Posted on August 16, 2012 by Beth Yost
Nearly three years ago Kyle and I moved to Seattle from the Midwest. We couldn’t wait to become acquainted with our new home, in the heart of one of the country’s best adventure playgrounds. Trips to REI became regular date nights, and our yearly dividend has grown big enough to feed a small army of kids at fat camp. We were overdosing on outdoor recreation, and it was amazing. As we acquired more gear and more skills, we discovered more places to explore. All the while, we kept hearing about one: The Enchantments, a series of beautiful lakes in Leavenworth, Wa.
After serendipitously meeting two other couples who were like the mashed potatoes and gravy to our turkey dinner, we decided to attempt the permit lottery for this mystical place we’d all kept hearing about. And we got it.
We just returned from five days in the Enchantment zone of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and I can honestly say the last time I was this enchanted I was riding in a boat through a small world of mini-people. (I was 6, on a family trip to Disney World, not on an acid trip in college, mind you.)
I highly recommend the trip and hope that our experience offers a little inspiration and valuable information for you to start planning yours.
A teensy weensy bit of history
Many of the lakes in The Enchantments have two names, so don’t be confused. But to understand this, a little history helps. The Enchantment zone was originally discovered by a European topographer named A.H. Sylvester in the early 20th century. Because of the lakes’ enchanting beauty, he called them the Enchantment Lakes — simple as that. In 1959, a Leavenworth couple, Bill and Peg Stark, began exploring the area and named the lakes in the lower basin after fairy names and the lakes in the upper basin after Norse Mythology, given their differences in landscape. Since then, the National Park Service has jacked up the works by giving them different names (as if they didn’t have anything better to do), but, thankfully, many of the lakes are still referenced by their older, more poetic, name.
Where are they and how do I get there?
The lakes are located in the Central Cascades Mountains, about 15 miles southeast of Leavenworth, WA. And getting there is no easy feat, no matter which approach you take: either the Snow Lake Trailhead or the Stuart Lake/Colchuck Lake Trailhead. If you go up the Snow Lake TH, you’ll descend at the Colchuck Lake TH and vice versa. (An important note for either option: You don’t end where you begin. This is a two-car trip or you’ll be hitchhiking.)
This is a very important decision and depends on your hiking style. Pick the wrong approach and it could really impact your trip, depending on how and when you like to tackle the most strenuous ascents and descents.
Our group decided to ascend at the Colchuck Lake TH and descend at the Snow Lake TH. This is not the most common choice, but I’d do it this way again, with no hesitation. (More on that later.)
What’s the difference between the two ways in?
Ascending at the Colchuck Lake trailhead is the shortest route but means you must go up Aasgard Pass. From the trailhead, it’s just under 5 miles before you reach the lake and base of Aasgard Pass, which is intimidating to see, since it gains 2,200 feet elevation in less than a mile. On average, it takes about four-plus hours to climb just the pass.
If you start at Snow Lake you’re in for a longer, but less steep route (but still steep). The trail goes for 10 miles to climb 6,000 feet of elevation — a slow torture, in my opinion.
Remember, whichever you don’t go up, you must come down. I think ascending from Snow Lake TH and descending Aasgard would be awful, but most do it that way. I prefer to yank the band-aid off—do it fast, get it over with, and be done with it.
Our 5 Fabulous Days in the Enchantment Zone
I wouldn’t recommend this trip in less than three days, only because there’s so much to see and do. Still, some lunatics, er, ambitious adventurers, do it in one.
Day One: (4.75 miles 2100 elevation gain from Colchuck Lake trailhead): The first night we stayed at Colchuck Lake at the southwest end of the lake near the base of Aasgard Pass. It’s a beautiful spot to camp: right on the glacier-fed lake with a view of the pass and Dragontail Peak. We had a great big rock at our campsite where we sat and watched the reflection of the sun set and light up the mountains and water. We ate a big calorie-rich meal, and called it a night pretty early (i.e., sans whiskey and shenanigans).
Day Two: Aasgard Pass (under one mile, 2,200 elevation gain): I got up and took a quick dip in the lake before the steep climb. But I got out quickly, wiped out on a mossy rock, and scraped up my knee, just in time for our toughest day of hiking. (My bad, your warning — moss is slippery when wet, folks.)
At the south end of the lake, we worked our way through a boulder field before reaching the base of the pass. It took us about four hours to climb; my takeaway tips: Use trekking poles, be mindful of your footing, take plenty of breaks, and enjoy the stunning view of Colchuck Lake as it shrinks below. Despite my banged-up knee, and I enjoyed the trek: It was more interesting than just sucking wind for 10 miles, and I liked that we finished the hard part early on in our trip.
Once we climbed over the ridge, it was easy peasy from there. At first, it feels like you’re in the Ice Age. There’s not much vegetation in the upper lakes,just granite, glaciers, and mountain goats — lots of mountain goats — on your way around Tranquil Lake and Isolation Lake. Camping there is an option, but we wanted to set up camp closer to the center so we carried on until we found a great spot just between Inspiration Lake and Perfection Lake (or Talisman Lake and Rune Lake, according to the OGs).
The trail goes down a steep snow bank just before Inspiration Lake. At the bottom, instead of following the trail to the left, we went to the right and set up camp. It overlooks Perfection Lake, with spectacular views of Prusik Peak and McClellan Peak, plus a small stream perfect for filtering water. We were even so bold one morning to take a dip in glacier-fed Inspiration Lake and sunbathe on a large rock until we regained feeling in our limbs. It only hurts for a couple seconds, but is so worth it when you get out. (Don’t forget about those mossy rocks — they’re slippery little suckers, as evidenced by my earlier stumble.)
Day Three: There’s a slew of side trips in the Enchantment zone, as easy or as difficult as you like. Little Annapurna is probably one of the most climbed, non-technical peaks in the center of the Enchantments, but it’s definitely worth the hike to the top to see Mt. Rainier, Mt. Baker, Mt. Stuart, Dragontail, most of the Enchantment Lakes, and the Nightmare Needles. It’s plenty large enough to pitch a tent (or eight), which would be incredible, as long as there’s no storm on the weather report.
Day Four: Since we didn’t want our descent out of the Enchantments to be any longer than 10 miles on the last day, we wanted to move camp and head to the lower Enchantments. From Inspiration Lake to Lake Viviane is a pretty light hike—no more than two miles—and is absolutely, well, enchanting.
We passed Leprechaun Lake, which has a few incredible camping spots. The lower Enchantment area is very lush and green with flowing streams and waterfalls (alas, no leprechauns) to complement the surrounding mountains and lakes, much different from its more harsh upper lakes. To be here in September or October when the Alpine Larch are turning would be even more spectacular, but we were too early to witness that.
One spot on the trail gets a little hairy between Leprechaun Lake and Lake Viviane, with several steep slabs of granite to descend. Rebar has been nailed into it to prevent slipping; still, take it slow.
We set up camp at Lake Viviane, the lowest of the Enchantment Lakes, and a perfect spot if you’re hiking up from Snow Lake trail because you pop out right at the lake. We watched hikers as they emerged from the grueling hike, and their faces just lit up when they saw it. We even saw a couple of guys high five, which provided a nice laugh.
Lake Viviane has a great sandy beach and big rocks for enjoying the sun, but while it looks so inviting, the water is almost too cold to bear. Instead, just relax and take in the views of Temple Ridge and Prusik Peak, and, of course, those mountain goats.
If you’re seriously set on swimming, as we were, you can also hike the side “trail” (if you’d call it that) about 15 minutes up to Temple Lake, which isn’t often visited but is well worth it with significantly warmer water than all of the other lakes. We actually SWAM in it, rather than the standard dunk and run. On the west side of the lake, we soaked up some sun from huge granite slabs, watching climbers ascended The Temple. “On belay!” echoed across the lake while we relaxed in our little paradise.
We spent our final night playing Yahtzee and drinking “snow margaritas.” I got three Yahtzees in one game, but I couldn’t even begin to keep track of the shooting stars I saw blazing across the night sky. It was a good way to end a great day.
Descending is not nice on the joints, and we had about 10 miles and 6,000 feet of elevation to descend, so we just wanted to get this part over with. Much of the descent is on the open face of the mountain with no way to escape the sun, and it was 97 degrees that day. We fueled ourselves through the heat by fixating on all the beer and food we were going to inhale once we reached Gustav’s in Leavenworth.
From Lake Viviane to The Snow Lakes is the most trying part of this descent; after that, it becomes less steep and more dusty with lots of switchbacks. At that point, we all just went at our own pace and met at the parking lot. Make sure you’ve got lots of water and go at a pace comfortable for you. You’ll get there. Just be glad you’re not going up.
If you have any great recommendations for camping/hiking the Enchantment Zone, please leave them in the comments. This was only our first time and there is so much more to learn and explore. We look forward to going back!
For tips on packing for trips like this, you may enjoy reading Tips and Other Food For Thought for Your Backcountry Camping Trip.
From Seattle to Stuart Lake/Colchuck Trialhead: Take US 2 east to Leavenworth. Turn right onto Icicle Creek Road. At about four miles, the Snow Creek Trailhead is on your left. This is where you’ll end (if you choose the same approach as we did), so if you’re using two cars, park one here. The Stuart/Colchuck Lake Trailhead is another four miles or so. Turn left on road 7601 (about a mile past the Eightmile Campground). After the turn, stay straight (left is the Bridge Creek Campground) and follow the road to the trailhead. Keep going over the bridge and another mile or so to the end of the road and the Lake Stuart Trailhead.
Passes and Permits:
For more info on passes:
Wenatchee River Ranger District
Leavenworth, WA 98826
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