February 28, 2011
Location: Wenatchee National Forest/Leavenworth
Length: 20 miles (up to 30 miles with side trips)
Recommended Hiking Time: 3-5 days
With the permit lottery* for the Enchantments starting today, I figured it’s high time I highlighted my experience on this popular trail.
Wedged between the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and the Wenatchee National Forest, the Enchantment Lakes are some of the most pristine and otherworldly backcountry you’ll ever encounter. With crystal clear water in a meadow of boulders and jagged, rocky peaks as a backdrop, this is backpacking at its best. And true to their namesake, the lakes are absolutely enchanting.
However, the path to get here requires sweat, trail knowledge, and a bit of grit. The Enchantment Lakes lie in a basin high above the tree line and require either a 10 mile steady ascent ending with a steep climb or a 7 mile moderate ascent with an even steeper climb over a vast scree field. I picked the shorter approach from the Stewart Lake/Colchuck Lake Trailhead.
Depending on the snow pack, the trail is passable in mid-June or early July. However, I opted to go in late September because my group was fairly inexperienced and I didn’t want to bother with ice axes. Aside from the absence of snow, the late season also offers a carpet of fall foliage and golden larch trees. While larches are in the conifer genus, they are actually deciduous so their needles change color and drop off, leaving them naked in the winter. In fall, their bright yellow colors are very striking against the scenic Enchantment Basin.
Day 1 “The Climb”
The path from the Colchuck/Stewart Trailhead starts off pleasantly enough with a gentle climb for the first few miles along a pretty stream. Then you reach a fork where you can head east to Colchuck or west to Stewart. Both offer an ascent, but the climb to Colchuck is slightly steeper. Once you reach this gem of a lake you’ll be about 4.5 miles into your day. We were feeling pretty good at this point and stopped at a nice sunny boulder to refill our water and have a quick lunch overlooking the gorgeous, turquoise water.
The trail continues around Colchuck and at the far end of the lake you run out of dirt and must walk over rocks and hop from boulder to boulder in sections. When we reached the base of Aasgard pass we began to understand what lay ahead of us: nothing by loose rock and vertical movement.
It is a grind to say the least and I recommend hiking poles for this section. There’s also not much of a trail here so you have to keep your eyes peeled for the next cairn in order to follow the path of least resistance. We continued up higher and higher, sweating, grunting, and tearing off layers along the way. The air was cold, but the work kept us piping hot and after an hour or so we came up with our own nickname for the pass: Asskick. The worst part was that part of the climb is not visible from below so it is even longer than it looks. However, we persevered and were encouraged by views of Colchuck getting smaller and smaller below us. Once the summit was in sight, however, I got a little too excited and in my hurry went off the main path and ended up scrambling and climbing my way to the top.
Once at the top I cooled off quickly due to the chilly gusts of wind coming from the treeless, snow patched entrance to the basin. We layered up quickly and made quick movements towards flatter and slightly more sheltered terrain just past Isolation Lake, the very first of the Enchantments. We couldn’t enjoy it for long though. The sun was fading fast and the wind had really picked up. We set up camp with partial shelter behind a small embankment and ate dinner in our tents before laying our tired bodies down for a fitful night of sleep due to heavy winds.
Day 2 “Exploring”
The next morning, I woke just before dawn needing to make a move for the nearest pit toilet. I found it behind some scrubs, overlooking a cliff that dropped down vertically. The stream flowing from Isolation Lake cascades down this cliff in a large waterfall and flows into Perfection Lake. From here you get your first real glimpse of the clear, gem like lakes that make up the Enchantments, each one waterfalling down into the next. I watched the stars fade as the sun rose, making beautiful reflections in the pools of icy water and giving the cold granite warm, pinkish tones. I have to say that privy definitely rates among my top backcountry toilets.
With the sun out in force, we packed and headed down trail, passing Inspiration Lake and Perfection Lake. Our plan was to set up camp at Gnome Tarn, explore the basin, and day hike to Druid Plateau. The rockscape of the plateau is positively mystical with its acres of shallow water dotted with numerous rock formations. Unfortunately we underestimated how difficult it would be to find the route and ended up doing a little more “exploring” than we planned on.
After descending past Inspiration Lake and the western side of Perfection Lake, we took a sharp left off the main trail on an established and somewhat steep path. At the top of the saddle we spotted what we thought was Gnome Tarn in a basin below us. Although it seemed rather large for a tarn, there weren’t any other bodies of water in sight so we headed down the rocky and very steep path to what we later discovered was Shield Lake.
The trail here is not maintained and we had to use our hands at points to climb up and down. There were definitely a few sketchy sections where we had to take our time. Once we reached the lake it was sort of marshy, but well sheltered and supposedly offers great fishing. However, we realized our mistake at this point and after a short snack had to put our packs on and head back up the slope we’d just descended.
Once back at the saddle, it was too late in the day to make another attempt at Druid, but we enjoyed views of Prusik Peak and after walking around a bit eventually found the elusive Gnome Tarn. We left Druid Plateau as mystical, at least for this trip, and headed back down the path, made our way around Perfection Lake, and headed towards Sprite and Leprechaun Lakes. We took our time, stopping to take pictures and enjoying each little waterfall along the way.
With the day starting to draw to a close and some light rain falling, we searched around for a flat, sheltered spot to camp. A few were already taken, but we found a private and sort of flat spot at the southwest end of the peninsula jutting out into Leprechaun Lake. After getting our tents situated and some water heated, we made a makeshift shelter out of my emergency blanket and hiking poles so we could enjoy the last bit of sunlight and the lake before going to bed.
While there is definitely an established main trail marked by frequent cairns that takes you directly through the Enchantment Basin, route finding off trail is difficult because side trails are not marked and you typically have to use sparse cairns to find the way. If you plan to do any of the many worthwhile side trips in this basin, I definitely recommend a little research, a good map, and the knowledge to use it. Aside from Druid Plateau and Shield Lake, there are also climbing opportunities on shear-sided Prusik Peak and scrambling on Little Annapurna. One of the shortest and easiest side trips is to lovely, Crystal Lake, which is where we headed the next day.
Day 3 “The Descent”
After taking in another magical sunrise with the warm, pink granite surrounding us, we headed back up trail and followed a thin route over rocks between Sprite Lake and Perfection Lake heading southwest. Following the wild goose chase of the previous day, it was nice to spot Crystal Lake after maybe 30 minutes of walking. We had it all to ourselves and it was very peaceful with a small island at its center. The day was even clear enough to see Mount Rainier to the south.
After that short foray, we reluctantly headed back down trail past Leprechaun and the last of the Enchantments, Lake Viviane. The descent to Upper and Lower Snow Lakes from here is quite steep, particularly at the top where there is exposure and rebar and grooved steps have been added to the rocks to make it easier to hike up and down. Your knees will definitely feel it as the path descents steeply for about 2 miles until you reach tree cover and eventually Snow Lakes.
These lakes offer some nice camp spots, but after the Enchantments can be a little underwhelming. The dam constructed here definitely detracts from the scenery, but offers a crossing and makes up part of the trail. In my opinion Nada Lake, about 1.5 miles further down trail, provides much better scenery for making a camp.
While Nada Lake is lovely, it still isn’t the Enchantments and if you have the daylight and the drive in your legs, you’ll probably be tempted to head directly to the Snow Lakes Trailhead. However, we had planned on an extra night and were happy to take a quick bath in the slightly warmer waters of the lake and sit out playing cards below the trees until late in the evening. (These were things the much cooler temperatures in the basin hadn’t allowed us to do.) While it can be buggy at Snow and Nada Lakes, it was late enough in the season that we didn’t have much of a problem.
Day 4 “Continuing the Descent”
The next day we made the 6+ mile descent to the Snow Lakes Trailhead parking lot. If your knees are sore from the previous day, this constant down hiking through switchbacks certainly doesn’t help. The forest here is nice, but the scenery isn’t nearly as inspiring as what you’ve already seen. Towards the very end you pass through a burn area and can eventually see the parking lot, typically full of climbers heading to the wall to the left of the trail. However, you still have about 30 minutes of hiking before you actually reach the bottom. After grabbing our vehicles at both trailheads, we were definitely ready to commemorate our trip with beers and burgers down the road in Leavenworth.
*Permits and Logistics:
While I mentioned that the permit lottery period just started, this method of obtaining a permit isn’t necessarily the best option for everyone. However, if you heart is dead set on the Enchantments and you only have a few open weekends, you probably should enter an application for your group in the lottery, which is online this year! Submit your application any time between February 28 and March 20.
Keep in mind, though, that they do leave 25% of the permits open for walk-up hikers. If you aren’t a planner and have a more open schedule, I would suggest heading to the ranger station mid-week and trying for a walk-up permit. Just make sure you get there as soon as it opens at 7:30 am. If there happens to be a large group that day, you may get entered into a walk-up lottery, but your chances of getting a permit are pretty high if you come on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday like we did. I recommend staying at the Evergreen Inn across the street from the Leavenworth Ranger Station the night before, which has a hot tub and a pretty descent free breakfast buffet.
Another thing to consider while you’re making your plans is that this is a U-shaped trail with entrances at both Stewart Lake/Colchuck Lake and Snow Lakes Trailheads, which are 8 miles apart. This means at some point you’ll need to get yourself from one trailhead to the other. I believe there is a shuttle during the high season in July and August, but I’m not sure how frequently it runs. In the late season, your options are hitch hiking, bringing two cars and parking one at each end, or locking a mountain bike at one end and having one person in your party bike to your car and drive it back.
To get to the trail you’ll need to take Highway 2 towards Leavenworth and turn onto Icicle Road, which heads southwest. The Snow Lakes Trailhead is approximately 4 miles up the road on the left. If you are entering from Colchuck/Stewart continue for another 4 miles to Bridge Creek Campground, turn left on Forest Service Road 7601, and drive an additional 4 miles to the trailhead parking lot.
When you are packing for your trip, make sure to bring clothes for all weather types (warm, wet, and cold), particularly in the late season when you can experience snow. Since the basin is so high in altitude, weather conditions can change quickly, as illustrated in the picture below. Not ten minutes before this rain cloud showed up the day was completely warm and sunny.
No matter what plan you come up with, good luck and happy hiking!