- Location: Central Cascades
- Start: Stuart Lake Trailhead
- Distance: 19.6 miles
- Elevation gain: 4500 feet
- Type: Point-to-point
- Time: 12 hours 30 minutes (all breaks included)
- Map: Green Trails Maps 208SX: Alpine Lakes East
- References: Washington Trails Association
Pristine alpine lakes. Jagged granite peaks. Mountains as far as the eye can see. After drooling over photos of this stunning area last summer, I decided we needed to make it happen this year. Our original plan was to head out the first weekend in September (Labor Day weekend, so we could have a day to drive up, a day to do the hike, and a day to drive back). However, after our successful backpacking trip with Cassie in Goat Rocks, we opted to try the loop around the Three Sisters with her (since dogs are prohibited in the Enchantments). Unfortunately, that trip didn’t pan out completely, and, more than ever, I was determined to squeeze in an Enchantments trip before winter weather set in.
After flip-flopping several times in the days leading up to our chosen weekend (due to constant weather changes), we finally committed the night before and crossed our fingers that the “partly sunny” and “20 percent chance of snow” forecast held out through Sunday. We started our drive up to Leavenworth late in the afternoon (around 4 pm) on Saturday, arriving at the Snow Lakes Trailhead just before 10 pm. It was late and we didn’t feel like looking for a campsite along Icicle Creek Road in the dark, so we curled up with some blankets in the front seats of the car and dined on tortilla chips and salsa from a nearby gas station. My alarm woke us around 3 am. We planned to meet up with another group (some ladies from PNW Outdoor Women and their friends who also planned on thru-hiking the Enchantments) so we could shuttle to the Stuart Lake Trailhead. After finding our group in the parking lot, the six of us piled into one car and headed out to the trailhead. We started our hike in the dark around 5 am.
We moved quickly through the darkness and took our first long break at Colchuck Lake, a welcome and beautiful sight after a long drive (from Portland) and little sleep. Dragontail Peak and Aasgard Pass at the southern end of the lake were still shrouded in early morning clouds. After snacking, taking pictures, and adjusting our layers, we continued along Colchuck’s western edge, boulder hopping and scrambling on slick granite until we reached the base of Aasgard Pass, the gateway to the Core Enchantment Zone. At 2200 ft of gain in less than a mile, this would be the steepest (though not the most difficult) part of our trek.
It was a strenuous little climb, but the surrounding views provided a nice distraction whenever our legs needed a breather. The grandeur of Colchuck Lake below and Dragontail Peak above, as well as the numerous golden larches dotting the landscape, prompted a lot of ‘woah’s and ‘holy sh**’s. We hadn’t even reached the lakes basin and the area was already taking my breath away (mostly because of the natural beauty, but also because of the climb). We topped out in just under 90 minutes.
Entering the upper basin of the Enchantments was like entering another world; a barren and rocky, yet magical, landscape filled with numerous lakes and smaller bodies of water, surrounded by the rugged peaks of the Stuart Range. Aasgard, the dwelling place of the gods in Norse mythology, seemed like a fitting name for the gateway we’d climbed to get to it. Gazing out over this incredible alpine kingdom (fit for deities in my opinion), I was speechless. I couldn’t believe I was fortunate enough to be standing in one of the most stunning wilderness areas in the Pacific Northwest. We continued on the trail as it snaked its way through the various lakes. As per usual, I remained pretty far behind to snap photos every couple of minutes. It was difficult not to.
We took a lunch break at an overlook with views of Crystal Lake and McClellan Peak. The sun had come out by this point, illuminating the larches covering McClellan. The sky was perfectly reflected in the peaceful, sparkling waters of the lake below us. It was, without a doubt, one of the most scenic lunch spots I’ve ever experienced. I hardly touched my food I was so mesmerized.
Following lunch, we continued our descent into the center/halfway point of the Core Enchantments, which is punctuated by two of the largest lakes in the entire basin: Inspiration Lake and Perfection Lake, both aptly named. The landscape began to transition into more lush, vegetated terrain. We were finally making our way through those golden larches we’d been viewing from a distance earlier! As we continued past Inspiration Lake, the rocky stretches eventually gave way to an alpine meadow, which was now a full on autumn wonderland. All of it felt like something out of a fairytale. The view of Prusik Peak rising above to the north was one of my favorites of the entire trek. Rounding the shore of Sprite Lake, we also had a glorious view of Little Annapurna, standing majestic against the blue skies. Following Sprite, we forded a small creek and began the final descent into the Lower Basin.
The lower basin contains my favorite lake of the entire walk through the Core: Leprechaun Lake, which I initially perceived as two lakes because of a peninsula that cuts almost all the way through it. The views of McClellan Peak from either side of the peninsula are stunning, although the peak was more perfectly reflected in the water on the eastern side. I certainly could have stayed there for hours, but, unfortunately, the Core was coming to an end, and Snow Lakes Trailhead was still a ways away. Somewhere between Leprechaun Lake and Lake Viviane (the final lake we would pass) one of my trekking poles slipped on the granite we were walking on and I landed on an angular shaped rock directly on my tailbone. The initial pain was so searing that I thought I was going to throw up. I was so scared that I’d fractured it. (Sidenote: It’s thankfully not fractured, but, even two weeks later, it’s still very painful to sit) Everybody else was a little ways ahead of me and out of sight, so I sat where I was for a few moments until I could breathe easy again. I walked slowly and carefully to where the rest of the group was waiting. As we sat above Lake Viviane, we all looked ahead and just off to the side of the trail sat a mountain goat! Our very first mountain goat sighting of the day, which was actually kind of surprising considering how common they are in the Enchantments. Aside from my little tumble, seeing the goat as we exited the Core and began the descent to Snow Lakes definitely made for a wonderful ending to our hike through the lakes basin. Now came the hard part: the 10-mile journey back to the car.
Before we started the hike, Mack and I had it in our heads that we would run (or at least run/hike) the remaining 10 miles to avoid this section feeling like a long slog. Unfortunately, between my tailbone injury, Mack’s knee injury (which he got early on while we were scrambling around Colchuck to get to Aasgard), and the seemingly endless technical terrain that lay before us, that prospect was looking very dismal. In fact, I was in so much pain, I could barely keep up hiking (let alone running) with everyone else. Mack stayed nearby as I fell behind and eventually it was just us two hiking together. Our hike now was mostly through the forest, although the route did open up a number of times when we had to switchback down a steep slope. There were very few times where we got to hike on more “groomed” singletrack trails. They were definitely a blessing for my aching knees (and tailbone) when they did appear for a longer stretch. Occasionally, Mack would ask if I felt like jogging a little bit so we could move faster; it was already 2 pm (maybe after?) when we reached Snow Lakes and we still had several miles to go. We tried for a little while (and even caught up to two members of our group by doing so), but it was too painful for me to continue after 15 minutes or so, and the terrain wasn’t helping. We fell behind again and took it pretty slow from there on out.
About an hour from the trailhead (not that we knew we were an hour away at the time), we happened to turn a corner and, just a few feet away from us, were a mama goat and her baby grazing smack dab in the middle of the trail! This was our first close encounter with a wild animal. And we were terrified. Before doing this trip, I’d posted a question concerning behavior around goats on the PNW Outdoor Women’s Facebook page. One woman who has had a few encounters suggested throwing rocks near them (not at them of course) in order to scare them away. Seeing this mama goat with her baby, I wasn’t sure throwing rocks would help our situation. We tried hitting our trekking poles together and speaking to the goats to let them know of our presence. The mother made eye contact with us (which we made an effort to avoid) several times, but they just kept moving down the trail in the same direction we needed to go. At some point, the mother quickened her pace and started moving towards us. Mack and I fast hiked back uphill to an empty campsite we’d seen off the trail and attempted to stay out of sight. A few minutes later the goats turned the corner to continue uphill, but the mother stopped right in front of the campsite and started staring us down. We didn’t want to take the chance of provoking her by moving towards the trail, so we bushwhacked near the edge of a drop off in order to put an extra 5 feet between us and the goats. Her eyes followed us the entire way, but she didn’t move closer to us. Once we were back on the trail, we ran, looking back every so often to make sure they were no longer in sight. To our relief, Icicle Creek Road came into view from the trail a few minutes later. It still took an annoyingly long time to switchback all the way down to the parking lot (we finished around 5:30 pm), but at least the slog was over. We were smelly. We were aching all over. And we had a 5 hour drive ahead of us. None of that stopped us from feeling grateful.
The Enchantments hike is one of the most intense adventures we’ve ever accomplished, especially since we compressed it all into less than 36 hours (including 10+ hours of driving). It was a grueling challenge (particularly those final 10 miles), but when I think back on it, the astounding natural beauty, and the people (yay for new friends!) I got to experience it with, stand out the most. Maybe crazy weekend warrior adventures like this are in our future!