At the northwest tip of Lake Chelan is a tiny village with 75 permanent residents, a one-room schoolhouse, a lodge, bakery, and numerous cabins. This 100-year-old community — named by Native Americans as “the way through” the North Cascades — is Stehekin (pronounced “Stih-hee-kin”).
This quaint, time capsule of a town can be reached on foot through several North Cascades passes — McAlester, Purple, and War Creek, to name a few — but no matter the route, backpackers must hike about 18 miles, usually spread out over two days.
The McAlester Pass route begins at the Bridge Creek trailhead off Highway 20, west of Twisp. The trail winds through dark, cool forest for a mile or two before breaking out into the open summer sun.
There, you trek through lush wildflower meadows, hoof it up steep rocky hillsides, and hop over frigid mountain streams. People aren’t plentiful, but wild animals are. Hoary marmots, chipmunks, pika, and even the occasional black bear, can be spotted along the way.
After about nine miles, it’s time to stop for the night and set up camp beside McAlester Lake. The campground is pristinely quiet and primitive and has fire pits and open-air toilets (that boast some pretty incredible views).
On day two, you’ll reach the highest elevation of your trip and then turn downhill toward Lake Chelan. This portion of the trail meanders through tall stands of trees — some blackened and charred from wildfires — until finally flattening out into a low sprawling field that leads you, almost shockingly, to a paved street.
A short walk up the seemingly deserted road, you will come upon a rustic log cabin-inspired building. If the scent of baking bread catches your attention, you’ll know you’ve officially arrived at the Stehekin Pastry Company, the welcome end, and delicious beginning, to your trip to Stehekin.
Although Stehekin is only about 85 miles as the crow flies from downtown Bellevue, it’s a world away from the bustling Eastside tech-hub. There are no roads connecting the Lake Chelan village to the outside world, so it’s accessible only by foot, boat, or seaplane. Oh, and there’s no cell service, either.
So why would you backpack for two days to see this particular place? It’s the same reason many of Stehekin’s residents call the secluded spot home. The answer, summed up in two words by Stehekin Pastry Company owner Roberta Courtney, is this: “It’s quiet.”
“I love to read. I do some crafts,” she added. Otherwise, she’s usually at the pastry company, baking delicious treats from scratch every morning from mid-May to mid-October.
Except for a few-year break when her kids went to high school, Courtney has lived in Stehekin full-time since she was 10. Her husband, Cragg Courtney, is a fourth-generation Stehekin resident. His great-grandfather homesteaded in the area many decades ago.
Courtney and her husband started the pastry company in 1989. “Back in the old days, we would send a grocery order out in the mail, then it would be filled, and it would come back. So, it could be four days, five days (before we got our order),” she said.
Today, orders can be made by phone or online, but ingredients are still shipped in via boat. Once the bakery runs out of something, it’s out. There’s no running down the street for a cup of flour or a pint of milk.
Aside from a cool dip in the lake, the Stehekin Pastry Company is one of the things you’ll look forward to most at the end of your long, mountainous trek into the region. With decadent cinnamon rolls, ham and cheese croissants, blueberry scones, morning glory muffins, and chai coffee cake, you won’t care at all that you can’t use your cellphone. In fact, you’ll start to forget that the internet even exists.
If the allure of warm, freshly baked pastries still hasn’t convinced you, Courtney said there are many other reasons to visit Stehekin. There’s the peace and quiet. There are the breathtaking lake and mountain views. And there’s the (forced) ability to unplug.
“The whole experience is not just about the bakery,” Courtney said. “Stehekin is amazing in itself. Have some good food and be, almost, in the mountains.”
No texting, no news alerts, no distractions — just fresh air and cheesecake.
Land (15-20 miles)
Trail options include Purple Creek, Bridge Creek, Cascade Pass, McAlester Lake, and Rainbow Creek. Consult the National Park Service for maps, backcountry permits, and more information. nps.gov
Air (60 minutes from Seattle)
Lake Chelan Helicopters
Boat (2½-4 hours from Chelan)
Lady of the Lake II (4 hours) or Lady Express (2.5 hours),
Where to Stay
North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin,
Stehekin Valley Ranch
Stehekin Log Cabins,