Never would I have imagined that I would be able to camp out in the Core Zone of the Enchantments. That stats show it – your odds of getting into an Ivy league school is better than getting an overnight permit in central Enchantments. Just for fun, I did apply one year, and as expected, no luck on the lottery. However, due to Covid-19, many changes have been made to how permits are acquired and my good friend Abby caught on early that quite a few permits were open within a week of finding out. So naturally, I would go, rain or shine! And a highlight: bringing my friend Hannah on her first backpacking trip – which I’ll definitely talk about some of her firsts here too! If you’re new to backpacking, check out this page on things to expect.
A few things on overnight permits in the Enchantments. Apply online at Recreation.gov. Usually the lottery opens for entry mid-late February for the permit season, May 15-Oct 31. Random drawings start mid March and if you’re magically chosen, you can accept your permit and fill in all the details of your trip. Alternatively, there are always a few spots saved for walk-up lottery permits. Normally, you’d go to the ranger station in Leavenworth and put your name in for the daily lottery, and the spots fill up first draw, first serve. This method gives you mildly better chances of getting in but you may still need to be flexible.
The Enchantments are broken up into 5 zones: Eightmile Caroline, Stuart, Colchuck, Core, Snow Lakes. The thru-hike goes through 4 of the zones. Eighmile Caroline is off on its own, so it’s not quite as popular if you just want to be in the area. The Core zone is most highly sought after, and if you get a Core permit, you’re allowed to camp in any other zone! It’s like a wild card in Uno. But do note that the Core zone is pretty far into the Enchantments, it’s some 5 miles from the Colchuck Trailhead and 8 miles from Snow Lakes Trailhead, both with some 5000 ft gain. But, if you can’t get permits to the Core zone, Colchuck and Snow, are great options adjacent to Core.
If you want to thru-hike and you opt for a Stuart permit, you only save about 2.5 miles from the parking lot before you hit Colchuck zone. So honestly Stuart is probably best if you want to just hang around Lake Stuart and not thru-hike. For Snow Lakes, keep in mind that it’s some 7 miles of forest/hillside before you see any sight of lakes. Compare that to 4 miles of hiking straight to Colchuck lake on the other side.
And never fear – if you don’t get an overnight permit, you can still day hike either out-and-back or thru hike, depending your time and energy! Most people like to thru-hike Colchuck to Snow to minimize elevation gain, but if you’re like me, I’d rather less downhill to save my knees. Different websites will say different mileages but using Caltopo, I find that it’s about 20 miles with 5000 ft gain (and 6000 ft loss).
Okay, enough about how permits work and all! Let’s talk about the trip itself. We got 2 separate permits (each person can only have one enchantment permit a year so we had 2 people get 2 permits for the group), one Stuart and one Core. Colchuck permits filled up really fast, so the next best thing was Stuart. Friday night, we began our car shuttle – parking one car at the Snow Lake Trailhead and driving to the Colchuck Trailhead. Remember to put overnight parking passes in the dashboard (and NW Forest Pass if day hiking)! Most people were headed out, but we were going in – plenty of parking, especially for the reserved overnight space. We hiked in 2.5 miles to find a campsite as the sun set on Colchuck Peak. You could barely see the golden glow, but it was there! It took a little while, but we finally found pretty wide open area to camp. It’s important to only camp at pre-existing camp areas so you protect the fragile vegetation. Most maps will show designated campsites to make it easier to find.
The next morning, we had a lazy wake up to pack up camp. First backpacking night for Hannah, check! We then started hiking to Colchuck Lake, another 2 miles. As we gained elevation on the switchbacks, we also got to see Mt Stuart in the background. Although Stuart is part of the Enchantments as a mountain range, it’s not part of the thru hike and is generally hidden behind Dragontail and Colchuck Peaks. This is my third time to Colchuck Lake and it still does not disappoint! I don’t think I’ve been to any alpine lake this many times! As much as Colchuck/Enchantments are overhyped and overcrowded, there is most definitely an allure to it. Just the shear rock wall of Dragontail rising above the lake could be mesmerizing enough, or the green-blue hue of the lake.
After a nice long break to soak in the sun and the beauty of the lake, we needed to get going on the next 2000 ft climb up Aasgard Pass. No it’s not Asgard home to Norse gods, but yes, it can seem like a daunting endeavor. In pictures, the pass is steeper than it is in reality. It’s a steep climb, but if you think of it as a staircase climb, it’s really not so bad if you stay on route. The way around the lake to the pass goes through some boulders – to the right is Colchuck Glacier, a great place to ski. I wish our trip would have allowed that, but instead I carried the skis all the way up to Core to find snow. As we boulder hopped, we encountered our first two mountain goats who were showing signs of summer wool shedding already. Soon we passed them too and were on our way to the steep climb. Hannah was doing so awesome already for scrambling around rocks with a big pack on her back! Not an easy skill for a first time backpacker for sure.
Up and up we went, even passing some other people, to my surprise. We were gaining elevation fairly quickly till our energy started tapering out in the second half. A few patches of snow, a few breaks to look back down at the lake, a few pauses to hydrate and fuel up, and a few breaks to re-layer when the wind picked up. There are many paths to get up the pass, though generally following cairns (stacked rocks) is a pretty safe way to go. And definitely there is a main path, slightly wider, slightly more traveled, but by no means is that the only path, so it’s easy to wander off. Always be looking at where you’re headed! Key is to stay left when you can to avoid the waterfall, especially where you can’t see it go under snow bridges.
3 hours later, we found ourselves at the top of the pass and met mountain goat #3. Upon coming home, I weighed all my gear and apparently I had lugged up nearly 60 pounds of stuff! Almost half of it was gear and a good chunk was ski gear. So much effort for honestly little but quality skiing. I immediately switched to skis to decrease the weight on my back. I probably could have done without skins, but the top of Core is fairly flat so I kept them on as we continued forward to explore and find a campsite.
Sadly, the clouds were blowing over, obscuring many of the peaks that we wanted to climb. And it was super windy. Once we set up camp, it was much nicer to be cozy in our sleeping bags, sheltered from the intense weather. It was clear that the west cascades/Seattle was having quite the storm! And it all dissipated right around the Enchantments, clearing up the further east you looked. Props to Hannah for learning to use gaiters to keep hiking boots dry and setting up camp on snow!
The clouds never fully cleared, but Abby, Jack and I decided to try an excursion to McClellan Peak. Only a couple miles round trip and not more than 1000 feet to gain. I donned on my skis again and we started heading down to Perfection Lake, but a combination of slow snow travel and little daylight left, we turned around, realizing if we climbed the peak, we’d be back in the dark, and hungry, and it’d get icier. So happily, we skipped back to camp, enjoying the view of Prusik Peak all along the way. This little trip was helpful! We discovered that one path would be too steep and found a mellower one for Hannah, and another path ended up on the lake, so we found a path to avoid that. In the spring shoulder season, lakes melt out quickly and where you might hike on the edge a week ago, it could be broken up and thinned out the next.
We got to camp and quickly made dinner (yay lighter pack for me – I carried a pound of pasta, 2 cans of salmon, a small glass jar of pesto, and pre-diced bell peppers and zucchini, all from Trader Joe’s!).Temperature was dropping quickly, the sun setting, and the snow was getting icy. I felt happy about the anchors we built for the tents. They were not going to fly away. It’s funny how much less windy it is than it sounds like in the tent. I don’t think I had much sleep because the wind kept me up, but it seemed like everyone else had a good night. Hannah’s first snow camping experience! I think the layers she brought and her sleeping gear was perfect for the situation.
I kept waking up in the middle of the night to pee. Probably was a bad idea to have drank tea before bed, but it was lovely to have such warmth in my body and to clean out my pesto-lined bowl. At midnight, the stars were shining bright, with more stars than just Orion and the Big Dipper, despite the light pollution from Leavenworth and Cle Elum. But at 4:30/5am, I had to wake up again, but this time, I could begin to see the colors of sunrise hitting the sky and clouds. I put on all my layers again and watched the sunrise from a nearby hill for an hour until our tents were in the sunlight too. Not much alpenglow due to obscuring clouds, but it was a sunrise nonetheless.
One hour sitting in the cold was enough, so I went back to snuggle in the tent for warmth, waiting for my friends to wake up again. It was still windy, but eventually we decided to tag Little Annapurna while waiting for the snow to soften. We figured that soft snow would be better for no traction, especially for Hannah. We headed up the ridge directly from camp, mostly following the footprints we saw. The snow had a chunky ice layer below so I decided to switch over to crampons from skinning up just to be more efficient. And another first – Jack’s first time wearing crampons was a success.
We got to the top of Little Annapurna and took our sweet time to enjoy the views – all the way to Rainier even! It was not much more than 1000 feet above camp, but the views were so much more. We saw many people hiking both directions on the main trail and eventually made our way down by skiing and glissading. Not too long later, we were back at camp to pack up and begin the 12 mile downhill back to our cars.
As we packed, a family of mountain goats (the 5th-6th ones) walked by. And then a guy stopped by to take his snack break. He said that he’s based in Bangkok but comes back to stay in different areas around the West Coast with his wife. Sounds like a fun life! We ended up passing each other multiple times all the way to Snow Lakes, due to him getting lost and taking pictures and us taking our time to get down different sections.
So through the rest of the Core zone we went, meeting goat #8, #9, and #10. The number of transitions I made on skis was too many to count – I still need to get quicker at getting my pin bindings aligned to my boots. We were a bit slow going for the 12 miles, but maybe half of it was slow snow travel and the other half, slow me-on-skis travel. But thank you to my friends for waiting ever so patiently! We were able to avoid some of the sketchy snow, but inadvertently followed some tracks straight on top of some ice on Lake Viviane. Oops, at least it was solid for the time being.
Trip reports are awesome because it helps you expect what the trail situation is like. For example, I read a couple reports claiming that snow really starts around Lake Viviane, so that’s when we took a long break to switch gears into our non-snow travel gear. And skis back on my back. We continue to walk down rock slabs and scrambling around others. Hannah was probably doing better than I was! I kept forgetting how wide my pack was with the ski boots pointing out, or how long the pack was, getting stuck on branches or hitting the skis on rocks while stepping down. When I remembered to clear the right side, I’d hit the left. Sometimes I’d remember to down climb facing the rock instead of stepping down, but then I’d turn around and hit something else. It was a struggle. But we also saw mountain goat momma #11 and little baby goat #12. The baby goat was so cute and had such bountiful energy as it bounded down the rocks. Wish I could do that effortlessly!
But eventually, we made it down to Snow Lakes for another break before walking another 8 miles and 4000 feet downhill. And as I recalled, my least favorite (but still very nice) section of the the hike, I put away my camera for more efficiency. After the flat walk around the main Snow Lake, we got to the dam crossing. And it was overflowing… and there was no other way around/down except across. Naively, I thought I could walk across the logs that had settled on top of the dam, but one wrong step, my right foot sunk deep into the water. Thankfully, I didn’t fall deeper and made it back to shore before deciding to cross barefoot. The water was freezing cold but a good shock to our tired feet. We dried off and continued down, down, down the rabbit hole.
No, that’s a different story. But my mind would wander, wondering how much farther we’d have. This hike out was honestly more pleasant than I last remembered, other than the throbbing pain in my knees. The wildflowers were blooming, we’d go in and out of forest, enjoying the sounds of Snow Creek roaring through the canyon. And as the sun was setting on us, we could finally see the road and the parking lot. We made it! A successful 2-night thru-hike of the Enchantments, hauling snow gear and walking so many miles and hours. I was proud of our decision making skills and of course, Hannah’s adventurous spirit to keep us all going. This was not an easy multi-day, snowy hike, but Hannah nailed it and Abby and Jack were gracious in their backpacking/hiking tips when I was selfishly skiing off in the distance. Cheers to friendships and adventures and more to come!