The Enchantment Lakes for First-Time Visitors
Sprawling atop the mountains just outside of Leavenworth, Washington, a pristine wonderland awaits. It is a place where ice and snow dominates in the winter, which eventually gives way to bare granite cliffs shimmering in the sun, looming over picturesque lakes and meadows. It is one of the most mystical places I have seen, and now I understand how this place got its name: “The Enchantments.”
The purpose of this article is to provide info for those who would like to plan a hike through the Enchantments basin someday, based on a few things I learned from my own experience and the experiences of others.
While it could be done as a thru-hike or a trail run in one long summer day (if you’re in very good shape), this place is best enjoyed as a multi-day backpacking trip. There are plenty of side trails to explore the many lakes and granite peaks in the area, so it's easy to spend a few days here. Sunrises and sunsets can be an especially incredible sight from up in the basin, and the night sky isn't polluted by any big city lights.
Permits are required to camp overnight during for most of the hiking season (more on that below), although it is possible to squeeze in a visit in the fall after the permit season ends but before winter comes.
Camping in the Enchantments area requires one permit per group from June 15 to October 31.
Unless you’re prepared for intense snowshoeing and traversing icy rocks, then planning a visit between late fall and early summer isn’t recommended--depending on the year (some years, snow still remains throughout autumn). Summer and fall are ideal times to plan for. 2015 was dry and warm, so we had great weather and no ice while hiking there in October.
Obtaining a permit for the Enchantments is difficult—and that’s an understatement. It’s so competitive, it seems almost impossible to get one… but hey, you’ve got to play to win, as they say. An annual "permit lottery" begins in early March of each year. Your only chance of obtaining a permit is to submit your desired reservations during this permit lottery time, then log back into the site a few days later to check the status and declare acceptance of your permit, IF you won.
If you didn't win a permit or you missed the deadline entirely, there is one day in April to try and poach a permit that someone else didn’t accept during the lottery, or you can show up really early at the Leavenworth Ranger Station on the day of your hike, where a daily lottery occurs for one permit per zone (don’t bank on this; I’ve heard a ton of others will show up so it’s still very competitive).
Permit application info can be found here: http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/okawen/passes-permits/recreation/?cid=fsbdev3_053607
Permit Zones of the Enchantments:
When applying for a permit and selecting which zone to camp in, it would be ideal to spend at least one night in the Core Enchantments Zone, where the best of the basin is. Second best choices are the Colchuck Zone or the Snow Zone; however, if you’re staying in either of these two zones for several days and planning numerous day hikes up to the Core area, get ready for a lot of uphill climbing each time.
[There are also the Eightmile and Stuart Zones on the western side of the Enchantments, but these two zones are pretty far from prime Enchantments territory.]
Zone map courtesy of Recreation.gov (linked to source)
Point of Entry into the Enchantments Basin:
This trail is shaped like a horseshoe on the map: there are two main points of entry. If you enter from the Snow Lakes side, the hike to the basin is several miles longer and gains much more elevation; this ascent is more drawn out and less scenic—much more grueling, in my opinion. On the other hand, entering from the Stuart Lake side and ascending Aasgard pass, the hike is shorter, much steeper and still torturous, but in comparison it's actually less elevation gain overall... and you’re treated to stunning, motivational views for the entire climb. I prefer the shorter, steeper, more scenic hike from the Stuart Lake trailhead.
The view from midway up Aasgard Pass, looking down on Colchuck Lake (above); the view from the top of Aasgard Pass (below)
My Experience: Thru-Hiking in Autumn After Oct. 15th
Unable to obtain a permit this year, I recruited some friends for a multi-day thru-hike starting right after the permit window expired. Between the two trailheads, Snow Lakes and Stuart/Colchuck Lakes, there were easily more than a hundred cars there—people with the same clever idea as us—but once we hiked up to the basin, it didn’t feel crowded at all. Scenic lakeside campsites were plentiful.
Since we weren’t restricted by permits, there was complete freedom to choose our route: we entered on the Stuart Lake side, climbed Aasgard pass, then camped near Isolation Lake in the Core Enchantments before continuing the hike to Snow Lakes. The drive between trailheads is short, so shuttling vehicles for a thru-hike was easy.
Of all the places I’ve seen in the Pacific Northwest, the Enchantments basin is up there on the list of ultimate destinations for avid adventurers and nature photographers alike. Hopefully the info I’ve provided will arm other outdoor enthusiasts with the basic knowledge necessary to start planning a trip of their own. Please fill out the contact form if you have any feedback, whether you’ve already visited this spot or not!
A Few More Facts About the Trail:
- According to the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest data, the hike from Stuart Lake trailhead to the Snow Lake trailhead is about 19 miles long (excluding any side trips or diversion hikes you take), with approximately 6,000 feet of elevation gain and 7,800 feet of elevation loss. Bring food and water filtration; wear the proper hiking boots, etc!
- There is often no visible footpath in the basin or on Aasgard Pass, and other times the trail may be very faint. Cairns are often your only guide. Inquire locally about the current best route through Aasgard Pass, as the route may change from year to year. It is important to have a topographic trail map, compass and good navigational skills, or maybe even a GPS for hiking. Don’t count on having cell reception or smartphone Wi-Fi to help you out.
- Neither campfires nor dogs are allowed.
- The resident mountain goats are not shy; they are infamous for seeking out the salt in the urine of hikers, so it’s important to use the provided toilets while in the basin (toilet paper not provided)—and you definitely shouldn’t pee near your tent, unless you wish to attract a bunch of ruthless, nosey visitors to camp.
Thanks for reading! Scroll down for a few more photos from my own trip. Happy adventures!
A sunset over granite peaks and a lake in the Core Enchantments (above); a small lake near Colchuck Lake (below)
Above and below: friends on the "trail," with the occasional cairn sometimes being the only guide in a field of granite. It's easy to see how this hike becomes more difficult in rain, snow or ice. Sidenote: the golden trees above are larches, a coniferous tree which turns golden and drops its delicate needles in autumn... a very nice touch to an already incredible scenery, if you catch it at the right time of year!
Above and below: mountain goats encountered during the hike
(This article was updated 09/2017, but there may be some outdated info. Remember to always check with the Forest Service to confirm conditions, etc., before you go!)