Have you heard of Stehekin before? When I told my friends I was going there this summer, the majority of them responded, “Where is that?” For those who don’t know, it’s a very remote town at the top of Lake Chelan that you can only reach by boat, floatplane, or hiking. You may be surprised to know that there are plenty of things to do in Stehekin when you’re visiting, as you’ll soon see in this article.
I wanted to visit Stehekin for years but kept having plans fall through, so I finally decided this was the year. I booked a room at North Cascades Lodge early in the summer and anxiously counted down the days until it was time to go. While the day of had a few issues come up (mainly having to bring my two little kids when I thought this would be a relaxing solo trip), the second I got on the ferry, I felt excited for the next few days.
After the two-hour boat ride on Lake Chelan’s upper estuary, our ferry pulled up to Stehekin Landing, and our adventure began. One thing I instantly noticed about Stehekin is that the pace of life is so different from anywhere else in the state. No one’s in a rush here, and why would they be?
You’re in one of the most beautiful small towns in Washington, so you’ll want to spend as much time as possible here. There’s also no cell service, so you’re forced to socialize with others (which is very much a good thing). While being unable to contact the outside world may be stressful to some, it also forces you to slow down and actually enjoy your surroundings.
Here is what to do in Stehekin if you’re interested in planning your own trip there.
1. Learn Something New at the Golden West Visitor Center
Whenever I travel anywhere (particularly to national parks in Washington), I always stop at the visitor’s center first. This is the safest way to explore the outdoors, as you can talk to the ranger and tell them what hikes you have planned or if they have any recommended ones based on your fitness level. They’ll let you know of any trail closures or wildlife sightings you might need to be aware of.
Many visitor centers are small, but the Golden West Visitor Center has plenty of signs and posters to read to teach you all about how life used to be back in this remote location. There’s also a kid’s corner full of books and coloring papers (which my boys loved) and a film you can watch on Stehekin Valley.
If you love national park gear, there’s a small store as well to get your fill of that. Make sure to get your national park stamp before you leave (there’s a station right outside the door)!
1. Explore Stehekin by Renting Bicycles
As you’ll learn throughout this article, there aren’t a ton of things to do in Stehekin that are right by the ferry dock. However, you can easily fix that problem by renting a bicycle from Discovery Bikes. They have a variety of bikes, including more of a cruiser bike, a regular bike, or a mountain bike if you plan to go on the trails.
There are both half-day and full-day rentals available, so you can pick which one works for you. Something I found out about Discovery Bikes right when I was leaving is they do have bike trailers if you’re visiting Stehekin with kids, and I wish I had known that before my trip!
One thing I will note is that while there aren’t many cars here, you still need to be careful on these roads with your bike rental. Some of them are pretty narrow and windy, and you’ll still see locals driving their vehicles around, so pay attention and pull over when necessary.
2. Treat Yourself at Stehekin Pastry Company
Maybe the most famous place in all of Stehekin Valley is Stehekin Pastry Company, where they’re known for their cinnamon rolls. It’s rumored people come to the area for the day just to get these, and after trying one, I can definitely see why. I don’t think our cinnamon roll lasted more than 5 minutes between the three of us, and it was huge.
In addition to warm, gooey cinnamon rolls, they also have a large variety of other pastries as well as a full espresso bar. There’s a pretty big indoor area to sit in, as well as a dozen picnic tables and chairs outside for the nicer days.
I got here right when a busload of PCT hikers got dropped off, and they were absolutely ecstatic to see this after their many days of hiking in the wilderness. They eagerly ran to the front and ordered multiple pastries per person (which were well-deserved!) and then sank down into the chairs to relax.
An important thing to note about this company that I learned when I came here – this isn’t in the “main” part of town and is actually two miles away from the ferry dock. That means you’ll have to 1) walk, 2) bike, or 3) take the shuttle, which is the most popular option.
The general store has the exact shuttle schedule posted, and it seems that about every two hours, the bus comes to take people to the bakery for $5. However, once the bus drops you off, they’re off to drop off and pick up other people for the next 1.5 hours at places like Stehekin Valley Ranch and hiking trails, so you will have to wait there for a bit.
3. Navigate the Lake While Kayaking
If you’re getting a bit restless in town, rent a kayak and go explore the lake (which is also one of the best things to do in Lake Chelan). You can head to the general store at North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin to pay for your kayak or paddleboard, which was $20 per hour when I was there.
There are several easy launch points by the store into the lake, and a popular one was just a minute down the road that had a covered shelter area complete with chairs and even a grill. You can easily make lunch or dinner after you go kayaking, and this was a popular choice with many people I saw.
I always love kayaking wherever I go, as it gives you a different perspective of the area you’re staying in. It’s also the only way to reach the very northern part of Lake Chelan, with the exception of a private boat.
4. Explore the McKellar Cabin Trail
If you’re looking for a short hike while in town, going on the McKellar Cabin Trail is one of the best things to do in Stehekin with kids. We did this loop hiking trail after checking in and wanting to get all of our energy out from sitting on the ferry for the past two hours. Just head north from the boat landing, and you’ll see it on your right shortly (look for the post office, as it starts there).
While the trail probably isn’t more than 1/4 of a mile, it’s full of old artifacts from Stehekin back in the day and has plenty of signs to read along the way. My oldest loved “leading the way” (which I let him do since I knew it was a loop trail) and showing us everything he found at each new turn.
You’ll end up at the old McKellar Cabin, which is the original structure of a settler who came here many years ago. You can walk inside it and look around the old cabin (my kid said, “Someone needs to clean this”), and then you’ll complete the loop and be back on Stehekin Valley Road.
5. Send a Postcard From the Post Office
While you’re at the McKellar Cabin Trail, pay a visit to the post office next door. I was surprised to see that they had one at all up here, but it makes sense because there’d be no other way for locals who live here to get their mail besides a very long journey.
In addition, it’s the second to last post office available to PCT hikers to mail themselves a resupply box, so you might encounter a bit of a line here as they anxiously wait to get their goodies.
I recommend going to the general store to buy a postcard, write a note to someone special, and then send it off at the post office. They’ll be surprised to get a postcard from a place they likely don’t know much about.
6. Witness a Stunning Sunrise
The two big themes in Stehekin are adventure and relaxation, so before you set off on a hike for the day, make sure to step outside and watch the sunrise. It was absolutely gorgeous coming over the mountains when I was here, and I think the stillness of the area made it even more magical.
The only thing that would go better with watching the sunrise is having a cup of coffee to enjoy it. Unfortunately, the one restaurant here doesn’t open until after sunrise, but I ended up bringing my own coffee packets and making it with the room’s hot water kettle, putting it in my trusty Yeti mug, and walking around with it.
7. Take in the Scenic Views at High Bridge
High Bridge is the official area where Lake Chelan National Recreational Area ends, and you’ll journey into North Cascades National Park (one of my favorite parks in the state). To get here, you’ll want to get on the Stehekin shuttle (which costs $10 to go all the way up here), and it’s about a 1.5-hour ride, so you can plan accordingly.
This is also the point where PCT hikers catch the shuttle to take a rest day in town, so the driver will allow riders about 10-15 minutes to explore the area once they get here. That allows all the hikers to gather their gear, and for those who just rode it to see more of the area, like myself, you can walk over to High Bridge during this time.
I visited in September and was thrilled to see salmon swimming in the Stehekin River, which was my first time seeing them in the wild (surprisingly, since I’m a Seattle native). It’s also a beautiful place to walk around and take pictures in general.
If you want to do some hiking in the North Cascades, this is an ideal drop-off point. You can get on the Pacific Crest Trail if you want to see what a small glimpse into that journey looks like, or you can go on Agnes Gorge Trail (5 miles RT).
This is also the perfect spot to go backpacking for a few days, as there are a variety of campgrounds available to call your base. Just make sure to reserve these well in advance, as they’ll sell out in the summer.
8. Hike Around North Cascades National Park
Speaking of hiking, one of the best things to do in Stehekin is to go on a hike, as you have so many options here. There are hikes in Stehekin Valley as well as in North Cascades National Park. For an easier hike, the Agnes Gorge Trail leads to a 210-foot deep gorge and is the perfect day hike, especially for guests at the Stehekin Valley Ranch.
One of the most famous summer hikes is The Rainbow Loop Trail, and it’s recommended to start from the upper trailhead for beautiful views of Lake Chelan while you go down the trail. Additionally, the Bridge Creek Trail is a moderate 3-mile hike to Bridge Creek, where you can go fishing and overnight camping.
Looking for challenging trails? The McGregor Mountain Trail is the place to get stunning 360-degree views from the top, although there is a rock scramble near the peak. You’ll want to start this 14-mile roundtrip hike early in the morning to avoid the summer heat.
Another popular Stehekin trail is the Purple Creek Trail, beginning at the Golden West Lodge Visitor Center. I like this trail because you’ll get beautiful views even if you only go a few miles, but you can also choose to extend it to almost 18 miles roundtrip.
9. Discover the Majestic Rainbow Falls
Rainbow Falls gets its own section because it’s one of the most popular things to do in Stehekin, next to visiting the Stehekin Pastry Company. To get here, you’ll need to either walk the three miles from Stehekin Landing or take the shuttle and get off at the Upper Rainbow Falls trail (just tell the driver where you’re going so they can alert you to the stop).
The National Park Service created a less than quarter-mile trail with a moderate elevation gain to a new lookout point of the waterfall, complete with a landing platform perfect for photographing the scene. Just be careful when you’re here, as the platform gets pretty slippery from the mist.
This is a stunning waterfall that’s worth taking time to relax and take pictures at. When you’re done and if you’re feeling ambitious, walk the one mile down to the bakery, and you can wait for the shuttle to pick you up while you indulge in a pastry.
You can also explore Stehekin more by walking over to the Stehekin Old School (the old schoolhouse for the area) or the Historic Buckner Orchard (a historic homestead). If you prefer more hiking, head south and check out the Stehekin River Trail.
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10. Visit The House That Jack Built
Just up the hill from the boat landing is a craft shop known as “The House that Jack Built.” The staff informed me that you can buy locally made crafts, souvenirs, and other gifts, despite the fact that it appears to only be open during the summer.
It’s located in a historic log cabin and right next to the National Park Service Center, so I recommend stopping here while you’re already up the hill in this area visiting Stehekin. The house has been open for an impressive 43 years.
How to Get to Stehekin
The top question I got when I went here was how you actually get to this town. There are several ways to reach Stehekin when you’re ready to visit. While you can come via your own floatplane, most people don’t have that option.
If you want a challenge, take the ferry to Prince Creek and then hike the 18 miles to Stehekin. There are multiple campgrounds here to break up the trip if you don’t want to walk that much in one day.
However, the most common way to get to Stehekin is to take the ferry straight there. Lake Chelan has two ferries you can take – one starts in downtown Chelan, and one starts at Fields Point Landing, which is on the west side of the lake.
Lady of the Lake has several boats you can take, and most people choose this route when they want to do a day trip here. However, you only have a 1.5-hour layover before having to get back on the boat, so most of your day will be spent on the ferry. That said, you can choose to get dropped off here and take a different boat back on a separate day.
The option I chose was the Stehekin Ferry, as it was more affordable and quicker. You’ll leave your car in the very big parking lot at Fields Point Landing, and there’s only one boat a day, so make sure you’re on time (I was late but somehow made it!). This ferry had free coffee and water, and snacks with donations, and the seats were very comfortable.
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Where to Stay in Stehekin
The first thing you’ll want to do before you visit Stehekin is book your accommodations months in advance. There are very few places to stay here, and they book up before the summer even starts. The two most common places to stay are North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin and Stehekin Valley Ranch.
I stayed at North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin because it’s right at Stehekin Landing and the only place that has a view of the lake. The rooms are simple, but you won’t be in there much anyway, so it doesn’t matter. The general store and restaurant are right here, so this was very convenient for my base.
Stehekin Valley Ranch is another popular choice, but this one is nine miles away from the ferry dock. They do offer a free bus that comes right when the ferries get in, but you’ll have to take it back to access the main part of Stehekin. I visited when I was on the shuttle, and it’s a very peaceful, beautiful setting with the mountains as your backdrop.
FAQs About Stehekin
I got so many questions about visiting Stehekin when I posted on Instagram, so here are some common ones.
Is Stehekin Kid-Friendly?
This question was by far the top one I got since everyone saw me there with my kids, and it’s tricky to answer. Generally, yes – there’s no reason you can’t bring kids here, but you’ll want to make sure they love the outdoors. We spent most of our time walking around and doing short hikes, but my kids are used to that, so they loved it.
You will want to bring food and snacks for them, especially if they’re picky eaters because the food options here are limited. I highly recommend bringing their own toys and/or bikes so they don’t get bored because there aren’t too many kid-focused activities here.
One more thing to note: most people come here to relax, so if you’re in the newborn stage or a phase where they’re not sleeping well and know they’ll be up all night screaming, I would postpone your trip. The walls are very thin at the Lodge, but since I knew my boys were out of those stages, I wasn’t concerned about disturbing others.
How Does the Stehekin Shuttle Work?
The general store posts the seasonal shuttle schedule, and it makes about a half dozen stops throughout Stehekin. I recommend checking it as soon as you arrive and asking the front desk if you have any questions. When we first took it, I was confused by the fact that it drops you off at your stop and generally comes back about 1.5–2 hours later.
For example, we took the 8 a.m. shuttle from Stehekin Landing and got dropped off at Stehekin Pastry Company at 8:10 a.m. However, I didn’t realize it wasn’t coming back until 9:40 a.m., so you’ll want to plan out that time unless you want to walk back.
To take the shuttle from the landing to just the bakery, it’s $5. However, to take it to any further points to go hiking, it’s $10.
Is There Cell Service or Wi-Fi?
There is no cell service at all, and I actually lost it as soon as I got on the Lake Chelan ferry at Fields Point Landing. However, paid Wi-Fi is available at the genre store for $5 per day.
Is One Day Enough to Visit Stehekin?
No, one day is not enough time to visit Stehekin, in my honest opinion. The whole point of being here is to relax, and I don’t think you’ll feel very relaxed if you only have 1.5 hours to see the area. Spend a minimum of two days so you can take your time, talk to locals, and see what Stehekin is about.
Let me know in the comments if you have any more questions about the things to do in Stehekin, and I hope you plan your own trip soon!