When thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013, a significant portion of my time in Washington was spent being soaked by regular, persistent rain storms with the occasional bit of snowfall to liven things up. Looking back at my pictures, I only have three photos from the entirety of Section K because at a certain point you give up trying to take photos and simply put your head down and keep walking.
Stehekin is in Section K and is the last town before the Canadian border and also the last place to resupply without requiring hitchhiking. The morning we arrived at High Bridge, where you grab the bus into town, it was surprisingly pleasant out and we spent our time lounging about and waiting for our gear to dry. Once in town, I decided that after weeks of being consistently wet and filthy, it was worth spending a serious chunk of change and getting one of the last rooms available at the Stehekin Lodge.
The next morning the good weather continued and we enjoyed a rather pleasant autumn day hiking up to Rainy Pass. However, almost the exact moment we crossed Highway 20, the weather noticeably shifted and the chilly, damp, and soon to be freezing weather hit with renewed gusto. Winter was Coming.
After finishing the trail and decompressing, it was pretty obvious that I wanted to redo the Washington part of the PCT when the weather was not so challenging and the views were not so hidden by clouds. From Rainy Pass, it is a pretty simple out and back to Stehekin. There are two parkings lots at Rainy Pass and the trail is well maintained and easy to follow. Water sources are regular and the scenery does not disappoint. And when you reach Stehekin, there is the infamous Stehekin Bakery awaiting you (the bus stops right at its doorstep on the way into town; bring cash).
There is a bit of trickiness because 16 miles of the route is in North Cascades National Park where camping is only allowed at official camps and you need to obtain a free permit beforehand (not available at trailheads). With a bit of planning, the permits are easy to obtain or if you are a strong hiker, it is a simple matter to do that 16 miles in one day and find camping just outside the National Park boundary.
GUIDEBOOKS & MAPS
Parking: Northwest Forest Pass required at Bridge Creek Trailhead
Backcountry Camping: Only if camping within the boundaries of North Cascades National Park. Permits must be picked up in-person at a Ranger Station, no more than a day before, and are first come, first serve. List of Ranger Stations and Additional Permit Details.
Early summer to late autumn. While Highway 20 typically opens in May, it is advisable to wait a few weeks until the snow is completely gone and the trail is clear.
- Start at Bridge Creek Trailhead at Rainy Pass (map). South of the parking area you will see a trail that crosses the highway and heads down a slight slope. This short trail quickly intersects with the Pacific Crest Trail at mile 2590.
- Take a left on the PCT and you are headed south towards Stehekin
- Follow the PCT all the way to the High Bridge Guard Station approximately 18 miles from where you start and then take the Stehekin Shuttle into Stehekin itself.
- Return to Rainy Pass via the PCT
FULL ROUTE DESCRIPTION
Start at Bridge Creek Trailhead at Rainy Pass (map). South of the parking area you will see a trail that crosses the highway and heads down a slight slope. This short trail quickly intersects with the Pacific Crest Trail at mile 2590.
A little over a mile in is a spur trail to a campsite right next to a creek. An excellent place to camp if you are arriving at the trailhead late. Since it is before the North Cascades National Parks boundary, it does not require a permit.
While hiking you will see multiple spurs for additional hiking opportunities and campsites, but following the PCT is pretty obvious. One of my favorite lunch spots of the entire PCT was when a group of us stopped at the creek crossing at PCT mile 2582. It receives ample sun, has lovely rocks for sitting and drying gear, and it just exudes peacefulness. A couple miles further on you will pass the North Fork Camp (PCT Mile 2580), which is an inviting campsite with excellent water availability and a pit toilet. North Fork Camp is only 10 miles in and has a number of spaces, so excellent for groups. Permit required.
At PCT mile 2577 there is the Bridge Creek Campground that has campsites on both sides of the trail, pit toilets, and even bear lockers if so inclined. It is the last serious campsite before High Bridge. Permit required here too.
The Stehekin Shuttle (aka The Red Bus) is a shuttle operated by the Stehekin Lodge and is only $8 with multiple stops on the way into town. You should definitely check the current schedule before you start your trip so you know when the shuttle will be at High Bridge and can plan your arrival accordingly. If the weather is good, High Bridge is not the worst place to spend an hour or two waiting for the shuttle, and if you go in August or September you are likely to meet a few thru-hikers.
If you are a lover of baked goods, then definitely take advantage of the shuttle's stop at the Stehekin Bakery. The bus will wait, just be quick.
Once you arrive at Stehekin, it is up to you how to spend your time. There is a small store, restaurant, and lodge with picnic tables out front, as well as multiple activities such as biking or kayaking. Showers and laundry are available for hikers during the summer too. The Golden West Visitor Center in town is operated by the Park Service and is a nice place to learn more about the North Cascades and even pick up a permit if you intend to camp in the Park on your way out.
While Stehekin has two primitive camping areas, I would not recommend them given other camping options available. If you have enough time, you can return on the Red Bus and head further south on the PCT and find a campsite past High Bridge. If dusk is approaching, the easiest solution is to get a permit from the Golden West Visitor Center in town and camp just above High Bridge. If you follow the road up from the High Bridge Guard Station a little bit, there is a pretty nice camping area with picnic tables, a steep trail down to water, and space for at least a half dozen tents.
The way out is simply the way you came in. In autumn, I highly suggest an early start, the morning light will make everything gorgeous.
In 2015, the Lake Chelan area, which includes Stehekin, had a significant forest fire that closed parts of the PCT. Stehekin was spared but it came extremely close. Before your trip, make sure to check the NWCC Fire Map for possible fires and also the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Alerts and Notices page for trail closures.