As the boat made its way along the meandering waterway, the mountains slowly changed. Initially low and rolling, they became snow-capped, then steeper, finally towering above our tiny vessel. As we navigated deeper into the North Cascades along Lake Chelan, it became quite obvious that the claim of being the deepest gorge in North America is not an exaggeration: this huge, deep waterway reminded me instantly of the many fjords I’ve visited in Alaska over the years.
Once I disembarked in the tiny town of Stehekin, Washington, the similarities to Alaska became even more evident. Beautiful mountain vistas surrounded the tiny town of hardy year-round residents who live in homesteads of various completion. I’ve been fortunate to see a lot of this great country I call home, but nowhere has reminded me more of Alaska than Stehekin.
Turns out, I’m not alone in seeing the similarity, as Stehekin is affectionately known as Little Alaska. So if you’re looking for somewhere like Alaska in the Lower 48, I know a place! Here’s how to visit Stehekin, Washington’s Little Alaska.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Syilx tmixʷ (Okanagan), ščəl’ámxəxʷ (Chelan), and Yakama peoples, and Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Stehekin, aka “Little Alaska”
One of the first things I said upon arriving in Stehekin and meeting my local guide, Chris, was “this looks so much like Alaska!” She agreed, saying that some locals call it Little Alaska – which I’d like to think I have the authority to agree with since I grew up in Alaska!
The name Stehekin is – like Alaska – a Native American name. Stehekin is based on a Salishan word meaning “the way through” or “turning around place” in Lushootseed (Coast Salish) and “mountain tops” in nxa’amxcin (Interior Salish).
What surprised me most is that nobody has ever told me about Stehekin’s many similarities with Alaska: the boat ride to/from is so similar to the waterways of the Inside Passage or Kenai Fjords, and the small town of 85 residents reminded me a ton of Hope, Alaska, one of my favorite small towns.
Speaking of the boat ride, one of the most important things in planning to visit Stehekin is working out the logistics of getting there…
How to Travel to Stehekin
There are a number of ways how to get to Stehekin, but you know what’s not one of them? By car. There are no roads to Stehekin, which sits over 50 miles “uplake” on Lake Chelan from the lake’s namesake community (Chelan). This means you’ll need to take an unconventional form of transportation if you want to visit Stehekin.
The easiest and most affordable way to reach Stehekin is by boat. During the summer months, a number of boat operators offer transportation between Chelan and Stehekin each day; during the winter your options are reduced but Lady of the Lake offers near-daily service with stops and pick-up points along the lake.
For a faster – but significantly more expensive – option, you can also charter a floatplane to travel to Stehekin. Chelan Airways offers charter and standby rates and get you from Seattle to Stehekin in just 60 minutes (as opposed to the 3-hour drive from Seattle to Chelan and 1-to-3-hour boat ride from Chelan to Stehekin).
Personally, I prefer the boat ride as it gives you a chance to experience Lake Chelan and the beauty of this freshwater fjord – which is a big part of what earns Stehekin its nickname as “Little Alaska.”
(Also, don’t forget you need to get to Chelan in the first place; my Eastern Cascades road trip itinerary will get you there.)
The Best Things to Do in Stehekin
Once you arrive in Stehekin, you might wonder what there is to do in such a small community. Leave it to Little Alaska to surprise you in that way too; there are plenty of things to do in Stehekin…
Visit Golden West Visitor Center
Whenever visiting a national park, I always recommend that you start your visit at the Visitor Center – it’s the best place to learn about the park and any relevant updates you need before striking out to explore.
The Golden West Visitor Center is less than a two-minute walk from the boat terminal and the perfect first spot to visit. There’s information about North Cascades National Park, a small park gift shop, and plenty of resources about Stehekin too. Also keep an eye out for the staircase banister and windows, which – among other building elements – date back to the long-removed Field’s Hotel which once stood out on the mudflats near town (which is only visible during the winter).
See Rainbow Falls
Possibly the top sight and the best thing to do in Stehekin, I wouldn’t consider any visit complete without seeing Rainbow Falls. This 312-foot waterfall left me awestruck – my first thought was that it was way more impressive than the tall waterfalls I’d seen in places like Yosemite (which is saying something, as that’s one of the most-visited national parks!).
To reach Rainbow Falls, you’ll need to book the tour that runs daily or bike the 3.5 miles from the boat landing. It’s a short walk from the parking area to the base of the falls, and there’s a short (<5-minute) climb to a midpoint on the falls. Both are easy to do and offer fantastic perspectives on the towering falls.
There are a dozen official trails that originate in Stehekin, ranging from the short 0.3-mile Buckner Lane to Buckner Orchard to the 17.2-mile Lakeshore trail. There are also hikes of varying strenuousness; I did the 0.8-mile Inus Creek Loop which has about 200 feet in elevation change, but the Purple Creek trail gains 5,800 feet in 7.5 miles and starts from the same trailhead.
Bike to Explore Further
The only cars in Stehekin are those shipped in by local residents on the weekly summer barge (which only runs 1-2x per month in the winter!). That means visitors aren’t going to be able to rent a car – instead, you’ll need to rent a bike and use pedal power to explore along the Stehekin Valley Road.
The Valley Road is paved for the first 5 of its 23 miles; it’s hard-packed gravel until High Bridge at mile 11. Bikes are able to handle the full 11 miles if you’re up for the ride.
(If you’re not up for biking, there’s also a shuttle offered by the National Park Service during the summer which costs $8 one way and makes stops all along the road between the boat landing and High Bridge.)
Explore the Historic Stehekin Schoolhouse
While traveling along the Stehekin Valley Road, you’ll pass the new schoolhouse – which also doubles as the community church. Then, you’ll pass the historic Stehekin Schoolhouse, which was built in 1921 to serve the young members of the community. The new schoolhouse – as its predecessor – teaches students in grades K-8; if you visit the historic site during the summer, you can enter the building to see the old accommodations students “enjoyed” during their education.
Visit Buckner Orchard
Another historic site along the Stehekin Valley Road, you might notice the small hand-dug aqueduct and narrow lane which deviates from the road after Rainbow Creek. Take this trail to visit Buckner Orchard, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Originally established in 1889, today visitors can pick apples and press cider during the late summer and autumn; no matter which season you visit, it’s a nice short walk to the homestead to learn about the agricultural history of this region.
Shop Local at The House that Jack Built
Finally, if it happens to be open during your visit, I highly recommend visiting The House that Jack Built, near Golden West Visitor Center, which is operated by local residents as an alternative gift shop. Inside you’ll find handmade goods and crafts that are the perfect souvenir for your unique experience in Stehekin.
How Long to Visit Stehekin
If You Only Have One Day…
Despite the long boat ride, it’s entirely possible to visit Stehekin in just one day. During my late winter visit, I took the (only available) boat schedule which gave me 90 minutes in Stehekin; this was enough time to see the basics, but I would have liked to have a bit longer. Other boat itineraries allow you three or six hours depending on the schedule.
During a 90-minute to six-hour visit, you can do 1-2 of the activities I suggested above. When I visited, I first took a quick tour to Rainbow Falls and a short hike before swinging past the Golden West Visitor Center (which wasn’t open due to the season).
If You Have Longer to Visit…
Up for a greater adventure? Plan to spend a night or two out in Stehekin (more on that later) and you’ll have time to do it all – see the sights, explore by bike, and hit up a few of the longer hiking trails. This is how I hope to make a return visit, so I can really get a sense for going off the grid in Little Alaska – I mean – Stehekin.
Where to Stay in Stehekin
There are a number of accommodation options in Stehekin, which is a bit surprising for a town of just 85 year-round residents! Here are your Stehekin lodging choices:
- The North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin is the official option offered through the National Park Service concessioner.
- Stehekin Cabin on the Lake is a cute little two-bed-one-bath private rental option that will make you feel like you’ve moved right in.
- There are a number of other nice private rentals too, including the Stehekin Roundhouse (a very cool architectural experience), Stehekin Creekside Cabin (which is up a bit from the lakefront but nice and quiet), Stehekin Cedar Cabin (actually three cabins, two in the lower valley and two upper), and Stehekin Lake Cabin (literally right on the lake!).
- If you prefer Airbnbs, there are a few of those too: the funky Tupeshin Mountain House and the modern Rainbow Cabin.
- Stehekin Pastry Company also operates a cabin behind their shop, meaning you can wake up to the smell of the best fresh-baked cinnamon rolls in the whole Lake Chelan area.
- Finally, if you really want to escape the crowds, Stehekin Valley Ranch is located 9 miles up the Valley Road and offers a very different experience.
There are also three campgrounds in the Stehekin area, operated through the National Park Service: Lakeview (9 sites), Purple Point (6 sites), and Harlequin (7 sites). While this might seem like a lot of options, that goes to show how many people visit Stehekin and this part of North Cascades National Park!
Where to Eat in Stehekin
One last question you might have – which I haven’t mentioned – is about food. There are limited – aka one – food options in Stehekin during the summer months and no options in the winter. I recommend planning ahead, and packing in any food you want – then pack it all out too.
The only two food options you have in Stehekin during the summer months are the restaurant at the North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin and the Stehekin Pastry Company. The latter is famous for its incredible bread products, including sandwiches, breakfast pastries, and big ol’ cinnamon rolls. (If you’re visiting Stehekin in the non-summer months, Stehekin Pastry Company sells their cinnamon rolls at the Riverwalk Inn & Cafe in Chelan so you can still try them!)
There are no grocery stores in Stehekin, so if you’re planning to eat more than (delicious) pastries and restaurant food, you’ll need to swing by one in Chelan and stock up.
Have any other questions about how to visit Stehekin? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks to the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce and State of Washington Tourism for facilitating my trip.