The Enchantments: One Day Thru-Hike

If you live in Washington or just simply are in the know regarding bucket-list hikes in the Pacific Northwest, you’ve probably heard of “The Enchantments.”  The Enchantments is a specific area within the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in the Cascade mountains of Washington.  It is a picturesque alpine paradise.  The closest town is Leavenworth, which is also a super cute destination on its own – it’s Bavarian themed and therefore well known for its Oktoberfest celebration and Christmas decorations.  

The Enchantments earns its well-deserved name by the, well, enchanting landscape.  There are hundreds of alpine lakes – all with varying degrees of deep, bold, shades of the greenest greens and bluest blues when viewed from a distance, and are crystal clear as you approach the water.  There is a large population of mountain goats, and the granite-filled, rugged landscape at times feels otherworldly. 

The popularity of this region has exploded in recent years, so a permit system is in place for anyone who wishes to camp overnight (backpack) in this area during peak season (May 15 through October 31).  From point-to-point, the hike is around 18-20 miles long, so many people prefer to spend multiple days and backpack in so that the mileage can be spread over two or more days.  You must pay a small fee to enter an online lottery to obtain permits.  The lottery takes place between February 15 and March 1 for permits to be released that same calendar year.  You can read about the exact process here on the Forest Service website.

The chances of obtaining a permit are very slim – in 2022, only 6% of applicants were lucky enough to win a permit.  Your chances are likely higher if you apply for a permit during more of the shoulder season (ie October and June, rather than the more crowded July and August), or if you select a less popular camping zone (there are 5 zones; of these, the Snow Zone, Colchuck Zone, and the Core Zones are the most popular).  

We’ve applied for a permit nearly every year we’ve lived in Washington and have yet to luck out!  So, without a permit, the only way you can tackle the entire length of the Enchantments area is to do it in a single day as a day hike!  We did exactly this – this made for quite a long day, but it was totally worth it and I would do it again in a heartbeat – actually, it’s on my bucket list to trail run the whole thing! 

Reflections in the warm early sunrise light

THE DETAILS

  • PERMITS: day-use permits can be found at the trailhead and should be filled out at the start of your hike 
    • These are free, but you should have a Northwest Forest Pass or an America the Beautiful Pass for your car to park at the trailhead itself
  • WHEN SHOULD I DO THIS HIKE?
    • Peak season is usually after most of the snow melts (around mid-July) through early Fall (mid-September)
      • Although wildfires can be an issue, this time of year brings the most ideal weather and the longest days, so you have the most amount of daylight to take on a long trek like this
    • Before mid-July, snow covers a lot of the landscape, so the views are very different, and you would absolutely need snow mountaineering experience
    • After mid-September, the days become noticeably shorter, so your hike may require headlamps at the beginning and the end.  However, in October, larch season is a glorious thing to witness in this area
  • DOGS: our furry friends are not allowed
  • GETTING THERE: there are two ways to access the Enchantments area
    • Stuart Lake (we started the hike from this trailhead)
    • Snow Lake
    • It takes about 30 minutes to drive between these trailheads
    • We had multiple cars to carpool, but if you do not have more than one car, there are shuttles that you can reserve ahead of time to take you between trailheads:
  • THE TRAIL: long and strenuous!  You must be in excellent fitness condition to attempt this hike.
    • 18-19 miles one-way with 4500-5000 feet of elevation gain
    • Expect it to take anywhere between 9 to 16 hours depending on your fitness level and hiking speed
    • Read on below for hike details, divided into three parts
  • THE EXPERIENCE:
    • We booked an AirBNB in the Leavenworth area the night before – there were many options for lodging, including hotels and campgrounds 
    • Wake-up call was a bright and early 2:30am.  We had our packs ready the night before, so we just had to roll out of bed and head to the trailhead!
    • Since this is a point-to-point hike, we had the luxury of having multiple cars for our group, so we left one car at each trailhead.  
    • Official start time: boots on the trail at 4:30am
      • Obviously headlamps are necessary at this early hour
      • We were able to find parking spots when we parked, but shortly before we were about to start hiking (after restroom breaks and loading up our gear), it was definitely getting busy – lines forming to the bathroom, cars circling and looking for spots, lots of activity and people etc
    • Official end time: 7:30pm
    • TOTAL ELAPSED TIME = 15 hours; TOTAL ACTUAL HIKING TIME = 13 hours
      • Trail runners and fast hikers may complete this as quickly as 8 to 9 hours, but others may spend up to 16 hours. Either way, plan to spend a lot of time on this trek!
    • As I mentioned earlier, I like to think of this hike in three parts divided amongst the three zones, as you can see in the image below
GREEN X = Stuart Lake Trailhead, our starting point, off of Forest Road (FR) 7601
RED SOLID LINE = the hiking trail
BLUE TRIANGLE = Snow Lake Trailhead, our end point, off of Icicle Road
Source: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_MEDIA/stelprdb5269525.jpg

PART ONE: Colchuck Zone through Aasgard Pass (mile 0 – 6.5)

This is where all the elevation gain is!  Then after this section, you’re basically done with most of your climbing.

Stuart Lake Trailhead to Colchuck Lake is 4.2 miles and 2200’ gain.  Since we started our hike so early, this part for us was almost entirely in the dark with our headlamps on.

Then, from Colchuck Lake to the top of Aasgard Pass another 2.5 miles and 2500’ gain.

  • The first 1.5 miles of this skirts the lake – which is gorgeous and the lake crisp and still – and also involves some boulder-hopping
  • Then, the last mile of this bit is the big climb up Aasgard Pass – approx 2200’ gain in less than a mile – whew!

The climb up Aasgard Pass is rocky and uneven and can be difficult to find good traction. With so many people on the trail, my main concern was falling rocks from hikers up ahead, so something to keep in mind, and be mindful of as a hiker.

PRO TIP: The goal for many people is to get to the top/over Aasgard Pass by noon, because the strenuous climbing section is entirely exposed and would be 1000x more difficult with the hot sun on your back.

And here are those craggy peaks seen from a distance in the above row of photos! We made it to the top!
Here is the view at the top of Aasgard Pass looking down below at what we just climbed. Phew!
We put on layers and ate a nice meal at the top here, proud of what we had accomplished so far.

This portion took me 5 hours to complete (9:30am), but this does include us stopping for breakfast to see the tail end of the sunrise colors at Colchuck Lake and all the associated photo opportunities.

Part Two: The Core Zone (miles 6.5 – 10)

Now these are your classic Core Enchantments views.  Crystal clear lakes, small waterfalls, mountain goats roaming the landscape, gleaming granite and smooth rock.  Enchanting. All of this was just so scenic, the miles flew by.

PRO TIP: Remember to keep your distance from the mountain goats (at least 50 feet away!)

They are attracted to urine (they lick the salt from pee), so you should not urinate out in the open… there are designated toilets scattered about so it’s best to use these if possible – this is a crazy concept all on its own as there are people that actually haul out this human waste via backpacks – much appreciation to those folks who take care of business 😉 if you can’t find a toilet to use, then it’s best to urinate on bare rocks or between crevices of rocks so that goats cannot access the urine.

Doesn’t the water look so inviting? A quick swim is the perfect way to cool off after a long day of hiking

Part Three: the End, aka Snow Zone (the last 8-11 miles, depending on your GPS watch)

This is basically after you pass Lake Vivane, which is quite noticeable because the scenery changes from wide-open landscapes to more of your classic, wooded tree-scape and then you are mostly meandering through the forest from here on out. 

Don’t get me wrong – there is certainly a beauty to this – but by this point we were already tired and just wanted to rest and also make it back to our cars by sunset. 

There is minimal elevation gain here- it’s mostly flat and rolling, but there are some long downhill sections too.  For me, the downhill is harder on my body than the uphill, which made this section even harder!  This is where I found my hiking poles to be most helpful.

Official end time = 7:30 PM

  • This makes for a total of 15 hours on the trail!
  • We didn’t spend this entire time hiking – we spent large amounts of time just hanging out at various spots, enjoying the lakes when we could, taking a long lunch break, stopping for bathroom breaks and photo ops, stopping to filter water etc.  So the total moving time was likely closer to 13 hours.  But this “extra” time should certainly be planned for

Other Pro Tips

  • Remember mountain weather changes rapidly, especially over this large amount of terrain.  Be prepared for all sorts of weather, be prepared to stay the night (even if you don’t plan to)
  • This is such a long hike and you’ll spend so much time out here, so you won’t be able to carry all of the water and fluids you’ll need – bring a water filter and know how to use it
  • Finally, my all-time favorite pro tip of all.  Stash a cooler full of cold drinks and your favorite snacks and a fresh t-shirt to change into as a reward after a job well done.  This is a strenuous hike that should not be underestimated, but it is worth every step and ounce of sweat – a true gem that should be on everyone’s Washington bucket list.