Mike Barnhart, lifelong Stehekin resident and historian, expresses the significant changes the Stehekin Road closure has made on his, and others, ability to reach the high country. The following writing was first published in the Wenatchee World, June 7, 2017.
At the head of Lake Chelan, Stehekin is the gateway to some of our country’s most spectacular mountain scenery. Glacier-covered peaks reaching elevations of 10,000 feet have attracted prospectors, tourists and photographers since the 1800s, including my great-grandparents. The only access to Stehekin is by daily passenger ferry service from Chelan at the lower end of the lake, by float plane, or by hiking in, but once you get here there is only one land-locked road.
The 23 mile-long Stehekin Valley Road has historically been the link from the boat landing at Stehekin to the heart of the high mountain peaks, terminating at Cottonwood Campground, where trailheads allow hikers to travel even further into what some have called America’s Alps. A 3.5-mile hike to Horseshoe Basin, a cirque of waterfalls, sometimes year-round snow, and an abandoned mine shaft allowed visitors one of the best day trips anywhere in the nation. We took our young children on Saturday hikes. The Stehekin School made field trips. Even the elderly, if they were in reasonably good shape, could handle a day trip to Horseshoe Basin.
Flooding closed sections of the upper road in recent years until 2003, when it was permanently closed by the National Park Service at mile post 13, leaving 10 miles of the most spectacular section of the road closed. The Stehekin community and many others who love this valley have lobbied congress and the NPS to re-open the road, and eventually congress signed off on the plan. We all thought this was a huge step, which it was until NPS stated they are simply not going to open it. Period.
I have been fortunate to experience the high country in our upper valley in several ways. The first I remember was with my grandfather in about 1952 when we drove his old 1939 Chrysler to Rouse’s Camp, (currently called Basin Creek) about one mile beyond Cottonwood Campground. I was eight years old and cherish an old black and white photo my dad snapped of us. When I was 14, I started working for my uncle on his horse packing outfit and we packed in Ansel Adams. The stunning scenery had attracted one our country’s most famous black and white photographers. Over the years I traveled many trails on foot and horseback. But as a disabled Vietnam veteran, I am no longer able to hike in to the places I love. Now I look at photos and listen to stories from my friends about the lands I once roamed.
My faith in our government sometimes wavers. I gave two years of my life in an unpopular war back in the ’60s, then watched the National Park Service take a solid stance on not re-opening the upper valley road, locking out the disabled and elderly from the most spectacular scenery in the world.
I see an unfinished job here in Stehekin. We have an expensive brand-new wheel chair-accessible dock, a lift to the deck where people can get a hamburger, and the wheel chair lifts on buses to take people up the valley, which is lovely, but does not represent the treasures North Cascades National Park has to offer.
The excuse we hear most often from NPS is lack of funding for such an expensive project, but they have not even requested funding. It is simply not their priority, but it’s not their park either. It belongs to all the people for the enjoyment of everyone. I take that to mean the disabled, elderly, children and people from all walks of life.
I hope to visit these places again and to see the wonder on the faces of people seeing them for the first time.
Mike Barnhart is a photographer and longtime Stehekin Valley resident who lives on the family homestead with his wife Nancy. His mother, June Courtney Barnhart, was born in a log cabin just down the road from his home. Mike wrote and published “At Home in The Woods, A Stehekin Family History – The Moores and Courtneys.”