tahoe. But Crater and Lake Tahoe are 5 and 10 miles across respectively. Lake Chelan reaches this depth at only a mile wide, and at one point, narrowing down to one quarter mile across. The lake dips to 386 ft below sea level, making it the deepest gorge in North America at 8,631 ft.
As we arrive at the boat dock in Stehekin, we are greeted by a National Park Ranger standing beside a big red “heritage style” bus with ceiling windows. North Cascades National Park provides optional tours for $9 per person, 3.5 miles up the only road to Rainbow Falls, a 312 ft waterfall.
Stops along the way include the one room Stehekin Schoolhouse, in operation from 1921 to 1988. Following the construction of a new schoolhouse, teaching grades kindergarden through eighth grade, the old school was turned into a museum.
No trip to Stehekin is complete without a stop at the famous Stehekin Pastry Company, in business since 1989. Yet another quaint bakery in a place that by odds, should not be able to support such a plethora of “from scratch” baked goods in a town of this size, regardless of the daytrippers!
The National Parks tour lasts just long enough for the daytrippers to meet the returning boat down lake, back to Chelan. An immediate unwinding is felt as what “crowds” there were board back on the boat, leaving only a handful of residents and those of us staying overnight remaining.