The following article was written in response to the recent passing of a federal bill which will allow for the upper Stehekin Valley Road to be reopened. The process is far from complete, but this is a huge step towards restoring access to our upper valley’s vast treasures. Cliff Courtney shares some ideas about how to keep costs down and ensure quality trail access as well as reopening the actual road.
The Upper Stehekin Road ~ A win for trails
Prior to 2003 folks hiking the Pacific Crest Trail between High Bridge and Bridge Creek were routed up on a bench above the valley floor while the vehicle road traversed the valley down next to the Stehekin River. Many of the hikers chose to walk the road rather than take the trail because the route the road took was much more scenic and cooler. After the road was washed out, because the tread was completely wiped out by the flood in a couple places, hikers no longer had the road option and the only route left was up on the bench. Today, thanks to congress allowing for a swap for the road right of way
to be moved away from the river, we have a win for trails and we can re-open the Stehekin Valley Road to Cottonwood as well.
What congress has allowed for is a swap that would have no affect on wilderness because it will swap acre for acre. The great news is that now the road will be out of the more fragile riparian zone and that vacated right of way will be available for a hiker trail! This 3 mile stretch of trail is already largely intact but it will have a couple of challenges. The first challenge is at the very start of where the road washed out at a place called Carwash Falls. This is a place where, although not vertical, the flood washed out the tread and left slanted bedrock. The bigger challenge however is that to build a trail here it necessitates a bridge that will not only be under a falls but will also have extreme stresses placed on it in the winter from snow and ice. Fortunately there is a much better alternative than this very expensive option. After leaving High Bridge the PCT travels to Coon Lake and then heads on up the Stehekin Valley to join up with what is known as the Old Wagon Road. This is the section of old road that was used for vehicle traffic in years past that will now be rebuilt to accommodate a new section of roadway. Now, instead of joining this old road, the trail can cross the narrow dirt road and continue on its path up valley
angling away from the road towards the river. From there it will follow a small bench and drop down to the area right down river from the former Dolly Varden Campground. This will be easy trail building and it will cross Carwash Falls Creek above the river so that a precarious and expensive bridge will no longer necessary. From there the trail will mostly align with the old roadbed that was washed out in 2003. There are two other near vertical faces that will need some blasting to establish the tread but these are simple enough since they do not include any streams. Aside from these two challenges it will also be
wise to move the trail a little further uphill in some areas so that in the event of another large flood the trail will remain intact. The trail will then intercept a path that the NPS has already built and maintains at Shady Camp on the Stehekin River.
This will be an incredible and beautiful stretch of trail and an enhancement to the PCT. It will not only be enjoyed by through hikers however because it will be a wonderful trail for a short day hike or for access for fishermen. I fully expect organizations such as the Pacific Crest Trail Association and the Washington Trails Association to warmly endorse this option once they realize that hikers have gained a route much more beautiful than the one that was lost to the realignment. I do understand their concern however, and I am fully in support of including funding for this trail at the same time funding is secured to re-open the road.
Speaking of trails, one must readily acknowledge that rebuilding the road is mostly about trails. We are not losing trails; we are regaining several opportunities for hiking that were lost to the day hiker when the road was washed out. Hikers will once again have access to trailheads such as Bridge Creek, Goode Ridge, Park Creek, Flat Creek, Horseshoe Basin, Trapper lake and of course the unforgettable Cascade Pass area. Aside from day hikers regaining a foothold (pun intended) it will also once again re-establish the two routes that once brought hikers in to the valley that were short enough to cover in one day. A couple other wonderful things that this right of way swap enabled was that the narrow little dirt road was (and will be again) the only option for mountain bikers to have day of fantastic mountain biking in North Cascades National Park. One must not forget the other user group that has now been allowed back in to the park either. That group consists of the visitor who is elderly or handicapped to the point where they cannot hike long distances. They can now once again enjoy a sample of the park that they had lost. A favorite time of year for that group is during the fall color season.
Congratulations and thank you Evans, Hastings, Parlette, England and others that worked so hard to make this possible. You have not only helped our community remain viable but this is truly a win for all user groups and enables the National Park Service to live up to their General Management Plan and the intent of The Washington Wilderness Act that called for a vehicle road to Cottonwood Camp.