Riding a passenger ferry on a two mile wide, 50+ mile long ribbon of deep water slicing through mountains to reach a mini-village on the other side - this can be your experience in North Cascades National Park... and it sounded REALLY neat.
To back up... when planning this trip, we looked at where we would be (Glacier National Park) and our semi-final destination (Washington Coast at Olympic National Park) - then looked in between. Aha, a huge lake bordering Cascades National Park... then to the Internet and research. We found we had the option of driving through the upper road of Cascades National Park or driving to Chelan (the town) and taking a day trip on a ferry the length of the lake (50+ miles through mountains) to the little village of Stehekin. Chelan is on the border of the park, Stehekin is in it (and has a visitor center, etc.). Being the water lovers we are, we opted for Chelan.
The trip there from Glacier was long (10+ hours) but varied in terrain and was very pretty in areas. When we cut across Idaho we saw our first - and only - moose on the trip - out in a pond eating. If one had time, this could be divided into two days with more time spent meandering on the way... 10+ hours in the car was long for all of us. There is no direct highway route to shorten the length much.
As we reached Washington and saw "The Evergreen State" on signs, everyone remarked that one really has to use their imagination to see anything green. Most of this area of Washington is dry scrub from what we saw. We took back roads (our custom), and even took small back roads to take a more direct route. In some fields there are neat "piles" of black rocks that go on for miles - an interesting sight. Other fields are farmed.
Ah, but I digress... back to Chelan. Accommodations for 7 were a little hard to come by with trying to make reservations just two months in advance. Having camped in Glacier and planning to camp afterwards, we wanted an inexpensive motel for a couple of nights... inexpensive ended up costing us in excess of $200 a night - at the Parkway Motel - a place where the "free wi-fi" didn't work (had to go into town and park outside a business, leaching), and a place where, if you rented just half of a total room, you had merely a paper thin door between you and the next guests - meaning my mom involuntarily stayed up to the wee hours listening to the group next to her - and with listening - she could repeat their conversations word for word. This was one of the cheaper places... you can get very expensive and waterfront if you desire, but plan to make reservations early.
To be fair to the Parkway, if you rented the whole room (as we did with my nephew), the place wasn't half bad and noise wasn't an issue. It also had 2 bathrooms - and a decent kitchen - a big plus which makes me inclined to recommend it if one takes the whole room. However, they wouldn't let us put 7 people in a room designed for 6. We didn't know ahead of time, but it would have been easy to sneak a youngun in instead of renting the other (small) half unit - saving money and the hassle of excess noise. Of course, I never told you that...
Chelan itself is a tourist town complete with mini-golf, shopping, and crowds (but not big city crowds - just typical tourist town crowds). The ferry leaves from a nearby dock (drive to it - free parking).
There are no roads to Stehekin. You either go by boat or float plane. Most tourists take the Lady of the Lake Ferry. On our visit, there were two options - one two hours, the other four (one way). By combining the two hour ferry there with the four hour one back (around $60 per person), you get the longest time possible there without spending the night. That time, however, is a mere 3 hours... You can spend as little as one hour if you want the 2 hour ferry both ways.
You don't really see the forested majestic scenery until about halfway there - and then - the end of August - there wasn't nearly as much snowcap on the mountains as in their photographs. Nevertheless, it's still very pretty on the Stehekin end - and pretty sparse on the Chelan end. The Lake itself is the third deepest freshwater lake in the US - and according to the ferry company, has the deepest gorge in the US (measuring from top of mountains to the bottom of the lake). An interesting tidbit for us trivia folks...
The "nature" claim to fame in Stehekin for a short visit is a trip to Rainbow Falls - via bus (or you can rent a bike) - for an extra fee ($7) per person. The falls ARE neat - tall (300+ feet), wonderful noise, beautiful view. However, with the tour you have a very short time there and with a decent sized crowd. All too soon you hear the "Everyone back on the bus" order (sigh). The bus trip there is short - a couple of miles at most (on an old school bus) - and is narrated, but pending where you sit on the bus, it can be hard to understand the speaker. I heard noises, but had trouble figuring out what the words were. Hubby heard it all and easily.
Since we had the 3 hour time, we opted to get off at the Bakery on the trip back and buy/eat our lunch there. That was a superv decision. They had a nice offering of soups, sandwiches, salads, and baked sweets. Following the relaxing tasty lunch, we had about a mile walk along the lake to go back to the dock - and from there - had time to explore the Visitor Center's exhibits and a small "local made" gift shop. This section of time was my favorite - the time from leaving that bus to getting back on the ferry. The walk was easy, very peaceful, very pretty, and relaxing.
Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the ferry ride back (for me). Four hours is a long time... when you've already seen the same sights on the way in. Add to that some children that were obviously bored (not mine, but other younger kids who were not amused with a long boat ride or the scenery). Some people slept. Others read or played cards. I counted landmarks as they went by - trying to remember them in reverse order... Hubby - our TRUE water person - spent the time outdoors and rather loved it all. My Mom - a non water person - was totally bored. I was in the middle. I much preferred the two hour ride there, but I can't imagine having just one hour of time in Stehekin.
Looking back on our trip (with all of us), we'd have changed our minds and chosen the driving option through the North Cascades - considering the time we had. Travelers we met in Olympic told us they had gone that route and it was, indeed, beautiful. It also would have saved us approx $900 between lodging and ferry costs, etc.
If we were doing Stehekin again, I'd have looked more closely into staying there for at least one night to allow for hiking and/or simply enjoying the peacefulness of it all (instead of staying in Chelan). Three hours there was too short of a time for 6 hours on a ferry (for most of us). There are camping and a couple of lodging options there. You would have to enjoy nature though as there's nothing else there for amusement. This would have been great for hubby, myself and our boys (I possibly would have had rave reviews of the whole area instead of "so-so"), but my mom felt she'd have been really bored - so know which "type" of person you are before planning.
For Chelan, the town, it seems to be a lake vacation destination for the northwest. Considering the other (large) lake options close by (few or none), I can understand the need to want to be around a decent sized body of water.
If you're from the east, there are plenty of other options and prettier places to go to for a lake destination (such as Lake Champlain) rather than make the long trip out west just for this lake (my opinion). For us, since we were already on a western trip, it was nice to see, but in hindsight, we'd have modified our plans as detailed above.