The Enchantments have grown increasingly popular as people have been posting beautiful pictures on social media and creating this concentrated desire to visit, and has even influenced myself. In order to protect this pristine region of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, permits have been required for any overnight stay. This helps keep the number of people hiking through the Enchantments low on a daily basis. So although you may not see as many people on the trail as you might on something like the uber-popular Rattlesnake Ledge, you can definitely see the popularity through the statistics.
If you don’t know much about the permit system, particularly for the Enchantments, here’s a quick rundown. In March, the lottery system opens for people to register. At the end of the entry period, the lottery process begins by drawing names randomly. You can only put your name in once per year, but you can get more friends to apply for the same place. For the Enchantments, you’re allowed to pick your top 3 trips based on regions and dates. From experience, there have been groups of friends who never get a permit and some groups that might get them every year. Luck of the draw. For most people, you’d want to be either in the Colchuck or Core region. Statistically, from the Forest Service website, over 17,000 people will apply for about 700 spots in the Core Enchantment region. With a 4% acceptance rate, it’s pretty clear, odds are not in your favor. Had you applied in 2012, you had unlimited number of applications and only 2000 were submitted per year, so odds were you could get a permit somewhere. If only we can go back to those years when it was much easier, before the huge exponential growth of social media promoting previously unknown places like the Enchantments.
But not to despair, if you are in decent fitness, you can still enjoyably visit all of the Enchantments without a permit. It’s even possible to climb all the peaks and thru-hike in under 24 hours! But I would not suggest that challenge unless you know you can actually do it – requires stamina and experience in scrambling, climbing, and potentially free-soloing. For the average hiker, the thru-hike is attainable in a day. However, the length of the thru-hike has been debatable by different sources, varying by the trail itself and whether or not you go car-to-car or setting up a car shuttle. The two trailheads are about 6 miles apart, so it’s not a loop like some people expect, unless you finish off the loop on the road.
Based on our steps and GPS trackers, we hiked for about 20 miles. It would be reasonable to assume that the minimum mileage is 19 miles if you don’t stray from the trail at all and take the shortest path through the rocks. Another consideration is the difficulty. Most will find that Aasgard Pass is the epitome of the hike. Unlike most Washington trails that gain 1000 ft per mile, this short section steeply carries on 2000 ft for 1 mile. Not for the faint of heart. But the views are spectacular through and through, so it’s one of those cases were you’re experiencing type 2 fun. Pain is but a fleeting moment every time you take in all the views. Might I be bold enough to say it’s a challenging type 1 fun adventure?
Another thing to note is the direction of travel. For those who dislike elevation gain, going the counter-clockwise direction may be easier. You gain about 5000 feet and then everything is downhill from there, losing 7000 feet. However the last several miles are through the Snow Lake region where scenery is fairly constant. It’s miles through forest with glimpses of lakes. If you had to compare the negatives, the trail by Snow Lakes is perhaps the least interesting section. And the most painful part is seeing your car at the end and still having miles left and thousands of feet to lose. It really kills your knees. But imagine thru hiking the other way around. Sure it’s a lot of elevation gain, but the downhill is shorter and the hike out through the forest is shorter as well. Just a thought. Either way, any potential struggle is worth the experience of natural beauty.
So what is the hike really like, now that I’ve talked about it holistically? First of all, if you can, it’s best to truly experience it yourselves, because there is no replacement to a real experience. But I’ll do my best to take you on a virtual tour here!
To avoid the beating sun while scrambling the arduous Aasgard Pass, it’s important to start early enough at Eightmile Lake Trailhead. In our case, we literally hit the trail at the crack of dawn. The trail begins off as a pleasant, typical Cascades trail: forested, with soft mulch on the ground. It follows a stream up to Lake Stuart and soon enough, after a turnoff, you begin a series of switchbacks towards Colchuck Lake. As we rounded the corner into the Colchuck basin, views of the Leavenworth valley began to diminish behind the mountains. Approaching Colchuck, some of the first moments of awe are when Dragontail Peak comes into view. And then, the first glimpse of the lake – never has there been a deeper blue-green, crystal-clear lake I’ve seen. Jaw-dropping kind of amazing. It’s this grandeur between the mountains and lakes, something rugged and wild but also serene and delicate that enchants you.
There are many access points to the lake, but the best views are from slightly above the lake to truly see its depth and color. If you only have the time and energy for something short, the hike to Colchuck is still worth it if you don’t choose to continue past. But if you’re hiking further, you’ll still be enjoying views of Colchuck as you walk around the south side of lake and over a few boulders before reaching the base of Aasgard Pass. The whole time we could see the top of the pass but it still felt like we were inching along. But if you remember to look behind you and down, you’ll realize the progress you’ve made and how the lake is shrinking and how many more mountains you can see beyond the walls of this mountain cluster. I felt bad for a couple from Miami who were here for the weekend and were just not used to the rocky terrain and high elevation gain. I do emphasize having good fitness is key to successfully enjoy this hike.
Following the waterfall and stream upwards, we began to feel closer to the peaks. They felt much more attainable to summit – it’s pretty common to tag one of these peaks, Little Annapurna being the easiest. Right when the Aasgard climb plateaus, the scenery instantly changes to a drier, more alpine region. Far fewer shrubs and trees, and much more rock, much more open to the sky. No longer are the mountains towering thousands of feet above you, but you are amongst the giants. Surprisingly, for me, this landscape was more similar to that of the Eastern Sierras than I had expected. Rugged rock, alpine lakes, and the dry climate are commonalities between the two ranges.
Commence the Core. This is the highly sought after region of the Enchantments, but it makes you work for its beauty. If you are able to get an overnight permit here, you’re really in for a treat. But even hiking through the day, it’s still an incredible place to be. From mountain goats to reflections on the lakes, the solitude to the laughter of other hikers, it is restful. And rest is much needed after the long climb. This is also a great place to filter more water as needed. We met a couple trail runners who brought minimal gear and even minimized carrying water by using a filter straw to drink directly from the alpine lakes. Side note: knowing how you want to tackle the trail is important so you know how much food, water, and gear to bring up.
Taking our time, we eventually made it through the rest of Core. Even in the summer, there was still patches of snow, though no big deal to pass through or around. There were a countless number of lakes. Well, you can probably count them, but it was always a nice surprise to see another lake just around the corner, when we chose not to look at our map. This was an adventure through the unknown and it was exciting. We all had a notion of what everything would look like, but like a friend said, it’s like meeting a celebrity for the first time. You’ve long waited to meet it, and now you’re here, and now it’s so much more than you had dreamed this moment would be.
If you’re thru-hiking, this moment is probably more of a meet-and-greet as opposed to a long coffee break. Soon it must come to an end. It brings a tinge of sorrow, but mostly, it’ll spark your curiosity to come back or go explore more of the wild. It’s the impetus for future adventures. And hopefully this light will help with the last third of the hike through the Snow Lakes area. It’s a long ways down back to the trailhead. But it is yet another different mountain ecosystem. Here, it’s drier than ever. You’ll kick up some dust, you’ll feel the desert-like atmosphere with the basin opening out to the agricultural Eastern Washington. The lakes will be a great resting point to stretch out those downhill muscles, but there is no pity on the trail as it switchbacks down, down, down. For us, we were so worn that the last mile felt like 5. Back at the car we could finally let our legs relax again, massaging out our poor knees and ankles. We may have been sore at the time, but already, I was willing to do it all over again, whether or not it was the thru-hike or an out-and-back trip. There are limitless opportunities here, from climbing the peaks to visiting in different seasons, or even approaching from another side. I’ve been enchanted by the Enchantments and I hope you will be too.
Photos shot on Canon Rebel T6 and iPhone SE
How long will this hike take?
On average, 10 active hours for typical hiking speed of 1000 ft/hr. It’ll vary depending on how many breaks are taken for how long and if you can trail-run parts of it. It would be reasonable to plan up to 12 hours plus drive time if you want to take.
When is the best season to go?
Anytime! However, avoiding snow may be important for most people, so summer is a good time. Or going in the fall to enjoy the golden larches.
Where can I camp?
Depends on if you can get permits and what region the permits are for – there are fairly well-designated areas for each area.
How can I get a permit?
For a day hike, a self-issued permit can be obtained at the trailhead. For overnight stays between May 1 and Nov 1, you can either try to obtain a permit for your party during the lottery season in March or the daily lottery at a ranger station in person. Outside of the permit season (i.e. snow and winter), permits are self-issued again.
Where is the trailhead?
Either start at Eightmile Trailhead (most common) or Snow Lakes close to Leavenworth. Go early to avoid parking far away – there’s no parking allowed on the road where marked.
Will I see goats?
More than likely you’ll encounter a few goats. They like to look for salt and will go after human pee, so be aware and maintain safety spacing – they’re wild after all!