Stehekin is a Northwest classic backcountry destination at the end of Lake Chelan, accessible by boat and floatplane and, most deliciously, by foot.
Hikers who tough out an 18-mile trail can celebrate the effort in a quaint wilderness inholding as they mix with people who got there without so much as a bead of sweat.
But visitors who arrive the hard way have a heightened appreciation of the amenities: a National Park Service museum, shower, rental bikes to explore 13 miles of roads and waterfalls and a bakery that serves the best fresh, hot cinnamon rolls ever baked by the dozen in the heart of a wilderness.
The Chelan Lakeshore Trail is available to hikers or snowshoers most of the year, but it’s especially attractive for early-season backpacking. The route along the famous northcentral Washington lake is brightened by wildflowers before many ski areas are closed for the season.
Many hikers revel in the unusual twist that they must board a ferry or hire a float plane to reach the trailheads.
Lakeshore Trail 1247 usually is the first wilderness trail to open on the Wenatchee National Forest and North Cascades National Park. The route is mostly within either the Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness or the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area.
It runs along the north side of the 55-mile-long lake from Prince Creek, which is 37 miles “up lake” from the town of Chelan, to Stehekin, which is nestled at the very west end of the lake in the shadow of North Cascades peaks. Stehekin is inside the national park boundary.
The Lakeshore Trail crosses a number of small seasonal streams plus 11 significant creeks, some of which can be tricky to cross in spring flows.
Later in the summer, backpackers can tramp uphill from the lake into Lake Chelan basin, past alpine lakes to the Methow Valley and the Washington Pass/Rainy Pass area on state Route 20.
While those high routes are snowbound and not viable for another month or so, the Lakeshore Trail stays below the spring snowpack with at total elevation gain of only 500 feet.
Between May 1 and Oct. 15, the Lady of the Lake ferry makes “flag” stops at Prince Creek trailhead, giving hikers more options.
Before May 1 – and depending on the early-season lake levels – the only boat access to the trail is by way of Stehekin.
From the Field’s Point Landing, it’s a 20-mile boat ride to Prince Creek Campground. The ferry comes in landing-craft style, dropping a gangplank from the nose of the boat so passengers can disembark onto the steep rocky shore.
Prince Creek bar was leveled by heavy spring flooding in May 1948, eliminating use of a forest guard station and Boy Scout camp.
From the Prince Creek drainage, the trail heads northwest up the lake. Hikers tend to be grouped after mass departure from the ferry, but the ranks spread out quickly.
It’s common to see deer and black bears along Lake Chelan during spring. It’s not uncommon to see a rattlesnake or to pluck off a few ticks.
Powerhouse hikers go all the way to Stehekin in a day. Most hikers do the trek in two days to enjoy the undulating route as it leads up and down from the lake, along bluffs and through forest.
Hikers find variety as the trail weaves through ghost forests and newer growth in areas burned by the Rex Creek Fire of 2001 and the Flick Creek Fire of 2006. The trail winds through and around a few pockets of private property, but mostly it’s wild.
Designated camping areas are:
• Meadow Creek camping area, 7 miles from Prince Creek, is steep with primitive sites scratched out along a flood-scoured ravine and the ridge above.
• Moore Point, 11 miles from Prince Creek an established camp with more convenient lake access. Hunt’s Bluff is a Moore Point-area destination with a lake overlook.
• Flick Creek Campground is 4 miles uplake from Moore Point.
• Stehekin, 2.8 miles farther uplake at the trail terminus, offers camping and more.
The village serves visitors and the small population that’s scattered on 417 acres of private land within the Lake Chelan NRA.
Some hikers arrive in Stehekin with just enough time to enjoy a sandwich or ice cream before catching the Lady of the Lake for the 55-mile ferry back to Chelan.
However, many visitors, including the Spokane Mountaineers, have learned to take advantage of the free camping at the National Park Service sites and relish the uncommon luxuries Stehekin offers. They bring cash for the kayak and bike rentals and four quarters for the five-minute shower.
Another option is to pay $7 for the shuttle from Stehekin on the dead-end road to High Bridge Campground to rub elbows with Pacific Crest Trail hikers. Among the options from High Bridge is a 20-mile trek to gawk at 20 waterfalls in Horseshoe Basin.
Stehekin overnighters can find a site and pitch a tent, make a reservation for a restaurant dinner if they’re tired of camping food, visit the park museum and join an interpretive tour led by a park ranger.
Stehekin has a year-round population of about two dozen people, but the numbers ebb and flow significantly depending on the season, the holiday and the arrival and departure of the Lady of the Lake.
The morning after camping out at Stehekin, savvy visitors will be at the bike rental station at 8 a.m. so they can pedal 2 miles to the Stehekin Pastry Co. Yum. Then they ride farther to visit the old schoolhouse and the historic orchard. Not to be missed is a stop to walk up and get drenched in the refreshing mist at Rainbow Falls.
The bakery cooks said that on a busy day they might go through eight dozen fresh cinnamon rolls in addition to all the other scones, rolls, muffins and breakfast egg combos they sell.
“We always have some cinnamon rolls frozen and ready just in case someone comes in late,” the woman behind the counter said. “If they come this far and have their heart set on a cinnamon roll, we don’t want to disappoint them.”
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