Cascade Pass to Stehekin Day One: Happy Solstice

You know it’s going to be a good adventure when you see a bear on the drive to the trail head.

Friday donned misty and overcast and Molly and I got up bright and early to drive up to Cascade Pass. The plan: run/hike over the pass to Stehekin to visit my wonderful friends Marieke and Wade, hang out for a day on Saturday, run/hike back on Sunday. I had originally thought this was a 23 mile each-way activity but Marieke had managed to secure a car that she could leave further up the Stehekin Valley Road for us so it was looking like it would be more of a 18.5 mile adventure. Oh, and bright and early meant 7am because we had played in an indoor soccer game the night before that started at 11PM…!?!? We didn’t even get to sleep until 1 o’clock. Due to this later than ideal start we were beginning our 18.5 mile day at 10:30am. And we had already seen a bear.

Also PAUSE! What is Stehekin, you might be asking! Stehekin is this tiny little village located in the North Cascades National Park at the very northern tip of Lake Chelan. The only ways to get there are by a two hour long boat ride (that’s the fast boat), by plane or by foot via the PCT or Cascade Pass. We actually visited Marieke in Stehekin when we were hiking the PCT in 2016. It is renowned for its incredible bakery. Now you know!

The hike up to Cascade Pass involves 36 beautiful switchbacks and then a long traverse to one of the most glorious North Cascade passes you have ever been to. It’s all classic steep cliffs with gardens of green hanging above them by an impossible thread, lakes that are nestled into rocky bowls, numerous waterfalls running down every indentation in the rocks, craggy mountain peaks speckled with snow rising high above everything else and glacier carved valleys deep below filled with slide alder and vine maple, cradling clear cold rivers in their embrace. Of course we couldn’t see any of that because we were stuck inside a cloud. A cloud that was blowing sideways.

We hurried up towards the pass, only stopping when a pika appeared suddenly on a rock right next to the trail. You almost never see a pika up close! I was shocked and whipping out my phone to snap a picture when it started to advance on us. Molly and I stumbled backwards, confused. Pikas are notoriously shy. We kept stopping, assuming it would realize that it is a PIKA, not a domesticated house cat, and run away. But no – it continued towards our ankles and despite the fact that we had nothing to fear from this tiny, adorable creature we shrieked with fear and scrambled over the rocks next to the trail to get away from it.

Aggressive pika behind us we crossed over the pass, nervous for what else lay ahead. On the other side of the pass we found snow. We thought we had found a lot of snow at one point when we managed to loose the trail but on the other side of that patch the trail was located and it turned out to be our last snow patch of the day. The clouds hovered right above us and we walked through dripping trees next to a large basin. Or we assumed it was a large basin – couldn’t see much.

Finally we rounded a corner and started down in earnest when suddenly Molly shouted from the lead, “WOAH!” I thought for sure we were about to die via pika or bear fang but when I looked up I was greeted by the sudden view of mountains ahead of us. Blue sky was visible as the clouds pulled back from the surrounding peaks and everything was green. We stood, mouths agape. Nothing like a sudden North Cascades view to take your breath away. After continuing a little further we discovered the views only improved because the trees downhill of the trail disappeared and we were awarded with expansive views down the valley basin. We could see our trail, steadily loosing elevation, stretching out in front of us until the valley curved away from us into mystery.

The switchbacks down were much shorter than the switchbacks we had encountered on the way up but before we could start our traverse we had to navigate a tricky water crossing first. No surprise there – you always have to pay the piper (Is this a saying? I feel like I am making up sayings right and left). Once on the traverse we couldn’t help continually glancing back at the amazing view behind us of Magic Mountain.

It was during one of those glances that I remembered something! “Oh my god! It’s solstice – we have to hike naked!” I stopped and with complete conviction started removing my clothes. Molly, who seemed a little bit taken aback laughed and started to do the same. She admitted that if I had even slightly hesitated with that suggestion she probably wouldn’t have been on board. But honestly, hiking naked is a trail tradition that I have long wanted to participate in, for me there wasn’t any hesitation at all.

Clothing removed and backpacks back on we headed down the trail and immediately discovered that hiking naked didn’t feel weird at all. In fact it felt completely normal. And great. Amazing actually. The breeze was just the right temperature and now that ALL of our skin was privy to it I truly felt one with nature, one with the air, I could have slipped right into nothingness and not noticed a thing. We hiked like this for a while, breathing deeply and sighing contentedly. Eventually a couple logs we had to scramble over and some brushy sections made naked hiking less than ideal and we put our clothes back on but we felt fulfilled. We had celebrated solstice and we had done it right.

Other noteworthy moments involved a snake that scared the shit out of Molly, a really cool new bridge that the Park Service had clearly just installed and the fact that we saw NO other people on trail. We meandered downhill through different ecological niches, leaving wild flowers and slide alders behind and entering tall stands of fir and hemlock. The river ran along next to us the whole time and sometimes we actually ran along next to it. Although our goal had been to run we found that we were making excellent time and so the pressure to jog was less. The trail was pretty wide and we were often able to walk alongside each other, making conversation easy. Oh, and we saw about twenty piles of bear poop. Some very fresh.

We knew we were getting near the end when we crossed Bridge Creek – the most idyllic little river with white water dropping into impossibly clear pools of aquamarine. Had we not been hankering to get to the car we might have stopped for a dip. After Bridge Creek we had to start navigating. Marieke had given us some directions to get to the car but honestly, without being on the ground they were pretty confusing. Even in the flesh we managed to go down the wrong trail for a hot second before determining we had read them incorrectly.

Finally we popped out on to the Stehekin Valley Road and wah-la! Right there in front of us, the tan vehicle that Marieke had promised us. Although it wasn’t quite what she had described… She said she would leave a tan sedan but this was a tan Toyota Tacoma. We pulled on the door handle to find it open and located the keys in the center console. She had promised to leave them on the dashboard. Something just didn’t feel right. We decided to continue down the road a little further and to our embarrassment discovered THE tan sedan only two minutes further on. Thank goodness we didn’t take the wrong car! Inside the car was a lovely note from Marieke, the keys and two PBRs, which were pleasantly warm. There aren’t any rules, or law enforcement for that matter, in Stehekin so we popped them open and cruised towards town at 25 miles an hour.

As we drove we were reliving our day and our incredible luck that we hadn’t run into a bear on trail considering how much bear evidence we had found. Just at that moment we saw a giant black shape sprinting up the road ahead of us and sure enough, a massive black bear bolted off into the woods. What are the odds. The rest of the car ride was uneventful – we kept our eyes peeled for thruhikers at High Bridge but just saw a bunch of tourists waiting for the shuttle. When we turned the corner into the Yurt Village where Marieke and Wade live we found Marieke, doing excited jumping jacks on the lawn and waving to us. Mission accomplished.

We were immediately rewarded with more beer, an adorable puppy named Bonnie and a delicious cold, spicy cashew noodle dish. After dinner we went to Friday Night Club at the Trailer Park and hung out with the seven young locals that were currently in town. We learned about paragliding and tiny homes and continued to feel our bodies get sorer and sorer. It felt good to fall onto a sleeping pad that night with a couple ibuprofen rattling around in our bellies.

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As Edward Abbey said, "An indoor life is the next best thing to a premature burial."

4 thoughts on “Cascade Pass to Stehekin Day One: Happy Solstice

    1. Psh, you live in Cali! So much wonderful outdoor stuff for exploring! I mean really we are just spoiled living on the west coast, amirite?

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