Through Hiking the Enchantments
Although I’m writing this in the fall, the memories of the snowcapped peaks of the North Cascades rising high above the charming Bavarian-style town of Leavenworth in July still remains clear in my mind. But it wasn’t just any part of the North Cascades. This summer, a friend and I through hiked a very specific section of the North Cascades called the Enchantments, which features several high alpine lakes nestled amongst craggy peaks and glacier fields. Oh, and it boasts one hell of a climb, but I’m getting to that.
Make no mistake, these lakes are not an easy hike in, but the views are worth every trudging step. That being said, the Core Enchantments are a highly popular hiking area and require a permit to overnight camp there (visit the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest website to learn more). Applications usually open in February and close in March, and there is no benefit to applying early as it’s a lottery. I applied for a permit last year and didn’t get one (sigh). However, I couldn’t be deterred from trying to explore this beautiful place, and I had heard of people who attempted to through hike this area in one day, which does not require a permit to do so.
Thus, I set out to complete a day hike that most people do in several days.
Through hiking the Enchantments is not for the weak of heart – it includes a total climb and drop of about 13,000 feet, a grueling climb over 2,000 feet in less than a mile over Aasgard pass (if you choose to take the Stuart Lake trailhead), and a total distance of about 19 miles. You’ll start your day before dawn and may even end after sunset.
There are two trail heads that approach the Alpine Lakes Basin – one is the Stuart/Colchuck Lake trailhead that climbs about 6,000 feet in about 5.5 miles and steadily drops another 7,800 feet over 13 long miles. You also have the option of taking the Snow Lake trailhead, which climbs steadily for 13 miles without any respite, and then drops you over the steep Aasgard Pass. Many through hikers prefer the Stuart/Colchuck Lake route since you climb less overall elevation. It’s a steeper climb at the beginning of the trail while your legs are still fresh, and lends itself to a more gradual drop (although there are definitely sections that I would not call gradual, and my knees were screaming at me by the end). This is the way we opted to go, which I prefer since you can glimpse the alpine lakes as you drop into them along the entire trail. If you opt to go the Snow Lake route, you’ll have to look back at every step to see what you missed.
Since hiking into the Core Enchantments isn’t a loop, if you’re through hiking you’ll need to leave one car at each end. The trailheads are only about eight miles apart from each other. There’s also a shuttle that runs from Leavenworth, but it only runs at limited times. Take Icicle Creek Road from Leavenworth to each trailhead (the Stuart Lake/Colchuck Lake trailheads are about 12 miles from town). There’s no service up this way so plan ahead!
There is a strict no camping policy at the trailhead, but there are a few campsites just down the road from the trailhead. If you go in July or August (the most popular time), you’ll want to reserve a camp site at either Eightmile campground or Bridge Creek campground (which are off Icicle Creek Road just a few miles from the trailheads). These campgrounds reserve a limited number of sites on a first come, first served basis, but if you’re not there early it’s likely you won’t secure a spot. You can also car camp off the Forest Service road 7601 on the way up to the Stuart Lake Trailhead, which is what we ended up doing since there were no campsites left, and we definitely weren’t the only ones with this idea.
We hit the trail a little before 6 am and finished around 6 pm for a total of 12 hours including breaks. The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest site has a detailed topographic map of the region, but I downloaded a few topo maps that zoomed in on some of the lakes. Even though there’s a trail to follow, I highly recommend taking a map so that you can track your progress (plus, there’s a few rocky spots where you lose the trail and the cairns got a little difficult to see or were virtually non-existent).
Stuart lake trailhead to Colchuck Lake and top of Aasgard Pass
This 4.5 mile section is relatively tame, but warms your legs up nicely. The trail starts with a gradual climb through old growth forest along the creek. You won’t get into the views until about 2 miles in. We passed quite a few endurance runners on the way up – this trail seems like a popular running spot! Breaking through to the first view of Colchuck Lake was breathtaking – we hit it about 8 am as the sun was coming up over Aasgard Pass. The morning was peaceful and crisp, and the azure waters of Colchuck Lake were a mesmerizing contrast against the granite peaks.
Colchuck Lake to the top of Aasgard Pass (Top elevation 7800 feet)
Colchuck Lake is a great place to stock up on water and snacks before tackling the 2,200 foot climb over ¾ of a mile up Aasgard Pass. This was by far the most challenging leg of the trail, and although we hiked it with light day packs, I was dripping sweat and breathing hard most of the way. I like to think I’m in pretty good physical condition, but I had my work cut out for me on this climb. There isn’t much of a trail to follow up Aasgard Pass as it’s essentially a cliff of boulders and rocks. However, once you get to the top and look back you can see sweeping views of Colchuck Lake to the southwest and look east to the Alpine Lakes Basin.
Core Enchantment Lakes
Isolation Lake, Perfection Lake, Enchantment Lakes, Inspiration Lake, Leprechaun Lake, ending at Lake Viviane (about 3.5 miles through with options to take trails up to Dragontail Peak, Little Annapurna, or the Prusik Pass Trail)
The next section of the trail drops you into a series of pristine alpine lakes, and involves a more gradual (and arguably more enjoyable) part of the trail. These are great lakes to stop and take a snack or water break, or even a nap in the sun. We opted to take very short breaks so that we wouldn’t lose time, but I’m seeing now why people take three days to complete this hike – it’s a breathtaking area to hang out! My favorite lake was probably Leprechaun Lake with its bubbling waterfalls and crystal clear pools dotted with mossy rocks – it definitely had a magical element to it. We even saw some mountain goats up this way.
The Core Enchantment Lakes (Inspiration Lake, Enchantment Lake, Leprechaun Lake)
Lake Viviane to Snow Lake
Lake Viviane to Snow Lake – this section of the trail drops you about 1,400 feet over 1 mile, and by this part of the trip my knees were starting to buckle a bit. The view from the top of Lake Viviane to Snow Lake is breathtaking, however.
Snow lake to Nada Lake
The trail winds around Snow Lake about 1.2 miles, and then steadily drops another 6.7 miles once you pass Snow Lake to the Snow Lake Trailhead. You get a pretty epic view of Nada Lake before your final descent – and let me tell you, this descent was tough on the knees. I thought the trail would never end – it just kept going down, and down, and then down some more. The last water source you have to fill up at is Nada Lake, and there’s a few spots along Snow Creek before the creek falls away from the main trail. The last 3 miles were a little brutal for me - I ran out of water, and it was scorching at the hottest part of the day as I dropped out of the high alpine region and into the lower, drier elevations. Luckily we had a cooler of cold beer waiting in the car at the end of the trailhead (I highly recommend, if you’re into beer that is) to celebrate our feat!
Back at the Snow Lake trailhead. We made it!
What to Bring
CamelBak or water bottle, and water filtration system as you’ll need to replenish along the way
Snacks, snacks, and more snacks (bring more than you think you need – there’s nothing worse than hiking 20 miles and being starving). I made these little energy bites and they were a life saver
Good hiking shoes
Day pack with extra layers (it can be cold at the top of Aasgard Pass)
Flashlight, matches or lighter and emergency blanket (just in case)
Sunscreen or hat (unless you like getting fried)