A rite of passage for avid hikers in the Pacific Northwest, as well as a trek that beckons hikers from around the country, the Enchantments are a touch of the Alps in the North Cascades of Washington State. While many choose to overnight in the Enchantments, a backcountry permit is notoriously hard to secure (permit is required May 15th through October 31st). The alternative is to tackle the challenging, 19-mile hike all in one day – doable, but hard. Those who have done describe it as nothing less than epic – both in the breathtaking scenery and the worthwhile test of one’s alpine endurance.
There are two choices for the thru-hike – starting from Stuart Lake and tackling Aasgard Pass (which rises 1,900 feet in less than a mile) near the beginning of the hike – or starting at Snow Lakes. For our purposes, we’ll be describing the hike from Stuart Lake.
If you’re an experienced hiker, you’ll be taxed during the hike, but it is really no more difficult than summiting many of the renowned Colorado 14-footers. Pack appropriately, make smart choices, stay fed and hydrated and start early to give yourself plenty of time. Even strong hikers can expect the trek to take 13 hours, with minimal breaks.
The Enchantments Details
Distance: 19 miles one-way
Elevation gain: 4,500 feet
Highest point: 7,800 feet
Time: Approximately 13 hours
Start: Stuart Lake Trailhead
End: Snow Lakes Trailhead
Directions: Make your home base in Leavenworth. It’s a good idea to stay in a hotel or camp in the area the night before so you can get a dawn start. To get to the Stuart Lake Trailhead, drive west on US 2 out of Leavenworth. Turn left onto Icicle Creek Road. Drive 8.4 miles. Turn left on Forest Service Road 7601. Drive 3.7 miles to the Stuart Lake Trailhead.
It is advised that you drop another vehicle at the Snow Lakes Trailhead to that it will be waiting for you upon your arrival after your hike. You will pass the Snow Lakes Trailhead on your way to Stuart Lake, on Icicle Creek Road, 4 miles up from US 2.
The Enchantments Thru-Hike Description
Start from the Stuart Lake Trailhead and hike to Colchuck Lake. Take a break here, then continue from the end of the trail at the far end of the lake on boulders that line the shore beneath the moraine of the Colchuck Glacier. Look for cairns to show the way.
The trail passes by a sandy beach, through subalpine fir trees and along creek beds. As the route starts to climb steeply over talus fields, Aasgard Pass begins. As this is a massive tumble of rocks and boulders, the trail becomes difficult to follow. Look for cairns as you start your climb upwards. Stay to the left of a large larch grove that makes the halfway point of the climb. The terrain is much steeper too the right of the grove. Go around the grove, where the route runs along a sheer rock wall opposite Dragontrail Peak. Look behind you periodically to drink in the stunning vistas of Colchuck Peak, Colchuck Lake, Glacier Peak and Mount Baker. You’ll cross a branch of creek, then climb hand over foot through stunted larches until the final boulder scramble. At the top, you’re at 7,800 and standing atop the renowned Aasgard Pass.
You’re now in the Upper Enchantments. Enjoy the lunar landscape of rock, screen and ice below Dragontail Peak. Follow the trail and cairns around lichen-covered rocks to Tranquil and Isolation Lakes. You’ll eventually reach the Little Annapurna plateau.
Beneath Little Annapurna, you’ll move out of the barren rock moonscape and into lusher alpine meadow. Look for a creek that connects the lake and the larches. At the edge of the plateau, you’ll see Crystal Lake and the Ingalls Creek Valley. Head east and down to Inspiration Lake.
Once you’re reached Inspiration Lake, below Enchantment Peak, you’re in the Middle Enchantments. Granite rises steeply from the banks of this mesmerizing alpine lake. Look for the larches on the opposite shore. The trail proceeds through the grove then drops to Perfection Lake.
Perfect, indeed. Head to the shoreline, fill up on water if you need to, and pass through ancient larches. Pass through grass and heather meadows and continue along the eastern shore. Climb slightly and come around a corner to Sprite Lake. Look back upstream to see Little Annapurna towering over Perfection Lake’s small island.
Move on to the Lower Enchantments, between McClellan Peak and Prusik Peak. Leprechaun Lake lies beneath McClellan, with a telltale peninsula that practically splits the lake in two. Next up is Lake Viviane, the last of the lakes. Rivaling Inspiration Lake in beauty, Viviane is in a deep basin below the upturned granite of Prusik Peak. There’s a dramatic rock wall on the far shore and smooth granite at the near shore. Snow Creek departs Vivian and makes it way to Snow Lakes.
You’ll know start the descent to the Snow Lakes Trail, at first a rugged, scrambly section between Vivian Lake and the mouth of Upper Snow Lake. Listen for Snow Creek as its winds it way through the subalpine firs and larches. At Upper Snow Lake, you’ll follow the Snow Lakes Trail all the way back to its start on Icicle Creek Road.
Downhill may sound dreamy, but it’s a long way back down – you’ll lose more than a mile of elevation, the descent becoming monotonous and wearying. Finally, upon arrival at the Snow Lakes Trailhead, pat yourself and your fellow hikers on the back. You’ve achieved one of the crowning hikes of the North Cascades and gained amazing rewards, views and wilderness experiences along the way. Make your way back into the Bavarian-style town of Leavenworth for a well-deserved bratwurst and local beer.