A sunny resort town and mountainous wilderness meet halfway in Central Washington
As the sun sank below the shoulders of Stormy Mountain incentral Washington, long, amber shadows crept across eastern LakeChelan's rolling, sun-burned hills. The lake's chopï¿½ stirred by watercraft and stoked by windï¿½ smoothed and lay silent. Feeling flush from aday of swimming, sunbathing, boating, and wine tasting, my familyand I ate grilled chicken on our condominium deck near the town ofChelan, savoring the desert scenery and balmy weather.
A day later and about 55 miles to the west, we gathered for adifferent experience. Sitting at communal tables at the StehekinValley Ranch dining hall, we and other guests awaited sizzlingtop-sirloin steaks and cowboy coffee. The western end of LakeChelan is fed by the glacial waters of the Stehekin River, makingit too frigid for most people to enjoy water sports. Instead wewould spend our days here exploring the mountainous Stehekin Valleyï¿½ biking, hiking, river rafting, horseback riding,and enjoying the solitude.
"Many of Stehekin's visitors are amazed at how much can changein topography, culture, and climate in just 55 miles," CliffCourtney says of the lake's two ends. He is a member of afourth-generation Stehekin family that runs many of the businessesin the valley. "Rather than the dry hills of Chelan, you'll findrugged, snowcapped peaks here and heavy evergreen forests, muchlike you would have seen before settlers came."
The link between these two worlds goes back more than a century.Four times a day, Lady of the Lake boats ferry residents andvisitors from Chelan to Stehekin. Service began in 1889 with thehistoric steamer Belle of Chelan.
These days, as the boats cruise uplake, Chelan's tawny, bone-dryhills give way to forested cliffs. Eventually, full-fledged forestbeards cling to the cheeks and jowls of rocky mountainsides, andyou arrive in a place so peaceful that you may do a double-take.Besides a few cabins and vacation rentals, the only major places tostay in Stehekin are a national parkï¿½operatedlodge and a family-owned resort; the only places to eat are therestaurants within those lodgings and a pastry shop/cafe. And theonly people who stay for more than a few hours ï¿½longer than the typical visitor who rides the Lady Express roundtrip simply to wander around the ferry landing and visitor centerï¿½ are those interested in exploring the pristinebeauty of the Stehekin Valley.
Deeply different worlds
The abruptly changing landscape explains the extreme contrastsbetween Chelan and Stehekin. "The best thing Stehekin has for itscontinued protection is not rule or regulation but, rather, lack ofaccess, large amounts of wet snowfall, and pure, cold waterï¿½ none of which is conducive to large-scaletourism," Courtney says.
Since 1968 Stehekin has been part of the Lake Chelan NationalRecreation Area, which is administered by the National ParkService. (The northwest end of the recreation area borders NorthCascades National Park, so many of the valley's hikes are inNational Park land.) Past struggles between residents andregulators have resulted in limited development and arecreation-friendly landscape that's been preserved in pristinecondition. "The remoteness and the community make Stehekin unique,"Courtney says.