Winter reigns here, one of the most remote towns in the lower 48. Snow lies undisturbed on the ground 7 feet high - ideal conditions for snowshoeing.
During a recent visit, I alternated short snowshoe treks with playing Scrabble, bird-watching from the lake shore and eating at North Cascades Stehekin Lodge at the northwest end of Lake Chelan. Along the way, I learned that Stehekin is one of the most unusual communities I’ve ever visited.
Accessible only by boat or floatplane (or by trail in summer), the town still has 23 miles of roads. (Vehicles are brought in by barge.) It has fewer than 100 year-round residents, yet the town is host to more than 40,000 tourists and outdoor enthusiasts each year.
Stehekin has a one-room schoolhouse with 11 students and a teacher whom the state recently honored as “Teacher of the Year.”
And the natural setting was mesmerizing. Loons yodeled on the lake at dawn and dusk. A flock of 15 wild swans cooed to one another and tipped bottom-up while feeding on lake vegetation.
The wild lake and fir forest scenery usually are surrounded by swirling mist and clouds in winter, but I hoped to see the Cascade Range during our visit. While we slept, the skies brightened and the rising sun brought what locals said was only the second clear day of the season. I couldn’t take my eyes off the stunning vistas.
Another thing happened while we slept: A cougar searching for deer explored most of the area around the lodge and nearby dwellings, leaving obvious tracks in the snow. National Park Service ranger Greg Moss warned residents to guard their pets and even their young children.
The Stehekin Valley is part of a large national park complex that includes North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas.
National park lands provide nearly all of the outdoor recreation in the area, and through partnership with its concessionaire, the NPS maintains snowshoe and ski trails throughout the valley.
A few of the trails are groomed for cross-country skiing, but maintenance has been difficult this winter due to the high volume of snow. Ungroomed trails are referred to as “natural” and are perfect for snowshoeing. One short trail leaves the lodge and wanders for less than a mile - the perfect distance to work up an appetite for lunch.
Another popular trail leads to Rainbow Falls. Transportation to the trail head can be arranged at the Stehekin Lodge and is included in the “Weekend for Two” package offered through March.
The 312-foot falls is a not-to-be-missed sight in the valley. We spent an hour enjoying the view, while the child in our party did penguin slides on a small snowbank.
Children too small for snowshoes can be carried shoulder-top for short excursions and may be able to walk on top of the packed snow without breaking through the crust.
After returning our borrowed snowshoes and boarding Lady of the Lake to be ferried back to Chelan, we felt our weekend was complete. But the lake served up one more surprise. About halfway back, we were treated to a close look at mountain goats - a ram and two ewes, complete with shaggy, cute kids.
IF YOU GO
Stehekin is 55 miles up lake by floatplane or ferry from Chelan in central Washington. Chelan is 160 miles west of Spokane. Ferry access is provided by Lady of the Lake, $22 per person, round trip. Call (509) 682-4584.
Floatplane services start at $90 per person and are provided by Chelan Airways, at (509) 682-5555.
Two lodges are open in the winter. Silver Bay Lodging offers cabins with kitchens, starting at $95 per night, two-night minimum. Snowshoes are available for guests. No dining facilities are available at Silver Bay. Call (800) 555-7781.
North Cascades Stehekin Lodge offers both housekeeping rooms (necessary for midweek stays, since the restaurant is open only for lunch on weekdays) and weekend rooms. Winter packages at the lodge include boat tours, snowshoe rental and transportation to trails. The price for two is $199. The lodge’s restaurant provides full service on weekends. North Cascades Stehekin Lodge also offers a one-day outing that includes a boat tour to Stehekin, a quick guided snowshoe walk and lunch. The boat returns to Chelan at 4:20 p.m. The price is $36. Call (509) 682-4494 for details.
Another snowshoeing opportunity: Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area will offer a free, guided snowshoe trip Feb. 1 from the Kettle Falls Information Center.
The park ranger guiding the trip will present information on winter ecology and adaptations. The trip will be strenuous and last all day. A limited number of snowshoes are available, so call early for reservations. For more information and to reserve a space, call (509) 738-6266.