When 16-year-old Autumn Veatch emerged from a plane crash last weekend – bruised, burned and dehydrated – she awoke deep in the middle of nowhere, on a mountainous route leading to a place called, rather underwhelmingly, Easy Pass Trail.

The obstacles in the Cascade range, known to locals as the Alps of Washington, are as ineffably dense as they are treacherous, a wooded labyrinth where the illumination of a sunny day is quickly dampened by shadowy forestry. Experienced hikers at the trailhead here the other day called Autumn’s canyon of survival thicker than the Rockies at their best, a place so disorienting “you can’t really tell where you are” at worst.

By the time she made it past the rustling creek, up over the wooden footbridge and, one freezing night later, to the sound of civilization – cars breezing by on Highway 20 – the teenager was dazed and overwhelmingly confused.

“But she was very quiet, very calm,” said David Crosby, the cashier at a local grocery store who was asked, rather casually by a teenager on Monday afternoon, where to find the restroom.

When Autumn returned to the register a few minutes later, Crosby recalled at the store on Wednesday, she said: “I have no idea where I am.”

Autumn is home now, after a remarkable journey that her father, who encouraged her to watch the reality show Survivorman, called a “miracle”. The high-schooler has yet to tell her tale – her mother, Misty Bowman, told the Guardian the family was grieving for Autumn’s step-grandparents, who perished in the crash – but to hear the authorities and the shopkeepers tell it in this sleepy corner of Washington state, where mountain meets riverbed and nowhere turns into somewhere, this is not merely the stuff of reality TV.

“I don’t think people truly understand,” said Sheriff Frank Rogers of Okanogan County, who spoke with Autumn on Monday. “It’s so dense and thick.”

‘You couldn’t see anything’

Autumn Veatch’s plane journey to disaster in Washington.

After visiting family in the city of Kalispell, Montana, authorities say Veatch departed around 1 pm on Saturday in a four-seat Beech A-35 plane with her step-grandparents, pilot Leland Bowman, 62, and his wife, Sharon Bowman, 63.

The aircraft crossed the Idaho/Washington border at 2:21 pm. An hour later, it dropped off the radar in a remote section of the state, about 50 miles south of the Canadian border. That afternoon, officials said, storms periodically rolled through with occasional bursts of wind. The sky consumed the tail-end of the flight.

“It was extremely cloudy,” said Sheriff Rogers, whose department initially responded to reports of the crash, in an interview with the Guardian. “You couldn’t see anything.”

Then, a break in the clouds presented devastating circumstances: the plane was headed directly into the trees and mountainscape ahead.

It remains unclear when the aircraft went down, but the last known phone signal was flagged around 3:50 pm on Saturday. The plane struck a series of trees and barrelled toward the ground, sparking a fire.

Rogers said the teenager attempted to assist her grandparents, to no avail.

So she turned around and began a daunting trip out of the woods: the sheriff said Autumn fell down a small cliff, before gathering her composure, and followed a creek to a sandbar, where she slept for the night. Within the dense landscape, temperatures dropped to an unpleasant low.

“She said the first night she was coming down she was freezing,” Rogers told the Guardian.

By Monday morning, Autumn made her way from the crash site within the Rainy Pass mountainscape toward the trail. Thick logs are splayed across the landscape as far as the eye can see.

“If you were just out in the timber,” said Tom Beck, an experienced hiker who recently moved to the region, “it’d be pretty difficult.”

The trail is “thicker than what we hiked in south-west Colorado, by far”, said his wife, Sandy Rost, walking near the trailhead of the sprawling Easy Pass landscape. “You’d have to be in good shape.”

Authorities also credit the teenager’s intuition to follow the creek downstream from Rainy Pass to Easy Pass. Autumn also needed some luck.

“If she’d gone up the ride and came up the other side, it could’ve been much longer,” said Sheriff Rogers.

Her mobile phone would have been useless: Easy Pass is firmly situated within a dead zone that lasts for miles.

‘A very impressive, determined, very strong lady’

As Autumn neared the Easy Pass exit, the sound of vehicles ahead would have been an enormous relief, a sign of life.

But there does not appear to have been a car for miles: the sheriff said the teenager had to turn back from the highway to the trail’s parking lot. She sat down, barely able to stand, next to a parked sedan.

Soon after, two men driving by pulled into the lot and asked Autumn if she was OK.

Nearly two full days after the crash, Veatch explained to the pair what happened. They immediately drove her about 30 miles down Highway 20 to a general store in the minuscule town of Mazama (population: 200),the first for 70 miles for motorists heading that way.

Autumn called 911 at 2:41 pm, after the vehicle rolled into the parking lot of the Mazama General Store.

“I was riding from from Kalispell, Montana, to Bellingham, Washington, and about … I don’t know where, but we crashed and I was the only one that made it out,” she told the dispatcher.

When Autumn arrived at the storefront on Monday afternoon, the workday wasn’t unusual for employee David Crosby. While Autumn stood near the cash register with the pair who picked her up, he continued about his daily routine. She was “maybe a little bit dazed”, Crosby told the Guardian, but altogether solemn.

Quickly, store employees began to absorb the gravity of the situation: her face was “a little red … like it had a rash”, Crosby said, and her clothes were ragged.

“It looked like she had been rolling in the sticks and stuff – stuck to her back,” he said. “So she’d definitely been outside.”

She was still disoriented when CB Thomas, a first responder and operator of the nearby Goat’s Beard Mountain Supplies, rushed into the store.

“He came over, introduced himself to her,” Crosby said. “From there, it kind of just took off.”

Sheriff Rogers said by the time he spoke with her on Monday evening, Veatch showed “a lot of character” and displayed a prevalent resolve. She’s “just a very impressive, determined, very strong lady”, he said.

Autumn was released from the hospital on Tuesday evening after officials said she was treated for dehydration and minor burns and lacerations. Dr James Wallace, of the Three Rivers hospital in Brewster, Washington, where Veatch was treated, said at a press conference on Tuesday her “baseline state of health” played a key role in the teenager’s survival. Her father, David Veatch, told local news outlets his daughter is an “amazing kid”. Family friends joined him at Three Rivers, where a stream of selfies showed Autumn, with scrapes and a nose ring, smiling for the camera.

Family friends relayed to the Guardian that Autumn needed more rest at home and declined requests for comment.