Fifteen minutes into our 2½-hour ferry ride up Lake Chelan to Stehekin, my 16-year-old son, James, is already asking, "Where the heck is this place?" He and his 18-year-old brother, Sam, are slouched in their seats, iPods in place, totally unimpressed by the ravishing scenery.
We're here because I have casually plotted to kidnap my family and plop them at the end of the road in Stehekin, Washington ― one of the most spectacularly isolated communities in the States ― where, selfishly, I can have them all to myself. And cruelest of all? No cars. Since you can reach Stehekin only by ferry, floatplane, or foot, my wandering teens will be without their wheels. It's their worst nightmare, my dream come true. Sometimes vacations require drastic measures.
"Um, I think it's up there," I say by way of answering James's question, pointing vaguely toward the head of the lake where steep granite outcroppings and rocky mountain flanks flecked with pines frame towering peaks.
THINGS GET OFF TO A ROCKY START
Soon we've docked at Stehekin Landing, transferred our duffels to an old yellow school bus, and are bouncing along the edge of the Stehekin River toward the convergence of four fabulously wild places: North Cascades National Park, Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, Wenatchee National Forest, and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area.
"Dad's going to love it!" I say, keeping an eye sharp for trout holes my husband can hit with his fly rod when he arrives tomorrow. There's no answer. Both boys are out cold, I discover, fast asleep in the back of the bus.
No problem. I know the guys (my husband included) will give in to the shocking relaxation of finding themselves Facebook-less in a place like Stehekin, even if it takes a day or two to adjust. Stehekin has 85 inhabitants, one phone (credit-card calls only), a public dock, and a handful of places to stay and eat. By the time the bus drops us off at Stehekin Valley Ranch, we've entered a North Cascades home on the range. Horseback riding. Fly-fishing. Alpine hiking. Hearty ranch cooking. That sort of thing.
Still, I'm a little unsure that first afternoon. There is a rack of fat-tire bikes for rent, so after settling into our cabins (canvas for the boys, cedar-log for my husband and me), James strings up his fly rod, Sam laces his running shoes, and the three of us pedal up-valley. The stillness is deafening. The Stehekin River, all glacial melt, rushes alongside, fast and deep.
"How far until a good fishing spot?" they want to know. I haven't a clue.
We pedal on. They're not buying it, not 1 mile of it: the beauty, the isolation, the grandeur. Of course, just when they're hating me most, the trip turns. We drop 'round a bend, and there's an ideal fishing pool ― trout heaven in the late-afternoon sun. Five minutes later, James reels in a small but feisty cutthroat.
"Mom, I got one!" Thank God, I breathe to myself. One teen hooked, one to go.
PIE, NATURE ... LIFE'S NOT SO BAD
For Sam, the turning point comes the next morning at breakfast. While I'm thrilled to be within shouting distance of the Pacific Crest Trail, Sam is more into the food. And who can blame him? It's stupendous, the kind you dream about if you're hiking 30 miles a day or growing a foot a year. He heads back for thirds at the all-you-can-eat breakfast bar in the massive log dining room, then takes off on an hourlong run.
By the time my husband joins us at the ranch, we feel like we pretty much own the place. We show him where to grab a bike when he wants to pedal around with his backpack and a fly rod. We explain how the food works: three squares and six to 10 kinds of homemade pie a day, plus cowboy coffee 24/7. We sign up for an afternoon river-rafting trip led by ranch proprietor Cliff Courtney, who, with his five siblings grew up on the property.
Beyond that, we surrender - all of us, even the boys ― to the utterly relaxing pace of unscheduled days. We don't go horseback riding, and here I have a confession to make: We hardly go hiking! We nap in hammocks surrounded by broadleaf maples, laze around reading, play knock-down rounds of Hearts, and sometimes just sit on our cabin's front porch with its killer view of glaciers, waterfalls, and shining slabs of rock in all directions, doing nothing but breathing in the warm, fresh breeze redolent of pine.
On our last day, I get my husband and boys to ride bikes down-valley with me to the bakery. They're scoring major points, and they know it, since I have a thing about bakeries. And the funny part? Although the family-run Stehekin Pastry Company is nearly perfect in every way, the highlight of the outing is simply getting there. It's like riding through a collective memory of summers past: the bikes flying through forest, the crunch of knobby tires on gravel, the drift of river tumbling over stone, and each of us riding along at our own separate pace, together.
Stehekin is at the northwestern end of Lake Chelan, adjoining North Cascades National Park. The Lady of the Lake and Lady Express ferries each make one daily round-trip between Chelan and Stehekin in summer (from $47 round-trip; ladyofthelake.com or 509/682-4584). Chelan Airways operates floatplanes between Chelan and Stehekin (from $165 round-trip; 509/682-5555).
Stehekin Valley Ranch Fourteen cabins; seven have baths and two have kitchenettes. The dining room ($$; dinner reservations required) is open to nonguests Wed-Sun. Cabins from $85 per person, including meals; kitchenette units from $150; 509/682-4677.
Silver Bay Inn The valley's most romantic views are from the two lakefront cabins and the two-bedroom timber-frame home at the head of the lake. Although the inn doesn't have a restaurant, the cabins have ample kitchens and are close to Stehekin Landing Resort, the Stehekin Pastry Company bakery, and the bus. Cabins from $275, house from $375; five-night minimum stay; 800/555-7781.
Stehekin Landing Resort Utilitarian facility overlooking Stehekin Landing has 28 rooms in varying sizes. Most sleep two or three, but seven units have kitchens and sleep three to seven. There's also a four-bedroom house that sleeps 12. The restaurant ($$) serves three meals daily. Rooms from $123; house $379, two-night minimum stay; 509/682-4494.
Boulder Cabin at Rainbow Falls Lodge The comfortable one-room cabin sleeps four and comes with a full kitchen, screened porch, and two bicycles. It's 2 miles from Stehekin Landing and close to the bakery and trailheads. From $165; two-night minimum stay; 206/508-1025.
Biking Rent sturdy mountain bikes from Discovery Bikes (from $4 per hour) near the landing, at Stehekin Valley Ranch, or at Stehekin Landing Resort. You can bike the 7 miles from the ranch to the Stehekin Pastry Company bakery and have lunch, then return on the bus ($5, $2.50 ages 12 and under).
Hiking The Pacific Crest Trail (916/349-2109), a 2,650-mile trail from Canada to Mexico, cuts through the valley, and many other trails are suitable for day hikes. One of the loveliest is the Agnes Gorge Trail, an easy 2.5-mile one-way hike to a dramatic gorge and a view of 8,115-foot Agnes Mountain. For info, stop by the Golden West Visitor Center up the hill from Stehekin Landing; nps.gov/noca or 360/854-7365 ext. 14.
Horseback riding Cascade Corrals' guided rides include a 2 ½-hour jaunt from Stehekin Valley Ranch to Coon Lake and back. 8 and 2 daily; $45; reservations required; no children under 8; stehekin.biz or 509/682-4677
MORE IDYLLIC FAMILY GETAWAYS
Readers tell us about their most memorable vacations with the kids
The Marshall Family of Rancho Palos Verdes, CA
Where We Went Sedona, AZ
Why We Bonded "We hiked, picnicked creekside, and took in the inspiring scenery of Sedona. The best part: a tour of the desert in a (yep) pink four-wheel-drive that made us all feel like kids again," says Marisa Marshall. Pink Jeep Tours: from $45 per person; 800/873-3662.
If You Want To Go Sedona Reál Inn & Suites offers Jeep-tour packages. From $99, including breakfast; 877/353-1239.
The Bernstein Family of Larchmont, NY
Where We Went HF Bar Ranch, a luxurious dude ranch in Saddlestring, WY
Why We Bonded "Horseback riding is a great equalizer for kids of all ages. We stayed together on the rides, and no one lost patience. There are no rules ... you can go into the kitchen to get ice cream whenever you want, and all the ranch pets are like your pets by the end of your stay," Jane Bernstein says.
If You Want To Go $260 per person (ages 4 and under free), including meals and activities; 307/684-2487.
The Mahaffy-Scott Family of Boulder, CO
Where We Went Sunset Suratt Surf School, North Shore, Oahu, HI
Why We Bonded "Catching a wave together for the first time was unforgettable. We listened to Jack Johnson (who grew up next door to our groovy beach house), and the theme song for our trip became Johnson's 'Better Together' ('It's always better when we're together')," Cynthia Mahaffy says.