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  • Brian Johnson

Stehekin and North Cascades National Park - Part 2

Stehekin Journal: Day 5

After a quick camp breakfast of oatmeal and surprisingly good Starbucks instant coffee, we walked up the Stehekin Valley Road half a mile to find our trailhead to hike the Rainbow Creek trail. The first part of the trail climbed up through cool, shady forest, with occasional views to the mountain peaks above. Eventually we came to more open areas, and we could look down on the Stehekin River far below, and across to the mountains on the other side of the valley. The morning’s coolness disappeared and the sun beat down fiercely as the terrain became more open. We stopped at the bridge over Rainbow Creek, which was roughly the halfway point of our hike, to take some pictures and cool off. After a climb out of the creek basin the terrain opened up again, affording views up and down the valley, and eventually out to Lake Chelan. By now we had reached the high elevation point of our hike, after a climb of about 1000 feet, and eventually the trail led down through open, park like forest, before eventually depositing us on the Stehekin Road, about a half mile from the Stehekin Bakery.

This was an absolutely amazing hike. It had it all, cool forest, rushing creeks, a neat bridge, and all encompassing mountain and lake views. Not to mention ending half a mile from cold beverages, ice cream, and sandwiches. And the most amazing thing of all? We saw not a single human being on the entire trail, from beginning to end. Not one. I was flabbergasted. It seems our wilderness areas are being inundated with visitors, with reservations required to even get into the most popular national parks, but we had somehow managed to find a sweet little 5 mile or so hike to rival any in the country, and we had it all to ourselves. I debated even posting this, and after the hike it briefly crossed my mind that I should delete all of these posts. Please hear what I’m saying here. Do NOT tell your friends about this place. Do NOT spread the word. Seriously. I want it to be just like this when I come back.

After refreshments at the bakery we caught the shuttle back to the stop near our camp. We dunked ourselves, very briefly, in the icy cold river, put on clean clothes, and were back at the shuttle stop at 3:30, in time to catch the shuttle on its way back down the valley. Back at Stehekin Landing, we picked up a little ATV we had reserved for several hours. We had dinner reservations at the Stehekin Ranch, and planned to explore a little before and after dinner. On the way we stopped at the historic Stehekin schoolhouse to explore in detail. A new log cabin school has since been built, but the old cabin school is still maintained as a kind of museum, with desks, textbooks, and even old student reports tacked to the walls. Old photos of students adorned the walls. It was an all grades school, and some of the photos were graduation photos. Many years there was only one graduate. I remarked to Lynn that it must have been pretty cool to say you were the valedictorian of your class.

Dinner at the ranch cookhouse consisted of roast beef, mashed potatoes, and peas and carrots, with sourdough bread. It was filling, if a little overpriced, but a fun experience. There were a couple of dozen other diners, mostly residents of the several vacation cabins available on the ranch. The ranch is the largest lodging option available in the valley, along with the 27 room National Park lodge back at the landing.

After dinner we drove the ATV two miles up the road to High Bridge, which is as far as cars can go. We drove across the bridge and continued on. From here the last two miles are only negotiable by ATV, or horse or walking. This section of the road has access to several trails, as well as a couple of backcountry camps. Eventually we reached the literal end of the road, not the first time we’ve done that in our travels. We turned around and drove all the way back down the road. I dropped Lynn off at Harlequin Bridge, which led to our camp, and drove the rest of the way to the landing to drop off the ATV. The plan was to hike the 4 1/2 miles back to camp, which wasn’t much of a plan at eight o’clock at night after a very full day, but it was the only way to make it all work out. My run of blessings continued though, and the very nice man who runs the central reservation kiosk offered to run me back to camp. Nick is a local, living with his wife and two kids in a cabin at the head of the lake. On the way to camp he told me a little about life in Stehekin. I was particularly fascinated with the winter stories, and social life among the permanent residents. He described the community as a big family, and with less than a hundred permanent residents, everyone really does know everyone.

Now to bed, after a pleasantly exhausting day. Tomorrow is more or less a “layover” day, with nothing particular planned, and we plan to sleep in. A little rain is forecast, which is always a good excuse to sleep in.

Stehekin Journal: Day 6

The expected rain moved in early in the morning, but it never amounted to more than a series of gentle showers. We spent most of the morning in the tent. Nothing to report. Camping tents are like Vegas. What happens there, stays there.

The rain moved off by noon, and sunny skies returned. We spent a couple of hours playing around camp, then headed for Stehekin Landing to use the public shower facility. Clean and refreshed, we enjoyed happy hour on the Lodge deck, followed by burgers and beer. After dinner we walked up the Stehekin Valley Road back to camp, stopping to enjoy some of the sights along the lakeshore, including a little outdoor church and meditation area. The ranger cabin at the head of the lake looks like a Swiss chalet. Lucky man. About a mile from camp a nice couple driving by stopped and offered us a ride, which we accepted. Everything’s chill in Stehekin.

Stehekin Journal: Day 7

We had planned to go up to High Bridge and hike to Howard Lake today, but for some reason I couldn’t rouse myself in time to get out to catch the 8 am shuttle, so we ended up having a leisurely camp morning. The unusual heat had returned and the forecast was for the 90s again, but our shady little site by the cold river stayed comfortable. We read and napped before eventually deciding to walk the two and a half miles down the road to the Stehekin Bakery again for a late lunch.

After lunch we caught the shuttle back to camp. Lynn was feeling ambitious, so she went back out to the road and took the return shuttle back to Stehekin Landing, to pick up some cold beer and wine. I had to take a nap. To be honest, I think the old gal has worn this old man out. After a bit of lazy napping in the afternoon warmth I struggled to my feet, stripped down, and dunked myself in the icy river. One of those things that hurts so good.

By this time dark clouds began rolling in. At one point I was startled by an explosive thunderclap and loud boom, but thought nothing more of it and reached for my rain jacket. Lynn was due back soon and a short time later I walked out to the road to meet her. As Lynn got off the shuttle she asked me excitedly if I had seen the forest fire. Everyone at the landing had seen an enormous lighting strike, and a flash of fire and continuing smoke from the mountains near our camp. As we crossed the bridge she pointed it out. High on the mountainside above our camp you could see two different areas of smoke billowing out of the forest. She told me that they had called in a helicopter water drop. It smoked for several hours but didn’t seem to grow much. Just enough to give us a little fun anxiety. You can just see the smoke in a couple of the pictures, above the bridge. Tomorrow is departure day, and we need to get an early start in order to break camp and catch the shuttle back to the landing, where we’ll take the ferry back across Lake Chelan, and continue on to our next destination. Tomorrow night is Mystery Night.

Stehekin Journal: Day 8

Our last morning was cool and pleasant, with no trace of last night’s dark clouds. We never heard any helicopters with a water drop, but there was no more smoke on the mountainside above camp and the fires seemed to be out. We caught the 9:30 shuttle on its way back down the valley from High Bridge and had time to grab some coffee and one more pastry at the bakery before continuing on and catching the 10:40 ferry departing from Stehekin Landing. We were sad to be going, as we had enjoyed ourselves immensely, but it was a gorgeous day, and we were headed for Mystery Night, so it was hard to be too down.

We made it to Fields Point Landing a little after noon, where we picked up the rental car and set off. I had a nervy first hour or so, as we had no cell reception to help map our route, and Lynn still didn’t know where we were going so couldn't help navigate. Everything worked out though, and we arrived at our Mystery Night destination a little after 5 pm.

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