Trail Tales

The Enchantments Is Washington's Most Spectacular Hike

The Leavenworth-area trail is long, steep, and unforgiving—and so stunningly beautiful that everyone wants to hike it.

By Allison Williams August 19, 2022

A wonderland of Alpine Lakes sits between knife-sharp peaks and brilliant yellow trees; beyond Aasgard Pass lies this real haven of gnomes and leprechauns, or at least Gnome Tarn and Leprechaun Lake. Here, just east of Leavenworth in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and reachable only on foot, are the Enchantments.

The 18-mile trail through the Enchantment Lakes, up to the high alpine at almost 8,000 feet above sea level, is perhaps the state's most infamous and beloved route. Snow-covered for much of the year, it finally melts out mid-summer and welcomes a stream of hikers and climbers through the fall, when its larch trees turn a brilliant yellow and orange. So many people flock to the Enchantments that its backpacking permit lottery is the stiffest competition in the state.

When Albert Hale Sylvester wandered into the area in the early-twentieth century, he scouted lands largely known only to Indigenous tribes. As topographer for the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and later as the first supervisor of the Wenatchee National Forest, he named the series of high alpine lakes after calling it "an enchanting scene." (Back then horses were allowed into what we now recognize as fragile wilderness; Sylvester died from wounds sustained when falling off a horse in the rocky expanse.)

The granite triangle of Prusik Peak rises behind Gnome Tarn.

Part of the Stuart Range, these peaks include sharp granite towers, popular today with rock climbers. By the 1980s, the series of small lakes was so overrun with backpackers that in 1987 the U.S. Forest Service started to limit the number of overnighters to 60 per night. Because of the difficulty in obtaining a multi-day permit, the Enchantments thru-hike—a one-day, one-way trip through the stunning region—has become an outdoorsy rite of passage.

"I did it to prove to myself that I could do things this hard," says Kristen Fox-Hill, a Puyallup schoolteacher who hikes more than a hundred days per year. After seeing social media posts of the dramatic region, she tackled the Enchantments thru-hike in its traditional form, starting at the Stuart Lake Trailhead in Icicle Canyon, a few miles southwest of Leavenworth.

Colchuck Lake provides the backdrop for the arduous climb up Aasgard Pass.

Over the course of 18 miles she and her party trekked up to popular Colchuck Lake, then up a steep incline to the saddle known as Aasgard Pass. After hiking through the famed Enchantment Lakes, they descended past the forested Snow Lakes before ending on Icicle Creek Road about eight road miles from where they began.

The infamous slog up Aasgard, says Fox-Hill, wasn't as bad as she feared; reaching the central basin was even better than advertised. "I didn't understand what the core was going to hold for me," she recalls. "It felt like we were on another planet, like on Mars, with the rock formations." Like most daytrippers, she lunched around the central lakes; it's hard to say whether Inspiration Lake or Perfection Lake is the most inspiring and, well, perfect.

What makes this area, more than any other, so magical? Perhaps it's how the peaks reflect in the ultra-clear lakes, filled by snowmelt. How the few trees pop up around the lakeshore, turning vibrant colors in fall. The crisp, alpine air feels different, just like how a chilly dip in the lakes is unlike any other outdoor swim. Its fanciful name suits the region.

Rebar secured in the granite around Lake Viviane serves as a ladder.

And then, the descent. One particularly tricky part involves descending a ladder of rebar above Lake Viviane. Then, since the Stuart-to-Snow route ends at a lower elevation than it begins, hikers gain about 4,500 feet but lose 7,000. The knee-punishing hike down goes through forest that, while lovely, pales in comparison to the stunning alpine of midday. "Oh my gosh, that was hell. There's really only one word for it," Fox-Hill says. "It's like time stands still when you go down that trail."

Though the Enchantments thru-hike demands no technical skills beyond a willingness to walk a lot, dangers do exist. In early season, the snow-covered ascent up to Aasgard can obscure the waterfall that tumbles not far from the recommended trail; sliding, or glissading, down the pitch has led to deadly accidents (the safe route is marked here). And without proper training, the nearly 20-mile trek, much under hot sun, can tire or injure hikers.

What's more, people don't have the Enchantments to themselves. Besides plentiful marmots and a few bears, a healthy mountain goat population fills the core, the animals eager for the salty remains of hiker urine left along the route. For that reason, best practice is to pee on rocks, not plants, so the goats don't dig up all the vegetation in their avid, if gross, quest. Even without waste getting involved, reliably grumpy goats should be given a wide berth; their presence, along with the fragile wilderness environment, means pet dogs are not allowed.

Mountain goats should not be approached—nor fed.

Despite its hazards, the Enchantments remains a beloved destination. With almost 40,000 entries into the overnight lottery in 2021, with a 6 percent success rate, the one-day route remains the only way in for many comers. (Day-use permits are still required but not limited, self-issued at the trailhead.) In recent years the forest service has limited parking beyond the lots at either end, making the $30 Enchantment Shuttle a useful tool for traveling between trailheads.

And for all its magic, many of the area names aren't actually official. While Sylvester's "Enchantments" nomenclature got onto official USGS records in the twentieth century, the mighty Aasgard is still technically known as Colchuck Pass, a moniker derived from the Indigenous Chinook jargon. The high alpine is dotted with names never formally adopted, from Jabberwocky Tower to Banshee Pass and smaller lakes like Troll Sink, Pixie Pond, and the Brísingamen Lakelets.

Perhaps the best thing about the Enchantments is that they're far from the only beautiful landscape in the state; similar high alpine lake systems can be found across the Cascades. But this rocky stretch of snow patches and sparkling tarns has earned its supernatural reputation, and casts a spell on nearly everyone who visits the its core.

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