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Unplugged in Washington's Wild and Scenic Stehekin

The wild and scenic Stehekin River, fed by snowfields and glaciers in the craggy peaks of the North Cascades, tumbles down a remote valley that hides one of the most remarkable outdoor destinations in the Northwest.

Scenes from lofty Rainbow Falls in the Stehekin River valley in Washington's North Cascades
all photos copyright Ben Davidson Photo/
The wild and scenic Stehekin River in Washignton's North Cascades
Ben Davidson Photo/

I just spent an unplugged, unhurried, and unforgettable week at the valley's most renowned accommodation: the Stehekin Valley Ranch, a family-owned business that's been welcoming visitors to their cozy cabins for over 30 years. It's a perfect spot to unwind, soak up in the abundant Cascadian scenery and revel in Northwest adventures: whitewater rafting, wilderness hiking, wildlife watching, horseback riding and mountain biking. With no phones, a satellite internet signal that barely trickles in, and electricity that's generated only a few hours a day, the ranch feels wonderfully remote and rich with the nuances of traditional rural Western living.

You can only arrive in the Stehekin by ferry, private boat or float plane. The Stehekin Landing, with its lodge and the park service's Golden West Visitor Center, is serviced daily spring though fall, by ferries that ply scenic Lake Chelan (which fills the deepest gorge in North America). From here, backpackers head into the rugged mountains, tent campers head to nearby campsites, and cabin-renters are shuttled by park service buses to woodsy abodes.

Our journey to the Stehekin started with a three-and-a-half- hour drive from Seattle, with a stop at the family-owned Trader John's fruit stand in Entiat near the shores of the Columbia River for a week's worth of just-picked cherries, peaches and apricots. After an overnight at the Mountain View lodge in the Manson, we caught the relatively fast Lady Express ferry from a dock near the town of Chelan for a 2 1/2 hour scenic cruise to Stehekin Landing. (There's another ferry, the Lady of the Lake, operated by the same company that takes about an hour longer and is less expensive than the express boat.)

A vintage-style park service bus met us at the landing and provides regular transportation for visitors up and down the valley along a 13-mile-long, mostly dirt roadway. Nine miles up the road, the Stehekin Valley Ranch offers comfy, tidy guest cabins, some with bathrooms and kitchenettes, and more rustic tent cabins set on a horse pasture, home to the ranch's herd of Norwegian Fjord horses, used for trail rides in the area. Home-style meals, including fantastic array of pies, are served in a main lodge, whose dining roomed has a sawdust floor, grand fireplace and lofty timbered ceiling.

Our days were spent hiking the road upriver to High Bridge, then continuing on trails leading to dramatic Agnes Gorge, Coon Lake and McGregor Mountain, an arduous climb high above the Stehekin River valley.

Adventure was also found right across the road from the ranch at the put-in point for a whitewater ride down the Stehekin River. Our guides, three burly locals, expertly navigated the very cold, swift river. The wild and scenic river had gentle rapids and was lined with downed trees swept downstream by springtime melt. The raft trip exits into peaceful Lake Chelan, where kayakers and windsurfers ply the broad expanse. On another day, we rented mountain bikes for the 18-mile round trip ride from the ranch past thunderous Rainbow Falls, a historic orchard and the popular Stehekin Pastry Company to the ferry landing and back, a perfect ride for kids and adults alike, especially for the views that sum up this scenic valley hidden away in Washington's rugged, unspoiled North Cascades.

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