This thru-hike was my first-ever true backpacking trip and it was fantastic! Lake Chelan is a narrow strip of icey blue water surrounded by snow-cover peaks and it reminded me of a fjord. This is not a beginner hike, but the campsites have a lot of amenities that make backpacking easier and allow for a lighter pack. Trailhead access is by boat only, and a reservation is needed, so a little planning is required.
- Moderate Trail
- Easy Road - ferry required
- 18 miles one way
- 4000 ft Elevation Gain - but not all at once
- Dog friendly
- Best time to visit is spring through fall, check reports for conditions
- No park pass needed
- Bathroom (full pit toilet) at trailhead and some campsites
- No cell phone service including in Stehekin
- Rattlesnakes (we saw one) - WTA rattlesnake safety
- Ticks - WTA tick safety
- Some trail sections are a little close to the edge
- Some rock hopping required for crossing seasonal streams
- Tree falls to negotiate, especially in early spring
Paved road all the way to the ferry. There are two ferry options and you may need to purchase an overnight parking pass.
Town of Stehekin Details
This is a tiny town with a population of just 75-100 residents, as of 2022. It has a busy tourism season and offers a range of tours and activities. Dining is mostly limited to a lodge or a bakery. The town is a bit spread out, with about 2 miles separating the lodge and the bakery, but it is almost completely flat. You can rent a bike or a kayak for a different way of getting around.
Trail Reports & Weather
How To & Options
Step #1: Pick a Ferry
Lady of the Lake - Has options for leaving from Chelan or Field’s Point (same price, just different ride time).
Stehekin Ferry - Leaves only from Field’s Point
Both ferries run different schedules depending on the time of year and some boats travel faster than others. You do need a reservation and sometimes they sell out, so you need to plan ahead.
On the ferry your bag may be inaccessible, so grab what you need before boarding. I would recommend an extra layer because it can be quite cold out on the water.
The ferries are dog friendly, but you will need to purchase a pet ticket for your dog. We took Lady of the Lake Express and they say that dogs need to be in kennels but there were several on our trip and none were, they just weren’t allowed in the food vending area. Maybe it is just at the crew’s discretion or just for aggressive ones? All the ones we rode with were well behaved and provided some entertainment.
Private Boat - There are also options for private charters so you can dictate the schedule, but these come at a premium and dock permits are required.
Step #2: Pick your Route
There are nearly infinite options but these are a few of the most popular.
Option #1: Backpacking Prince Creek to Stehekin in 2 or 3 days
We split this into an 11 mile and a 7 mile day, staying at Moore Point, but many people split it into 3 pieces or spend a night in Stehekin to alleviate the stress of getting there in time for the ferry and to allow some time to explore the town.
Option #2: Stay at Prince Creek and relax or day trip from there (no backpacking)
Some people opt for making Prince Creek a home base. If you go with this option you only have to carry your gear up from the dock and weight is not an issue so you can have a few more luxuries.
From Prince Creek you can day trip along the Lakeshore Trail or Prince Creek Trail.
Option #3: Stay at Stehekin and day trip from there (no backpacking)
In Stehekin you can get a reservation for either camping at Purple Campground or get a cozy room at one of the hotels. Using Stehekin as a base you can hike along the lake or take one of the trails in town, like Rainbow Falls.
Option #4: Hiking Prince Creek to Stehekin in a Single Day (no backpacking)
This is doable but quite long (18 miles) and due to the ferry you get a rather late start. You would need to make sure you have a headlight and a reservation in town to stay the night.
The Option I Wish Existed: Hike the PCT from Stehekin to Highway 20
I’m sure there are ways to do this, but I think it would be awesome if there was some kind of shuttle you could take. The PCT runs between Stehekin and Route 20, but the logistics of transportation would be quite complicated.
Campsites & Amenities
Prince Creek: Real pit toilet bathroom, shelter, bear locker, and lake water access. This is the main ferry drop-off point. No permits required.
Cascade Creek / Meadow Shelter: Shelter, toilet box on the side of the trail (weird placement, fully visible and very close, maybe the trail moved?), and stream water access. No permits needed. 7-8 miles from Prince.
Moore Point: Real pit toilet bathroom, shelter, bear locker, and lake water access. No permits needed. About 8 miles from Stehekin and 11 from Prince.
Flick Creek: Shelter, other resources unknown, ~3 miles from town.
Lakeview & Purple Point: Bathrooms with running water, bear lockers, and trash receptacles. Reservation required. Right on the edge of Stehekin.
Incredible 2 day 1 night backpacking trip with trail work in process. Snow capped mountains, shimmering reflections, beautiful lake, wildflowers, waterfalls, and a boat ride. 1 rattlesnake but no ticks. I do some pretty hard day hikes but this was my first true backpacking trip and it was great!
We departed Seattle at dawn on a beautiful April morning and crossed the mountains to catch the Chelan ferry. It was relatively warm out, but on the lake it was frigid. This lake is one of the deepest in the country and is fed by snow melt, making the water temperature quite cold year round.
We reached our stop at 11:30 AM. We had 11 miles to cover that day, then 7 more miles the next day and a hard deadline of 1:30 PM to catch the ferry home, or be stranded until Monday. Maybe a little more pressure than necessary for a first backpacking trip, but we thought it was doable.
As we climbed off the ferry and up the ramp to Prince Creek Campground we immediately shed all of our layers. The camp was nicely shaded and smelled of fresh pine sap, but most of the trail was not. I missed applying sunscreen to the back of one of my hands and got a pretty good sunburn, of course with a hiking pole strap line across it. From the campground the trail made a quick transition to a barren rocky field. It didn’t last long, soon it crossed a cute bridge and we were back along the lake shore.
Less than an hour into the hike something rustled (or perhaps rattled) and caught my eye. On the side of the trail about knee high I saw a rattlesnake slither back into its burrow. This was my first ever rattlesnake encounter and thankfully it was so uneventful, but stood as a strong warning to keep our eyes open. This was the only one we saw, but it made us extra cautious, and a bit nervous when we had to venture off-trail to go around fallen trees or climb over them. In those situations we used our hiking poles to make noise and poke around to avoid surprising them.
Spring was in the air. The plants and trees along the lakeside were budding and blooming everywhere. The bees were out making their rounds, but no flies or mosquitoes. The balsam root was at its peak and their sunny blossoms were particularly stunning.
This trail has lots of ups and downs but we found the cadence to be quite nice. Most of the time around when our legs started burning from an uphill, we were greeted with the reprieve of a downhill or a flat section. Sure, this trail follows the lake, so you might think the views would be static, but the shore weaves in and out and rises up and down giving endlessly changing views. We saw some eagles and at a lunch/snack stop we were treated to a large bird gliding gracefully over the lake.
We rounded one corner to see some people in hazmat suits! They turned out to be a WTA trail maintenance crew spraying for an invasive weed. Shortly after we encountered a lone hiker looking for her group and she expressed some concern because the campsite was so full. This made us quite nervous because this early in the season we didn’t anticipate having any trouble and we didn’t have a backup plan.
As we arrived at camp we were apprehensive, especially as were were greeted by volunteer work party signs and a tent gazebo, but the volunteers welcomed us and assured us that there were plenty of spots left. They said we could setup right on the edge of the lake if we wanted but cautioned us that it sometimes gets an afternoon breeze. Seeing as it was already close to 5PM we figured we were safe and took advantage of the beautiful spot.
We found that the volunteers were here for over a week and had a pretty nice setup with solar showers, a mess tent, and a dedicated cook. They certainly earn it and a day of crawling over and under tree falls with full packs made us particularly appreciative.
Including the other thru-hikers we had at least 40 people at this camp, but one lady said she had seen 200 here once, on Memorial Day Weekend. Everyone was very pleasant. The large group made quite a line for the single bathroom, but that turned into story time and was kind of fun. I learned about one news story from just before we left that I had missed. A woman had fallen into one of these pit toilets head first after dissembling it in an attempt to retrieve her phone. Ick!
The beach was dotted with at least four failed docks that were being slowly reclaimed and had a small sandy area. We went down to test the water and found it to be nearly instantly numbing. The sun baked rocks radiated heat and were a nice way to cut the chill of the water.
We woke to another beautiful day and the soft glow of the early morning light. It was chilly, but the first climb of the day was the largest and warmed us up quickly. 7 miles to go and 6 hours to get it done. The route said that there was more total elevation gain today, but it was more rolling, so even though we were a little tired we really didn’t feel it.
Lots of morning birds were out singing and we frequently heard elk. Some of the elk sounded quite close, but we never spotted any. There was also the drone of a boat on the lake. We saw a National Park Services boat that seemed to be circling or making runs back and forth to one of the camps. Maybe helping deliver supplies or equipment for the volunteers?
We passed several houses on the first day but they were a bit more frequent today and some seemed like entire communities made up of many buildings. I wonder what life is like living out here and what kind of people choose it. Some of this land is still owned by the Chelan People and I assume some of the homes we saw are theirs. As we neared Stehekin we passed through one cluster of houses where they were erecting a pole for a new solar panel.
About halfway to Stehekin the water got very still and we got some stunning reflections! This was something I had seen in photos and been hoping to see, but didn’t think it was going to happen, so I was delighted. The colors of the rocks, the snow, and the water were just magical.
Every now and then the smell of pine would transform to something else a bit sharper and smokey. There were occasional sections of burnt trees on our side of the lake. Some were still alive with scaly singed bark and others just charred remains. Many had tall blackened trunks and bare spindly white arms. The 25 mile fire hit a lot of this area in 2021. The far side of the lake appeared to have fared much worse. From a distance the mountains had the appearance of being covered with spiky quills.
We made it to town with almost two hours to spare, so we figured we had earned lunch and a treat from the bakery; however, it was 2 more miles down the road. A shop worker said we were good to leave our packs just about anywhere, so we ditched our packs and went for a stroll. It was a fun flat walk by lots of quirky homes and businesses, but a long walk in full sun. We saw lots of evidence of where the water should be but it seemed a very long way off. Hopefully the spring melt will bring the water level back up, otherwise some residents here are going to have a very hard time using their boats that are now nowhere near the water.
The Sunday ferry back to Chelan was packed and the luggage was piled high. After we boarded one of the crew was going around looking for a couple of people who were missing and they found one but not the other. Hopefully they intended on staying another night because this is the last boat of the day. We sat on the rear deck of the boat facing backwards and it was fun watching our journey in rewind. The boat ride was pretty, but we both agreed that the views from the trail were far better. This just lacked the vibrancy and texture.
What to Bring?
The Basics - Good to have on any hike
Footwear: Hiking shoes, preferably waterproof.
Sleeping Bag: I had a Marmot Trestles Elite Eco 20° similar bag which was overkill and I didn’t even have to zip it.
Sleeping Pad: I used an inflatable one with a built in “pump.” It is super compact, but a little crinkly.
Tent: A lightweight backpacking tent.
Camp Stove: You can survive the night on cold food, but it is always a nice treat to have something hot. A very basic stove will work here if you are sheltered from the wind, but you might not want to count on it for a real backwoods adventure with possible inclement weather. For an overnight like this I would just bring the stove, fuel, a pan for water, and a spork.
Food: As much as you will eat and then some just in case. You can go simple with something like ramen, dehydrated backpacking meals, or RiteRice. A little fancier and try to cook some real food, or super simple peanut butter and jelly or tuna. I like to do some wheat wraps with salami, mustard and cheese for lunch, and bring nuts, mini microwaved sweet potatoes, some figgy pops, and Trader Joe’s Nuts on a Date Bar for snacks. Dehydrated meals are super simple, but a dal packet and a rice packet or RiteRice also make a really quick tasty dinner (usually more than I can eat). Breakfast can be simple oatmeal or overnight oats. Tea is also nice and light and make for a great warm beverage that is just as good as home.
Water Filter: As clear as that water looks, you still definitely want to filter it. I have a Sawyer Filter and it works well but is a little time consuming and it can be hard to fill the bag. A water bottle or using a large ziploc bag to scoop and fill the bladders can make it a bit easier.
Sandals: I like to have a change of shoes so I can take off my boots and still have something to wear in the evening. Sandals are also good to have to walk down to the water.
Extra clothes and layers: It may get cold at night so bring something warm.
Hiking Poles: These are great for stability, being able to utilize your arms for a little extra push, and checking for snakes. I trust Black Diamond Standard Poles and own Black Diamond Cork Grip Poles.
Gloves (optional): I like to wear liner gloves year round when I am using poles because they keep my hands from chaffing and the worst sunburn I’ve ever had on my hands was on the back around where the pole strap goes.
Bear canister if you are not staying at an area with a bear locker.
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