US valley will make you a happy camper
IT IS the outdoor enthusiast's trifecta: spectacular scenery, great food and lodging, and no crowds. Two out of three is easy enough to come by.
An outdoorsy guy myself, I learnt recently from friends about one spot that seemed to have a shot at all these - the Stehekin (pronounced steh-HEE-kin) Valley of Washington state.
A small settlement wedged between fjord-like Lake Chelan and the jagged eastern slopes of the Cascades, Stehekin has several comfortable lodges, an excellent bakery and, best of all, relatively few visitors.
My wife, Jen, and I visited for three days and two nights last summer, and I can confirm that Stehekin hits the trifecta.
Stehekin's roads will take you to the famous Stehekin Pastry Company, trailheads and the old log-cabin schoolhouse.
But what matters most is what they don't reach - the outside world. The only way in and out of Stehekin is by boat, seaplane or hiking trail.
It is an old-school frontier community, the kind that these days is found only in rural Alaska. And it makes a pretty great weekend trip from almost anywhere in Washington state.
We decided to take the ferry in, then set our sights higher - a summit of 2,476m McGregor Mountain, the big black peak that looms over Stehekin Valley.
First, of course, we had to get to this little Shangri-La. On a Friday afternoon, we drove east out of Seattle.
Chelan and Stehekin lie on opposite sides of Lake Chelan. Hotels were among the first structures built on the shores of the lake.
We stayed at one of these hotels, a 170-room lakefront lodge called Campbell's Resort.
The next morning, we boarded the Lady of the Lake ferry for Stehekin.
It takes four hours via a slow and comfortable boat ride, and 21/2 via the bare-bones express.
With ridges and peaks dominating the horizon 2,100m above you on all sides, the Stehekin Valley feels cosy, but it's actually quite spread out.
After checking into our hotel just above the boat landing, we walked down the road and rented bikes from Ron Scutt, who teaches at the Stehekin school in the off-season.
From there, we went to the Stehekin Pastry Company, known around the valley as simply "the Bakery".
Its cinnamon rolls don't just roll around your taste buds. They gambol; they frolic. The ice cream is fresh and the coffee worthy of Seattle.
With full stomachs, we headed up-valley. We left our bikes at a trailhead and spent a pleasant couple of hours bushwhacking along a brook.
Afterwards, we biked up to the Stehekin River and washed our feet and hands, looking up at the snow still lingering on the southern face of McGregor Mountain.
Then we continued, stopping to read about the valley's history at the log-cabin schoolhouse, admire the prismatic spray at Rainbow Falls and poke around an apple orchard.
All day, we saw only a handful of people.
When we arrived in Stehekin, the first thing we did was make plans for our hike.
Nick Davis of Stehekin Reservations in the log cabin down the road offered to save us some time and drive us to the trailhead.
So, just before dawn the next day, we piled into Nick's burgundy pickup with our daypacks and trekking poles.
Nick let us off just inside North Cascades National Park and, in the early morning shadow of the mountain, we began to climb.
The trail was long and unrelenting, but never boring.
Every 150m up, we'd be awarded a new prize: A bird's-eye view of Coon Lake! Lime-green lichen on the pine boughs! The treeline!
And, of course, saving the best reward for last - Glacier Peak, Washington's most remote volcano, its glacier-cloaked summit rising above the ridge that hid it from our eyes for so long.
We hit the end of the trail close to noon. Above us lay a 305m scree and boulder scramble to McGregor's summit.
Below us lay the vertical mile we had just climbed and, crucially, the shuttle that would take us from the edge of the park back to civilisation.
We were supposed to have dinner that night at the Stehekin Valley Ranch, where they would be serving baked chicken, potatoes au gratin and at least five different homemade pies.
If we turned around then, we could catch an earlier shuttle and have time to clean up before dinner, even stop by the Bakery for ice cream.
Jen looked at me, then said what we were both thinking: "I could really use a shower."
So we waved at Glacier Peak, cinched our boots and started back down. After all, we had dinner reservations.