Back of Beyond: Stehekin Camping on Lake Chelan

It never ceases to surprise me that there are so many unique and out-of-the-way places in the Inland Northwest. Stehekin, Wash., is one such place, and getting there is an adventure in its own right. Because we made the trip during the busy Memorial Day weekend, we could only acquire tickets on the slow boat, which takes three hours. Thankfully, the views of the steep, high-desert slopes plunging into Lake Chelan paired with personable passengers made the 50-mile voyage to the lake’s mountainous north shore an amazing experience in itself.

The best thing about Stehekin is its remoteness. It is only accessible by boat or foot, and the few vehicles, like many of the houses, have a hardy, weather-beaten beauty. Once ashore, the crowds quickly dispersed, and we set off to check out the quaint resorts, cabins and backcountry trailheads. Even though it was a busy weekend, we walked for stretches without seeing a soul.

We opted for tent camping at a Forest Service campground a five minute walk from the dock, although you can also rent cabins. We cooked our meals on our backpacking stove and showered at the coin-op bath and laundry on Main Street. The second night we moved camp to an open spot right on the water, but the wind pummeled us all evening, as if to punish us for being too greedy.

The best way to get around Stehekin is by bike. You can bring your own bike on the ferry for $27 or rent them there in town for around $40 per bike. Most of the sights, activities and trailheads are scattered a few miles along the main road, but the reason you’ll want a bike is for quick access to the Stehekin Pastry Company. The bakery serves mouthwatering treats of all kinds. The Danish was my favorite, but they also have great coffee, pizza and ice cream, and sometimes it’s worth stopping in more than once a day. After hiking the popular Rainbow Loop, we staggered past the bakery again, ready for dinner. The pizza was tempting, but I ordered a second round of huckleberry ice cream.

We had heard about a fantastic garden called, strangely, The Garden, and we made a point to visit the small organic farm along the main road and try the fresh herb goat cheese and sesame crackers. After arriving, we wandered around until the famously barefoot owner, Karl Gaskill, strolled over. Besides offering honey, goat yogurt, crackers, and seasonal produce, the man was a pleasure to chat with. He told us great stories about his days running the wildly successful Honey Bear Bakery in Seattle and his return in 2000 to full-time gardening in sleepy Stehekin. We left with a jar of big leaf maple syrup and a new appreciation for the wonders of goat’s milk.

On the ferry ride to Stehekin, we had befriended two hikers, Mike and Scott, and Mike’s dog Irma, and our paths crossed all weekend long. We ran into them a half-dozen times. Scott had just returned from hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and one evening we shared beers and stories in the little picnic shelter, and our conversations kept returning to the joys of spending time in nature. We saw them again on the return ferry—this time on the faster Lady of the Lake, which was still a leisurely two-hour cruise. We shared goat yogurt and admired the vivid-green hillsides passing by us in the evening sunlight. That’s the thing about a one-road, remote lake town like Stehekin–you’re likely to come away with new friends and a new favorite place to escape the grind.

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