You can’t drive to Stehekin.
Go by boat, fly, or ride a horse; no road will take you there.
The remote community of Stehekin lies at the north end of the 55-mile long trench of Lake Chelan in north central Washington state. The easiest way to get there is by boat from the town of Chelan, 190 miles east of Seattle, at the lake’s south end.
If you’re more adventurous, you can ride your horse to Stehekin along a wilderness trail. When you get there, treat yourself to the comforts and camaraderie of a stay at the Stehekin Valley Ranch.
Last summer, I rode to the ranch with my husband, George Schoenfeld; we were accompanied by our two Australian Shepherds. My husband rode Picholo, a 16-hand-high Pinto gelding and a veteran of many trail rides. I rode Rhia, a Paint Horse mare, used most of the time for barrel racing. Picholo and Rhia are calm, surefooted, and fit; desirable traits for trail horses.
Planning the Ride
Before we left home, we inspected our tack and gear for any wear and tear. We called the National Park Service and the United States Forest Service for information about trail conditions. Our route passed through the North Cascades National Park and the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, so we made sure we were in compliance with their respective regulations.
You need a permit to camp in the national park. You can get a permit, free of charge, at a national park ranger station. Only 12 “heartbeats” – human, horse, or dog – are allowed in a designated wilderness area.
Dogs aren’t allowed on any national park trails, except for the Pacific Crest Trail. On any trail, they must be well-behaved and under voice control.
Check trail conditions before you leave home. Downed trees, washed-out bridges, and deteriorating, poorly maintained trails ruin many rides. Washington state trails have been hard hit by recent floods and windstorms, and many trails, once rideable, are no longer maintained.
The First Day
Our point of departure was the Bridge Creek trailhead between Rainy and Washington Pass, elevation 4,500 feet, on State Route 20, the North Cascades Scenic Hwy., 67 miles from Seattle. The Pacific Crest Trail crosses the highway here.
The trailhead is right off the highway. You’ll find plenty of room for trucks and horse trailers. You can pay a daily parking fee or buy an annual Northwest Forest Pass that covers parking fees in the North Cascades National Park and USFS trailheads. Vandalism and gas theft can be a problem.
In the coolness of the early morning, we started south on the PCT. We carried everything we needed for a day ride, including rain gear for the often-inclement weather in the North Cascades. Luke, our 10-month old Australian Shepherd, carried a pack filled with dog food. About a mile down the trail, he ditched his pack, so the dog food ended up in our saddlebags.
We rode down the heavily forested valley of Bridge Creek, occasionally catching sight of snow-covered peaks. Streams, tumbling down from the mountains around us, crossed the trail frequently and provided plenty of water for the horses and dogs.
Many of the trees in the Bridge Creek drainage were rusty brown, dead and dying from spruce budworm infestation. This is an eco-disaster in the making. All the dead trees are prime fuel for a forest fire that could raze the entire valley.
The PCT from State Route 20 to the Stehekin Valley was safe for horses and well- maintained. In the first nine miles, we crossed water, went over several bridges, and experienced minimal elevation changes.
The scariest things for the horses were humans with flapping ponchos and bulging backpacks. We encountered the occasional backpacker, notably one who was annoyed when our dogs barked at him. I apologized for their behavior, but I could understand the dog’s alarm. He looked as though he’d been on the trail for a long time.
My husband and I are both members of our local chapter of Backcountry Horsemen of Washington. We practice the BCH’s trail-riding philosophy of “leave no trace,” minimizing our impact on the land while riding horses in the backcountry.
Backpackers often take a negative view of riders. They associate horses with trail degradation and messy, manure-filled campsites.
We attempt to improve their perception by being good ambassadors for trail riders.
We stopped for lunch at the junction with the North Fork trail. This is a good place to tie horses, about nine miles from the trailhead. After lunch, we crossed to the other side of Bridge Creek and gently descended into the Stehekin River Valley at Mile 12.
Shortly after entering the valley, we passed Bridge Creek Camp, a park service horse camp with corrals, hitch rails, and water. This is the only designated horse camp in the Stehekin Valley and a great place to stay if you don’t plan to continue on to the Stehekin Valley Ranch, seven miles farther.
After 19 miles of trail riding, we reached our destination. We were looking forward to the hot showers and ranch-style meals. We took the horses to their accommodations, small individual corrals with water. The horses were eager to be unsaddled and brushed down. The dogs just wanted a shady place to sleep.
The Stehekin Valley Ranch
The Stehekin Valley Ranch is a wonderful place to stay. It’s owned and operated by the Courtney family, longtime valley dwellers. The Courtney family also owns the Stehekin Pastry Co. and Cascade Corrals. Your stay at the ranch can include trail rides on their Norwegian Fjord horses, day hikes, rafting the Stehekin River, kayaking on Lake Chelan, and, always, a stop at the pastry shop for treats.
Meals, lodging, and transportation are included in the price. We stayed in a tent cabin, simple but very comfortable. Also available are cabins that sleep up to six people, with bathrooms and electricity. Rates vary, depending on the number of nights you stay, your age, and lodging choice.
The food is plentiful and delicious. I’d characterize it as Western-style comfort food: plenty of meat and potatoes, but an ample spread of salads and fruit. Meals are served family-style in the main ranch house.
Tables are shared with the other guests. At our dinner, we all swapped stories. Everyone wanted to hear about our ride to the ranch. We became fast friends with two women in their late 60s, avid outdoorswomen and very fit. When we rode the trails the next day, they followed close behind us on foot.
During dinner, the ranch’s Fjords were turned out into the pasture in front of the ranch house. The dun-colored herd galloped past us, delighted at their release from the day’s chores. They’re used for lessons, day rides, packing, and supported trekking.
On our second day, we explored the trails surrounding the ranch. In retrospect, we should’ve taken it easy and rested up for our ride out the next day.
The Ride Out
All too soon, we had to saddle up our horses and head back. The shorter way out was the way we came. A longer, more scenic loop goes over McAlester Pass and ties into the PCT about three miles from State Route 20.
Gluttons for punishment, we opted for the scenic route. It was definitely not the easy way out; we recommend it only for experienced trail riders on very fit horses.
After a four-mile ride down the Stehekin River Road, the only road servicing the valley, we reached the Rainbow Loop trailhead. Forest fires were raging in the mountains above us. The scent of smoke filled the air. The trails accessing the Chelan Sawtooth Wilderness from here were closed due to fire hazard, but the trail to McAlester Pass was still open.
The only way out of the valley was up. We reached a stunning overlook of Lake Chelan after about a 1,000-foot elevation gain in two miles. Everyone posed for photos: dogs, horses, and humans.
The trail continued to climb as it followed a stream for another two miles, then dropped as we approached the junction with the Rainbow Lake trail. Beside us, the rushing torrent of Rainbow Creek cascaded down from the mountains surrounding Lake Chelan.
After we crossed Rainbow Creek, the trail climbed even higher. It was so strenuous that the younger of our two Australian Shepherds wandered off to rest in the shade underneath a tree. I got off my horse and urged him back on the trail. We were all tired.
At 6,000 feet, we reached the lovely meadowlands of McAlester Pass and the junction with the South Pass and McAlester trails. We’d gained more than 5,000 feet since leaving the valley. We reined left on the McAlester trail. We rode past McAlester Lake, swamp-like and buggy, with campsites for hikers and riders. The next four miles dropped gently to our loop’s completion at the PCT.
We met up with more members of the Courtney family at Fireweed camp, a horse camp at the junction of the PCT and McAlester trail. They staged their Fjord-horse-supported treks from this camp. All the hikers have to do is show up; the horses carry all their food and equipment, and the Courtneys prepare all their meals.
After 28 miles of riding, a long day in the saddle, we finished our ride. Heading west on the North Cascades Highway, we anticipated the perfect ending to our adventure: berry shortcake at the Cascadian Farm roadside stand in Rockport. The dogs, in the backseat of the pickup, slept all the way home.