Wednesday, August 08, 2007


It’s nothing that I’m proud of, but when it gets right down to it, I’m probably not the backpacking type. I’ll run-hike the Loowit Trail around Mount St. Helens, climb Mount Baker or Adams or Shuksan, but when it’s time to lay me down to rest, I want a bed. And maybe a TV with a clicker so I can watch the day’s highlights on “Baseball Tonight”.

Lucky for me, my next-door neighbor, Sterling Chick, is the same way. So when I was looking for someone to join me in hiking through the Enchantment Lakes in one day (usually, it’s a three-to five-day backpacking trek) all I had to do was give a holler across the fence to see if he was interested. He was.

Located about 10 miles southwest of Leavenworth, the aptly named Enchantments is a magical 7,000-plus-foot plateau of crystal-clear lakes, gurgling and gushing waterfalls, rocky spires that pierce the clouds, and mountain goats that scurry across broad granite slabs. In fall, the area’s larch trees turn gold, photos of which are featured on probably just as many photo calendars and coffee table books as are images of Mount Rainier.

“It’s the kind of place where you expect fairies to pop out from behind the rocks,” my friend and Enchantment backpacking veteran Elizabeth Hampton, told me. “It’s got this totally different feel from anywhere else.”

There’s no easy way to get to the Enchantments. Just getting there requires either a 10-mile hike that gains 5,400 feet from the east, or six-mile jaunt from the west that includes the near vertical climb to Aasgard Pass, a rough climbers route that ascends 2,000 feet in about a mile. Sterling and I opted for the later.

After sleeping in beds at Leavenworth’s Obertal Inn, Sterling and I left for Icicle Road at 5:30 a.m. To make this a point-to-point hike, we parked my truck at the Snow Lakes Trailhead, where we’ll finish, and his car at the Stuart Lake Trail, where we begin.

Sterling, a Bellingham family therapist, has hiked all over—Grand Canyon, Utah, Maine, Colorado etc.—and has both backpacked and day-hiked the Enchantments. But because he began and finished his day-hikes at the Snow Lakes Trailhead, they were especially burly affairs—like 28 miles! Ours should be about 20.

After about an hour and 45 minutes of dark forest hiking, we reach Colchuck Lake, a spectacular rock wall- and forest-rimmed lake about four miles in. It’s a perfectly still morning and the water is glass—a mirror, reflecting the jagged spires of 8,800-foot Dragontail Peak rising almost 3,200 straight up out of the water. Just to the left and nearly as high (7,800 feet), is Aasgard Pass, the only notch on this side of the Enchantment Peaks.

“Wow, that’s big,” says Sterling, echoing my thoughts.

In Norse mythology, Aasgard corresponds roughly to Greek mythology’s Mount Olympus. Here, Aasgard is the doorway to the Enchantments. There’s no foyer. Once we reach the pass, the lakes are ours. But first we have to get there.

Chipmunks skitter this way and that as we follow the trail to the right around the lake. We pass campsites and food hung from trees, and at the head of Colchuck Lake, we cross the first of what is, by conservative estimates, the 87 bezillion boulder fields that we’ll negotiate this day.

The way up to Aasgard Pass is a wide gully choked with granite boulders that make no bones about crunching a person’s ankles or knees. Caution is key. There’s some boot trail, but mostly it’s a matter of following those who’ve gone before and thankfully left strategically placed cairns for others to follow. It’s extremely steep, but since we’re day hiking, our packs are small, our balance isn’t compromised and we make good progress.

Part way up, we pass a young woman who tells us her backpack weighs 50 pounds; we don’t envy her for a second.

“It’s giving me impetus to stop and eat a lot though,” she says. “It makes my pack lighter.”

Tenacious blooms of Indian Paintbrush poke their way through the cracks and to our right, a rushing creek bounces down the mountainside providing a soothing soundtrack.

Near the top, we look back down on Colchuck Lake and see the shadow of the Enchantment Peaks receding across the water. As the sun hits it, the lake glows a brilliant turquoise.

Moments later, at 9:50, about an hour and 10 minutes after we began climbing, we reach the pass and its immediate rewards. Across a vast, rocky plateau, lakes and puddles and tarns and ponds of every shape and size spread are spread out before us. They’re contained by granite stacks and spires that rise high above us on all sides, and great rocky slabs that keep the lakes from running in to one another.

“It’s like a Disneyland of lakes and plateaus up here,” Sterling says, and he’s right.

We could spend days exploring up here and still we wouldn’t see everything. As it is, we have just hours and must keep moving. We zig and zag past ponds and waterfalls so numerous we can hear many at once. They all have different tones—gentle gurgle-gurgles and high-pitched swishhhhhes and baritone swooooshes. I raise one of my trekking poles and for a moment pretend that I’m conducting a waterfall orchestra.

We veer south toward Little Annapurna, so named because of its resemblance to Annapurna, an 8,000-meter peak in the Himalayas. A half-hour later, after climbing another 800 feet worth of scratchy granite blocks, we’re at the top looking down over the edge. Straight down, almost 5,000 feet, is the Ingalls Creek Valley.

“Holy-moly!” says Allan Maas of Puyallup, who’s already at Little Annapurna’s summit when we arrive. “That’s a long way down!”

I feel like I’m looking off the edge of the earth and reflexively step back. Instead I focus on the distant views, which include Mount Rainier and Glacier Peak. Were it not for the haze from various forest fires, we’d see Baker and Adams too.

We lunch atop Little Annapurna and 20 minutes later are again down in the basin following the trail of tarns. That’s when we hear the barking.

I’m stunned. The Enchantments’ ecosystem is so fragile that dogs aren’t allowed anywhere near here. I can’t believe that even the most avid, canine-insane, dog lover would consider letting Fido run loose up here in such a wilderness paradise.

“Look over there,” says Sterling.

About 10 feet away, from behind a boulder steps a fluffy footed white-tailed ptarmigan. It’s three-tone, gray-brown-white feathers make it almost indistinguishable from the surrounding rocks. What sounded to me like far-off barking was its little cooing call.

We descend toward Inspiration Lake, Prusik Peak’s needle-like spires seeming to pull us along. There’s more vegetation the lower we go, and the landscape becomes less stark. Asters, paintbrush and other wildflowers add color to heather meadows and we pass stand upon stand of the area’s famous larch trees, still green in mid-August.

We drop farther down the basin, past Perfection Lake, which spills into tiny Sprite Lake, where we see a lone mountain goat picking its way along a rock slab. It eyes us, but quickly finds us not worthy of its attention. We cross a log bridge at the foot of Leprechaun Lake, and shortly thereafter reach Lake Viviane, at the easternmost edge of the Enchantment Lakes basin.

Sterling and I filter water and head down. It’s about 10 more miles, past the Snow Lakes, Nada Lake and a forest of blackened tree trunks that were burned 10 years ago in a massive fire. Closer to the trailhead, we see the huge billowing smoke plumes rising from the Fischer fire in Dryden, about four miles southeast of Leavenworth.

Back at my truck we shake hands, tired and giddy from a great hike. From the Stuart Lake Trailhead to the Snow Lakes Trailhead, it took us just about 11 hours. We estimate it to be 20 miles, and my altimeter tells me that we climbed 5,740 feet.

Driving back to Sterling’s car, we recount all we’ve seen. We luxuriate in the knowledge that back at the Obertal, we can shower, eat like lumberjacks (guilt-free) and last but not least, find out how our Yanks and Red Sox fared.

To do the point-to-point, Enchantment Lakes-in-a-day hike park one car at the Snow Lakes Trailhead, where you’ll finish and the other at the Stuart Lake Trailhead, where you’ll begin. Because the Stuart Lake Trailhead is about 2,000 feet higher than Snow Lakes, this way ensures that you have 2,000 feet less climbing to do than if you were to hike in the opposite direction.

Getting there: For the Snow Lakes Trail, go east on Highway 2 over Stevens Pass to Leavenworth. Just before entering the town, go right on Icicle Road and continue for 4.3 miles to the Snow Lakes Trailhead on your left. Elevation: 1,300 feet.

For the Stuart Lake Trailhead, continue on Icicle Road for 4.2 more miles and turn left on Forest Service Road 7601. Go left and drive 3.7 miles to the road-end trailhead parking lot. Northwest Forest Pass required for parking at both trailheads.
The hike: 20 miles point-to-point. Elevation gain: 5,740 feet; elevation loss: 7,600 feet. Subtract about 2 miles and 800 feet of elevation if you skip the side trip up Little Annapurna.
Follow the Stuart Lake Trail for 2.5 miles to the intersection with the Colchuck Lake Trail. Go left and follow for 1.6 miles to the lake. Follow the shoreline trail along the right side of the lake until you reach the foot of Aasgard Pass. Go up and up. Once over the pass, follow the zigzagging trail across the basin for about 3 miles to Lake Viviane. From there, it’s about 10 miles (almost all downhill) back to the Snow Lakes Trailhead.
Map: Green Trails, The Enchantments 209S
Permits: The Enchantments are perhaps the most lusted-after backpacking destination in the Northwest. So lusted-after that, to limit the damage to this fragile environment, overnight wilderness permits are required and they’re only available through a lottery system. Day hikers do not need overnight permits.
More information: Leavenworth Ranger District, 509-548-6977 or


  1. enjoyed your pieces. thanks.

  2. Anonymous1:43 PM

    Awesome information!....I just bought four green trail maps from REI covering the hike. The dude working there thought I was crazy to do the hike in one day. It looks like I'm not. 7/2008

  3. Anonymous6:37 PM

    Great trip report. It made me decide not to do this trip in reverse when I learned it was 2000 ft more climbing.
    I read your report this morning and misunderstood your comment about an hour and 10 min to the top of asgard as meaning from the car then I hiked it today and after an hour 10 min I was just getting to Colchuck lake and I thought this guy must be superhuman. Now after reading more closely I realize you meant an hour 10 from the bottom of asgard to the top. That sounds better.
    Thanks for the info.