One of the most scenic and tranquil snowshoe settings in North America is a remote hamlet in central Washington. This Evergreen state oasis called Stehekin could easily be tabbed the Last Great Adventure.
During the dead of winter a visit to Stehekin means a scenic 55-mile boat ride from the town of Chelan on the Lady of the Lake, or a flight via Chelan Airways. Either way, the picturesque beauty of Lake Chelan sets the stage for what you’ll experience once arriving at the Landing in Stehekin.
Though it offers year-round adventure, the North Cascades Stehekin Lodge is a very popular winter destination, due in part to its popular Moonlight Snowshoe weekend excursions, offered from January through March. Stehekin visitors appreciate the area’s transformation into a winter wonderland when the snow begins falling, usually before Thanksgiving. In fact, the area averages two-plus feet of snow from December through March, which makes snowshoeing the most practical form of transportation.
After two solid hours of breathtaking beauty aboard the Lady of the Lake, the boat ends its journey at the Stehekin dock, also known as the Landing. While unloading gear, one can’t help but notice the craggy snow-capped peaks of the North Cascades Mountain Range as they dominate the entire skyline. For more than 100 years tourists have been coming to Stehekin to appreciate the solitude and alpine grandeur of these mountains. Their therapeutic value is unmatched. In fact, a turn-of-the-century hotel operator once advertised Stehekin as the “health and pleasure seeker’s Mecca.” Some things never change.
The first thing you’ll notice about Stehekin is the immense silence while snowshoeing through the quiet forest. Visitors soon come to appreciate that stillness in all aspects of the weekend as well. There are no TVs, cell phones or radios, just you and your thoughts.
Next to snowshoes, the ubiquitous blue bus is the main mode of transportation, shuttling visitors to and from various Stehekin Valley snowshoeing areas.
My weekends at Stehekin go something like this:
One of the highlights is a visit to 312-foot Rainbow Falls. Located 3 1/2 miles from the Landing, the crystal blue, mostly frozen waterfall is truly spectacular, not to be missed. From the falls, we spend a few hours walking through nearby Buckner Orchard, which is the oldest common delicious apple orchard in the United States. The National Park Service maintains the orchard, and the apples are for the enjoyment of residents and visitors.
Saturday begins with snow falling lightly. It continues throughout the day, and we embark on our snowshoeing journey at the end of the plowed road at Courtney Ranch, a 45-minute bus ride from the Landing. As we silently trek towards High Bridge, we catch occasional glimpses of the Stehekin River. Reminiscent of the natural beauty depicted in the movie “A River Runs Through It,” the Stehekin River offers that same splendor, only shrouded in white.
Two miles into our trek, we stop briefly at High Bridge to catch our breath and have a snack. Others in our group spend an hour relaxing in a cozy cabin where National Park Ranger Ed Pontbriand provides an inviting fire and a little area history. Some of our cohorts head out to Coon Lake, a mile away, while we, the most intrepid in the group continue on the four miles to Car Wash Falls. An hour later as we near our destination, the park ranger tells us that only a handful of others have made the mostly uphill trek to Car Wash Falls this season. Ed takes our photo as his rescue-trained dog Trace poses at our feet.
Descending the trail, we are relieved that most of our return journey will be downhill. Having dressed in layers, it’s easy to cool down. The extra water we brought in our daypack is a welcome and necessary treat, for it’s easy to become dehydrated while snowshoeing, and a granola bar gives us fuel.
We finally make it back to the pick-up point, completing an 8 1/2-mile round trip hike. But our snowshoeing efforts for this day are not finished. After a hot shower, we enjoy a cozy candlelight dinner at the Swissmont Restaurant. Then it’s back to our room where we gear up for the Moonlight Snowshoe Walk.
After a 20-minute bus ride, we unload near the Stehekin Air Strip. The moon is clearly visible on this night, and we are treated to the irony of lightly falling snow, coupled with a full slate of stars filling the nighttime sky.
Our short snowshoe excursion is a blessing, since our legs are a little weary from the day’s activities. A short time later, our group of about 30 arrives at a roaring bon fire, where we sip mulled wine and hot chocolate and nibble on s’mores. We exchange stories of our snowshoeing experiences, appreciate the beauty of the night, and are thankful for this moment in time.
A few of us shine our flashlights heavenward highlighting the lightly falling snow. It’s then that I’m reminded of a passage by Thomas Merton, who in “Thoughts in Solitude” wrote: “…When we have really met and known the world in silence, words do not separate us from the world nor from other men, nor from God, nor from ourselves because we no longer trust entirely in language to contain reality.”
But the reality of this experience will forever remain in your thoughts long after leaving Stehekin.
For more information on Moonlight Snowshoeing packages contact North Cascades Stehekin Lodge, P.O. Box 457, Chelan, Wash. 98816; call (509) 682-4494; online: www.stehekin.com.