Part of my reasoning for visiting Lake Chelan was to take a trip to the mysterious, secluded Stehekin.
And the only way to do that in the ‘off season’ is to go via boat. In our case, our option was the Lady of the Lake. The trip is a long one, as their express boat didn’t start until Thursday, a day after we took our trip.
Seeing the schedule on the website and actually taking the trip there and back in one day are two completely different things. Don’t be fooled — it’s a long haul. I definitely suggest spending an overnight (or two!)
We booked the trip over the phone, which was extremely easy to do, and when we arrived (a little earlier than suggested arrival time, as I was expecting Seattle-area traffic in tiny Chelan), the tickets were ready for us! We watched as hikers and other several-day travelers got their gear together to load on the vessel, as well as seeing workers load mail, dry goods and more to make their way to the far reaches of the lake.
It was pretty neat listening to what folks were doing — one couple my dad spoke to were planning to get dropped off at Prince Creek to walk the 17 miles to Stehekin. Pretty amazing, and their packs weighed under 30 pounds!
In case you were confused like I briefly was, Stehekin is a remote town, name meaning ‘the way through,’ now kept afloat with help of the tourism industry. Holden Village, at Lucerne, was once a thriving copper mine facility. After the price of copper plummeted, the mine was closed, the property ending in the hands of a Lutheran non-profit agency. Cleanup work at the site is being done by the Rio Tinto.
I wish I could’ve done a trip a day by stopping at both Stehekin AND Holden Village, but it’s just simply not possible. Maybe if I join the Lake Chelan boating club, which uses the former miners’ houses as a base, roughly 12 miles below Holden Village.
The nearly four hours to the town was long, but beautiful. I learned about the history of the two glaciers coming together to form the lake, and that it’s the 3rd largest basin in North America! I mostly spent my time searching the cliff-side for waterfalls and mountain goats inside, since the temperature was still fairly chilly in the morning. Several landings later, we arrived at Stehekin just a quarter past two. Since we were behind schedule, the crew said our departure would be that much later.
We decided upon the $10 Red Bus Tour, which took us to Rainbow Falls! Our guide was great — he moved here from Alaska six years ago without knowing the town existed. Now, he’s a local operating the store and Red Busses. On the journey, he told us about the plan to integrate 15 grizzly bears back into the wilderness. While it might sound scary and present many challenges, they once lived there too — before humans got rid of them.
Apparently Rainbow Falls was named for the rainbows that like to cross over the falls, but for us, the water was raging so much it rained over the viewpoints. When there’s a good year for available water, the glacier melt and snow run-off pours over the falls so much that it causes the dishes in a house about a half-mile away to shake! There even was a picnic table, no doubt made by the giants as a gift for visitors, local or not.
Fewer than 100 people live here year round, though no doubt the numbers increase during the summer months. These city-birds come in for a week or more at a time, then the rest of the year, the houses sit empty. It’s not an easy place to live, as all goods, including vehicles, fuel, groceries and mail must come by boat, so coordination is key. Let’s not forget that in this modern day, cell service stops just after 25 Mile Creek State Park, at least that distance away from town.
We visited the day Stehekin had it’s 8th grade graduation ceremony: three graduates, which will leave the total population for the ’17-’18 at a mere two students. After graduating, the students must either stay with relatives or friends in Chelan, or be homeschooled. Sometimes, the school closes if there are no more incoming students for several years– it’s happened before, our guide says. The tradition for graduates is to get a handmade blanket made by the town. The town got a ‘new’ school building, complete with indoor plumbing, after an outhouse burned down near the old one room schoolhouse in 1988.
One reason why I wish I had more time is that I felt rushed after the trip to Rainbow Falls — I simply didn’t have enough time to explore before the ferry left! I had hoped to visit the bakery, known for its cinnamon rolls, but alas, the bus didn’t stop, and as it’s a 2 mile walk away from the ferry, it wasn’t feasible to get there and back in the 20 minutes or so remaining. I felt rushed even when picking out postcards for my grandma, hurrying my mom to choose gifts. As a result, we ended up sitting on the vessel for 10 minutes, wondering why we weren’t using that time to explore.
I was able to send a postcard from the Stehekin post office, so my Grandma will get a cool stamp, which is exciting! I can’t wait to see it when I visit her!
The ride back seemed simultaneously quicker, yet longer, especially as we got closer to Chelan. Fortunately, it had warmed up on the water so I spent nearly the entire trip on the outside deck, soaking up the sun and sky. I even found a few waterfalls I hadn’t spotted on the way up.
So here’s the lesson: if you’re planning a trip to Stehekin, plan on staying at least a day to explore. And bring a book or something to listen to on the journey, to help pass the time when no mountain goats or other wildlife come into view.