July 2022 – A ride on the Stehekin Ferry turned out to be a cruise to a hidden gem in the North Cascades.
When we told our friends who are lifelong Washington residents that we were coming to their state with our RV, their instant response was, “You have to take the Stehekin Ferry up Lake Chelan and stay in one of the cabins at Stehekin Valley Ranch. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.”
They were right!
When we arrived in Washington, our friends went on to explain that the ferry ride offers spectacular views of the 51 mile long lake, and it takes you to one of Washington’s most unique hidden gems: a cabin retreat in the woods run by a family whose ancestors homesteaded the area in 1889. They have hosted visitors to their piece of paradise in the North Cascades for the past century.
Wow! A boat ride, some stunning scenery, a whiff of American history and a cabin retreat were all right up our alley, and we promptly dove into making reservations.
Luck was on our side, and we discovered there were two open seats on the Stehekin Ferry as well as a log cabin available at the Stehekin Valley Ranch later that very day, so we quickly drove the trailer up to the Fields Point ferry dock and left it there while we took off on the boat for a really fun adventure.
(btw: “Stehekin” is pronounced “Ste-HEE-kin”)
The Stehekin Ferry is a sleek catamaran that makes the trip up the lake in an hour and forty five minutes, and the Stehekin Valley Ranch offers a free bus ride to shuttle guests from the ferry landing dock up to their property 9 miles further north in the North Cascades. The ranch also provides dinners and breakfasts that our friends told us were out of this world. They were right about that too!
The ferry dock at Fields Point has lovely picnic areas overlooking the lake and plaques describing the history of the area. Indians used to travel up and down the lake by canoe. Fur trappers and gold prospectors followed, rowing for four days to get from one end to the other! As homesteaders started to arrive in 1889, the Belle of Chelan steamer ferry began operations which made the journey much shorter and far easier.
With these thoughts swimming in our heads, the ferry pulled into the dock and we climbed aboard and found two seats near the back so we could go on and off the back deck easily.
We had no idea what to expect once we got to Stehekin, but we knew you could rent electric mountain bikes. Some folks opt to bring their own bikes, and they brought them on the ferry just fine!
Our much bigger concern was taking our sweet pup, Buddy, on the boat. The Stehekin Ferry allows dogs to come along, but they request that you have a carrier so your dog can be contained and controlled if necessary.
We were absolutely delighted that as long as your dog is well behaved, is leashed, and doesn’t bother the other passengers, it can ride with you out on the back deck. Buddy isn’t fond of noisy and bumpy travel, and we were concerned he’d be unnerved on the boat. But it was quiet and glided through the water very smoothly. He loved the views!
There was one other dog on the ferry, a small Italian greyhound, Julia, and she found the breezes were a little chilly at times. She preferred to be wrapped in a blanket on her owner’s lap!
As our friends had told us, the views were magnificent. The day had blustery overtones for a while, but the dark clouds made for interesting skies.
In early July, there was still a little snow on the mountain peaks, and we spotted several waterfalls.
I joked with our captain, Jim, that he had an enviable job, cruising up and down this lake on a cool ferry boat every day!
As steeply as the mountains rose up on either side of the lake, their bases plunged below the water in a very deep trough. Lake Chelan, the largest lake in Washington, is 1,486 feet deep and the bottom is 386′ below sea level!
The ferry makes a few stops along the way, and at one of them the water was not only shockingly clear but it was a deep shade of turquoise!
A little ways further on, we arrived at Stehekin Landing. There were a few boats suspended in their own reflections at the dock, and the distant snowcapped mountains rounded out a picture postcard perfect image.
We got off the ferry and took a look around.
A sign in front of the North Cascade Lodge welcomed visitors to Stehekin. There were a few people milling about, eating lunch and riding bikes.
The mood was one of total relaxation and contentment. This is a place people come to get away from it all, to disconnect from their hectic day-to-day lives and reconnect with nature and their own souls.
As promised, the Stehekin Valley Ranch bus was right there waiting for us, so we hopped on along with most of the other people from the ferry.
We’d been told that “The Bakery” in Stehekin is one of the top destinations because their treats are so delicious, but I wasn’t sure how we’d get to it since we were being whisked away to the ranch in this bus.
As it turns out, the Stehekin Valley Ranch bus ride is as much a guided tour of Stehekin as it is transportation to the ranch! We’d been on the bus only a few minutes when we stopped at “The Bakery” which is officially called the Stehekin Pastry Shop. Mark got some yummy chocolate chip cookies and I bought a key lime bar that was a little slice of heaven!
Jumping back on the bus, we soon arrived at the ranch where we were greeted by laid back guests who were lounging in lawn chairs and hammocks outside their cabins. They’d left their cares so far behind they no longer remembered where they’d left them!
The majestic North Cascade mountains rose in the distance.
We made our way to our cabin and were utterly charmed by its rustic simplicity. Even though Stehekin Valley Ranch provides complimentary dinners and breakfasts for all guests at their large cookhouse lodge, we had a cute kitchenette in our cabin too.
Once we dropped off our bags, we went exploring. We could feel any tensions we had falling away with each passing minute. We’d had some wild days of driving in busy traffic with the toy hauler, and before that we’d had several long days of driving across southeast Washington’s farmlands. This was the perfect antidote!
Suddenly, the dinner bell rang. A dinner bell! It’s actually a music triangle hanging on the outside of the cookhouse.
We joined the other guests making their way to the dining area and were floored by the dinner menu which featured a steelhead trout special, grilled NY strip steaks and grilled chicken as entrees (with burgers for the kids).
Even though by the end of our meals we were both happily stuffed, we couldn’t resist having a slice of their homemade bread too. Bread doesn’t usually do this, but it melted in our mouths!
What we loved most about this communal dining, though, was that everyone was seated at long tables so we could all eat and chat together. Everyone we met was from Washington or a neighboring state!
The folks sitting next to us were an Idaho couple that had been to Stehekin Valley Ranch many times. They usually ride to the ranch through the North Cascade mountains with pack mules! They’ve ridden their mules all over the western states, and the ride to Stehekin is one of their favorites. Today had been a rare occasion for them where they’d driven their car to the ferry dock and taken the ferry to the ranch instead.
All conversation came to a halt when the pies came out, though. There were so many delicious flavors we all agreed that the best way to handle the decision making process was to get two small pieces from two pies instead of one big piece of one pie. So we all marched back to the dining tables with our plates heaped up with pie and ice cream. Blackberry and strawberry-rhubarb for me and blueberry and apple for Mark. Was this living or what?!
All of this incredible hospitality, from the ferry to the bus tour to the ranch, comes courtesy of one large extended family that has been living in Stehekin since 1889. Their ancestors arrived as homesteaders, and during our visit, one of their descendants, Cliff Courtney, mingled with us guests and shared tidbits of ranch history.
There are photos on the walls of the earliest settlers in Stehekin. The Moores arrived from Trenton Falls, New York, to homestead in the area in 1889 and the Courtneys arrived in 1917.
Their descendants, Mamie Moore and Hugh Courtney got married, and Cliff, who was telling us these personal historic tidbits at the ranch, and his brother Jim, who had been our captain on the ferry, were their grandsons!
I can’t imagine what life was like in such a remote spot back in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It is still very remote today, in 2022, but the ranch boasts all the modern conveniences, of course.
In a way, I felt like we guests brought our modern experiences and worldview with us to the ranch but were able, at the same time, to shed some of burden those things carry and get a taste of a simpler life from a century ago.
Cliff told us that the very first log cabin for guests was built by his dad in 1935 when he was 15. It is still available today for guests to stay in! It just contains a bed and has no bathroom, but it’s still cute as a button and offers an overnight embraced by living history.
From that first simple cabin to the new Wagon Cabins that were introduced this year, the theme everywhere is creativity and fun.
All but one of the new Wagons are mounted on wagon frames. Just recently, a Wagon was mounted on an antique truck, creating a Truck Wagon! I really wanted to peak inside, but each of the Wagons were in use by other guests. Next time!
Breakfast was another incredible gourmet meal that included custom cooked omelets, blueberry pancakes and french toast as well as a variety of top quality breakfast meats. To one side was a sandwich station where we were encouraged to make our own sandwiches (on that yummy homemade bread!) to take with us for lunch out on the trail or on the ferry.
As promised, the bus ride back to the ferry stopped at Rainbow Falls, and Cliff was our driver and guide. This is a towering waterfall that falls with such force it sprays a good long ways. There are two viewing areas, and the lower one gave us a great view of the full waterfall while the upper one was so loud and dramatic it lured me in too close and I got soaked! Fortunately, Mark was a little more cautious and he got a great pic from a little further back.
The next stop was at the little schoolhouse that Cliff’s grandfather helped build in 1921. Cliff told us his father went to school there and he also went there for 8 years.
One room schooling fascinates me, and I asked him how a single teacher could manage a group of kids in all grades. He said there’s certain techniques, including having the older kids help the younger kids.
That must make for a strong sense of community among the kids, never mind surviving the deep snow together in the wintertime and living a long boat ride away from the rest of the world!
Our last stop was at The Garden, a goat and organic vegetable farm where they sold tasty goat cheese and grow gorgeous veggies.
Down at Stehekin Landing the ferry boat was waiting for us at the dock.
Before long we were gliding down Lake Chelan with the beautiful mountains in our wake.
Our stay in one of America’s most remote spots gave us much to think about and talk about on our ride back as we savored the sandwiches and delicious cookies we’d brought from the ranch.
Stehekin is one of the few communities in America that is not accessible by car (Michigan’s Mackinac Island and Maine’s Cranberry Islands are two others). We’d seen cars and trucks and big equipment in various places around Stehekin, however. How did those things — and their fuel — get out there?
Our answer suddenly cruised by when we saw a barge loaded down with a trailer from Sysco, some big oil drums and a few large trucks and construction equipment!
At last we disembarked from the ferry, took in the beautiful view of the lake one final time, and made our way back to our trailer to resume our RV travels.
Fortunately, before we’d left the dock in Stehekin, I’d asked Jim and Cliff if they’d let me get a photo of them next to the ferry.
That’s when Cliff told me Jim was his brother! They’d grown up on the ranch and attended the little schoolhouse together, and now they provide a glimpse of that life to guests like us who are lucky enough to catch the Stehekin Ferry to one of Washington’s most unique hidden jewels tucked into the North Cascades.
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More info about Stehekin:
- Stehekin Ferry – Official website
- Stehekin Valley Ranch – Official website
- General Stehekin Tourist Info
- Map showing the Stehekin Ferry & Bus Ride – Google Maps
- Map of Stehekin – Google Maps
- RV Parks near Lake Chelan
Other blog posts with unusual rides:
- Dolly Steamboat – Gliding Through the Arizona Desert on Canyon Lake
- Joseph Branch Railriders – What a ride!
- Mt. Washington Cog Railway – The Little Engine That Could!
- Taking the Mail Boat Ferry to Maine’s Cranberry Islands
- Telluride Gondola Ride in Colorado – FREE and Dog Friendly!
- Waterton Shoreline Cruise – A Classy Tour of Waterton-Glacier NP
More blog posts from Washington:
- An Exuberant 4th of July in Othello, Washington!
- Chelan, Washington – Summertime Fun and Great Music!
- Entiat, Washington – An RV Friendly Town That’s On the Move!
- North Cascades, WA – From the coast to the peaks
- Northern Washinton – Magical Mountains & Trees in Sleeves
- Pomeroy, Washington – An Impromptu Sunday Stroll!
- Southern Washington – Falling Logs
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