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Cascades and Quiet : Discovering the rugged beauty of little-visited Lake Chelan park

Milstein is a freelance writer based in Cody, Wyo

A storm was brewing overhead, yet I could not help but stare at the one raging below.

My hiking boots held tight to a rectangular stone outcrop along one side of a gorge rimmed by young firs. At a distance, this slate-gray bulkhead, about the size of a small building, had looked as unshakable as the surrounding peaks of Washington state’s North Cascades mountains. So I did not hesitate to clamber a few hundred yards along the edge of a rushing river until I was perched atop it.

Which was when I noticed the big, solid, river-worn ledge trembling beneath me.

Where I looked over the edge, the river was about 10 feet below me and revving for a rough drop that churned it into foam. From there it fell away into a chasm that reverberated as if a thunderstorm were jarring its very foundation.

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A shuddering raced up the canyon wall, through smooth stone and into the soles of my feet. For a brief moment, I felt as if the very pulse of this wild place was running through me. My wife, Sue, and I had been searching for a chance to touch the wilderness this way when we spotted Lake Chelan National Recreation Area on a driving map of Washington and saw that no roads led there. On the map, it looked thin and long--vaguely like a wriggling eel--and more like a river than a lake.

The 62,000-acre Lake Chelan National Recreation Area lies on the north end of the 55-mile-long lake on the east slope of the Cascade Range in central Washington. It’s a little-known unit of the U.S. national park system that is not especially easy to reach but offers rich rewards to those who make the trip. Many miles from the nearest traffic light, Sue and I spent mornings here tearing into fresh cinnamon rolls, hiked over Kelly-green ridges during the day and settled down for a rejuvenating meal and a warm bed at night.

We were a day into our three-day visit last summer when we came upon the thundering water that held me on the ledge--entranced. Ambling three miles back to the trail head, we caught a regular shuttle van driven by a friendly park ranger and followed the river--it’s called Agnes Creek on the map, but to me it looked more like a river--to its junction with the Stehekin River. From there, we traced the torrent through the small, friendly community of Stehekin until it dissolved into Lake Chelan (pronounced Sha-LAN), a waterway that ancient glaciers bulldozed out of the deep bedrock.

Just as the vast, fiord-like gorge occupied by Lake Chelan dominates the scenery with its near-vertical walls, it regulates traffic to and from the Stehekin Valley at the lake’s spectacular north end. A single road--mostly dirt--stretches through the valley but does not leave it--no rental cars here. Electricity comes from an inconspicuous hydroelectric power plant along the river. You come and go by boat, floatplane or foot.

We had started our trip “down-lake,” local lingo for Lake Chelan’s arid southern end that abuts the busy resort town of Chelan. On our first day in the area, we spent a miserable night in a nearby state campground when our neighbors partied into the night.

So we were more than ready for a respite from the real world the next morning when we stepped from a dock onto the Lady of the Lake II, a roomy, 350-passenger vessel that makes the daylong round trip ($21 per person) from up the lake every day during the summer. A smaller boat called the Lady Express covers the same ground in less time (at a higher price).

As the Lady II headed north at a relaxed pace, the broad southern terminus of Lake Chelan slid out of view behind us and the east and west shores slowly angled up toward each other until, at one point, they were no more than a quarter-mile apart. Such topography hints at the power of the glaciers that have shaped it. About 17,000 years ago, a great river of ice gouged a path, leaving behind this steep-walled corridor with an average width of one mile.

Plunging from snowy crags, the walls dive 1,486 feet below the lake surface, almost 400 feet below sea level and about 100 feet lower than Death Valley, the lowest point in the nation. That makes Chelan the third-deepest lake in the country--after Crater Lake in Oregon and Lake Tahoe. Binoculars help sightseers distinguish patches of snow from white mountain goats on ledges. Waterfalls churn down red and gray chutes into the lake.

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As the prime means of transportation up and down Lake Chelan, the vessel does double duty. It carries adventurous travelers, yes, but also ferries necessities such as food, mail and other cargo to a few remote settlements along the lake shore. During a short stop at Lucerne, we watched the crew unload crates of fruit, cases of soda and potted plants, in pass-it-on, bucket-brigade style. Lucerne is the lakeside gateway to Holden Village, a Lutheran religious retreat that occupies what was once the headquarters of a giant copper mine.

Next stop: Stehekin (pronounced Stuh-HEE-kin). Here we left the boat amid a stream of people all gaping at the jagged horizon beyond. Stehekin is such a scattered community that there is no true town center, but a few steps away from the landing we found ourselves at the front desk of the North Cascades Stehekin Lodge. It’s not the only accommodation in the valley but is probably the most civilized.

What you might call the lobby doubles as a minimarket, snack bar and bicycle and boat rental shop, all creating a hubbub that gives it the flavor of a neighborhood general store. From there we found our way to a small but comfortable room. No television, no telephones, no radio, but we didn’t miss them. Instead, our entertainment was viewing the wildflowers and ponderosa pines outside the window.

It wasn’t long before we heard the booming horn of the Lady II, signaling its departure down-lake after 90 minutes at the dock. When we left our room and sidled out to the wooden deck in front of the lodge, the lake was calm and so was the air. No hint of a crowd. In the neighboring Golden West Visitor Center, a boxy former hotel converted to a small museum by the National Park Service, park ranger Paul Gitchoff told us why.

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“Ninety percent of our visitors are here for 90 minutes,” he said. “People come up on the boat, look around and leave. They don’t get much time to really look around.”

A stroll along the Imus Creek nature trail took us past small, cascading falls as we admired the purple wildflowers known as Cascade penstemon jutting from the slopes. Except along streams, the ground was littered with pine needles and seemed curiously dry for normally lush Washington. The reason, a park ranger explained, is that Lake Chelan sits in the so-called rain shadow of the Cascades. It nudges the dry backside of the mountain range that features dripping rain forests on its front.

If you want to know what it’s like to live atop the divide, ask David Bean. He spent months as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak to the north and shared his memories during a slide show in the visitor center. He offered the simple but striking observation that in the North Cascades there are places where no person has ever been.

If we could not find one of those places, we wanted, at least, to get close. So we started early the next morning, downing a hearty breakfast in the small dining room and boarding a shuttle bus that runs up and down the Stehekin Valley two to four times a day (cost: $5 each way).

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Our first stop was a few miles up the road, at Rainbow Falls, a crashing cascade that follows a slit in the edge of the valley and which, with an ever-present mist, has created its own little rain forest among the pines. Back on board the bus, we continued up the ever-narrowing valley to High Bridge, which spans the Stehekin River.

On the north side of the bridge, the ground falls within North Cascades National Park. The National Park Service manages both the park and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, but the park holds the roughest mountain terrain and is pure wilderness; there are no accommodations other than campgrounds. Shuttles haul visitors 11 miles from the lake landing to High Bridge and, starting Tuesday, will continue another five miles into the national park.

We rode the shuttle to the easy Agnes Gorge trail, where we happened across a few frogs, a (harmless) snake and deer, then stopped to examine tiny purple orchid-like flowers called fairy slippers.

On the way back to the lodge, we passed the scattered bits and pieces of Stehekin: homey cabins for vacationers to rent; the Stehekin Valley Ranch, which puts visitors up in rustic tent cabins; and the Stehekin Pastry Co. Proprietors Roberta and Cragg Courtney serve up fresh cinnamon rolls, doughnuts, breads and almost any other baked goods you can think of. All smell heavenly. We stopped by once when the shop was closed and found on the porch a table full of eats. A handwritten card instructed us to take what we wanted and leave our money in the basket.

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Such customs reflect a free spirit that sometimes plays at cross purposes with the National Park Service, which manages all public land surrounding the community. Many locals worry that Uncle Sam aims to buy up the fewer than 500 remaining acres of privately held land, erasing the distinctive down-home flavor of Stehekin. Although the federal government has bought some private land, it denies any intention of swallowing up community. Nevertheless, the Stehekin Choice, a quarterly newspaper, urges property owners to sell only to other individuals. “Stehekin teeters on the edge of survival,” read a house ad tucked near the classifieds, “and maintenance of the current private land base is absolutely essential.”

*

At the end of our first day here, we ate a delicious dinner of salmon baked in a pastry shell, served by the same friendly restaurant staff we met at breakfast. We retired to the lodge’s cozy, common living room and worked a jigsaw puzzle of a covered bridge, but I could not pry my eyes off the scenery. It simply swallowed up the lodge’s great wall of picture windows.

By our last morning, we only had enough time for a bit more sightseeing. From rented bicycles we watched ducklings riding their mother’s back and received waves from locals who sell small-crafts work in a dockside shop. When we boarded the Lady II to go back to the real world, we still had the Stehekin Valley in our sights. It was hard to look away.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

GUIDEBOOK: Into the Cascades

Getting there: To reach Lake Chelan, visitors can fly to Seattle (via Alaska, United or Delta airlines; fares begin at $234) and drive about 3 1/2 hours to Chelan, or take commuter flights from Seattle to Wenatchee, 40 miles from Chelan. The community of Stehekin is reachable by boats operated by the Lake Chelan Boat Co. (telephone [509] 682-4584) or floatplanes run by Chelan Airways (tel. [509] 682-5555).

Where to stay: North Cascades Stehekin Lodge (tel. [509] 682-4494, fax [509] 682-8206), with 28 rooms (some with kitchens), overlooks Lake Chelan. Rates: $75-$105 for two people in a room.

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Stehekin Valley Ranch (tel. [509] 682-4677, fax [509] 682-4705.) is a rustic guest ranch with tent cabins nine miles from the lake shore. Rates: $60 per person per night, including meals, $10 more for cabins with bath.

Silver Bay Lodging and Cabins (P.O. Box 85, Stehekin, WA 98852; tel. [509] 682-2212) offers three bed-and-breakfast rooms ($80-$135) and two cabins ($145 per double).

For more information: Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, Golden West Visitor Center, Stehekin, WA 98852; tel. (360) 856-5703, Ext. 340.

--M.M.

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