The Enchantments is a collection of alpine lakes nestled amongst tall granite peaks and spires in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington. There are five unique areas amongst the Enchantments zone which covers about 75 square miles. The area was originally discovered in the early 1900s by A.H. Sylvester, the first supervisor of the Wenatchee National Forest, who was responsible for surveying and mapping large portions of the Cascade Range. Mountaineers and climbers discovered the area in the 1940s and by the 1970s the lakes were a popular backpacking destination for Seattle residents. In the 1980s the Forest Service enacted a permit system for overnight camping, reducing the amount of overnight visitors by nearly eighty percent [source].
Today overnight permits for the Enchantments are highly coveted, especially for access to the Core which lies almost entirely above 6,000 feet. For the past few years I’ve applied to the permit lottery, with no success. This March I was once again declined the permit.
Through mid-May I was tossing around a couple trip ideas for the beginning of June but nothing had really stuck with me. You can imagine how excited I was to find a last-minute permit for the Core through the online reservation system. I knew that it was still late-spring conditions in the Core but I felt capable and confident that I’d be able to navigate my way along the trail.
I gave myself four days to thru-hike the 19-mile trail which passes through four Enchantment zones – Stuart, Colchuck, Core Enchantment and Snow. That may sound like an easy plan but not when dealing with a total elevation gain of about 6,000 feet and a loss of 7,800 feet. Here’s a look at what each day involved.
Day 1 – Trailhead to Colchuck Lake
I set off to drive to the trailhead with the well-wishes of my husband. Sadly he can’t take last minute days off work and admitted to being a little jealous. It took me about four hours to reach the trailhead which is on the east side of the Cascade mountains near a town called Leavenworth.
I got myself geared up and was hitting the trail a bit past noon. I had 4.5 miles to reach Colchuck Lake where I’d camp for the night.The first mile or so was a good gradual climb as a warmup. Of course at some point in that first mile I remembered what I’d forgotten – my earbuds and my sunscreen. Earbuds I could live without, but sunscreen would be a bigger issue especially once I hit the snowy bowls of the Upper Enchantments. Amazingly, miraculously, I was coming up to a bridge crossing and there sat a perfect bottle of sunscreen. I thanked the trail gods for the trail magic.
Just over two miles in there was a junction and then the real climbing started – 1,000 feet over two miles. It was hot and the higher altitude was making my body work a bit harder but slowly I made my way up to the shores of Colchuck Lake. I was pretty worn out from the drive and climb and had a hard time finding a decent campsite. It didn’t help that a number of them were covered by the last remnants of winter snow. I settled into a site, explored the area a bit and made friends with my neighbors.
Day 2 – Colchuck Lake to Inspiration Lake
I didn’t set an alarm for the morning knowing that the sun would get me up early. Sure enough I was awake around 6:30. I needed to be up and out of camp early so that most of the climb up to Asgard Pass would be shaded. I knew the climb would be steep and challenging and was hoping I wouldn’t be the only one attempting it that morning. Luckily enough there was a large group of friends who were happy to have me tag along.
The climb was pretty intense. The trail is more of a route with lots of cairns to keep track of. The first two thirds of the climb went nearly straight up, alternating between rocky paths and snowfields. I think I put on and took off my crampons at least three times through the ascent. The last third was thankfully all rock and a bit less steep as we rounded over the pass.
I had a well-earned lunch break in the pass then took my leave of the group I’d ascended with. They were going to camp right near the pass and I was going a couple miles further into the Core. The soft snow made travel more challenging than I’d anticipated but at least it was mostly all downhill. There was a thunderstorm rumbling to the south which thankfully stayed to the other side of the peaks.
I took a short side trail to peer down onto Crystal Lake nestled between two soaring peaks. Back out onto the trail I had my first encounter with a mountain goat! He was off to my right on some rocks, munching on the fresh spring greens. He wasn’t too concerned by me as I worked my way past him.
From there it was a short descent to campsites beside Inspiration Lake. There was another group of hikers already set up who were thankfully willing to share their beautiful spot with me. As the afternoon rolled on towards evening we were visited by more mountain goats – a mama and her one-year-old kid. After dinner my new friends ventured off to a low summit nearby while I sat to enjoy the company of the goats and the slowly shifting colours of the surrounding peaks.
Day 3 – Inspiration Lake to Snow Lake
Do you ever get up in the morning and feel like you’re surrounded by goats? No? Well that’s exactly how I felt as I worked to break down camp and enjoy some breakfast. There were four mountain goats patrolling my little rock island, making it somewhat challenging to focus on getting my gear stowed and breakfast eaten.
I’m sure they were glad to see the last of me as I headed out of camp. My first stop of the day was a rocky summit in the middle of a pass beside Prusik Peak. I had a 360 view of the peaks and lakes of the Enchantments.
Once down from the pass I skirted the shore of Perfection Lake. The crossing at the outlet was a bit flooded and I opted to get my feet wet instead of trying to balance on a couple narrow logs. Next I passed Sprite Lake and then Leprechaun Lake. Someone was definitely thinking of faerie on the first traverse of the area.
I had been lucky enough to follow in the boot path of the hikers I’d camped with. They’d summited a nearby peak earlier and were just ahead of me. I thought I might catch up to them when I reached Lake Viviane but I’d evidently dawdled just enough to miss them. What I didn’t miss though was the opportunity to sit by the calm shore of Lake Viviane and enjoy my lunch and the peaks around me.
The downhill trek from Lake Viviane to Upper Snow Lake is another steep route – 1,400 feet in about a mile. My knees were relieved to reach the shore of the lake. The lake was surprisingly low, another symptom of the dry winter Washington had experienced. It will fill up quickly though with the snow melting out of the mountains. I found a great campsite on a bench between the forest and the lake and proceeded to relax, eat, and enjoy my surroundings.
Day 4 – Snow Lake to Trailhead
I was up and out of camp early, well before the other campers nearby. I had a big day ahead – a descent of 4,000 feet over eight miles and then a long drive home. My favourite part about big descents is observing the changes in the ecosystems around me. I went from thin pine forest, across bouldered scree slopes, past wetlands near Nada Lake, through old-growth cedar groves, out to semi-arid wildflower-covered slopes and finally down to the cool river on the valley floor.
Those eight miles gave me plenty of time to reflect on my adventure. I was proud of myself for having the skills, the physical fitness and the mental fortitude to successfully thru-hike the Enchantments. I had quickly realised that the Core is a mountaineer’s paradise and that I should count myself lucky to have been able to access the area. And of course I was already making plans to go back. Next time I’ll visit in the late summer, stay a couple more nights in the Core and scramble a few of the more easier to access peaks.