The Enchantments
  • The Jewel of the North Cascades

    High in the mountains of the North Cascades, just outside the bavarian-styled resort town of Leavenworth, sits one of the crown jewels of all of the Emerald State’s myriad hiking trails. Fabled amongst Washingtonian hikers as one of the hardest and most beautiful routes through the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, the Enchantments are a must-do for anyone seeking to experience the best of what the mountains of the Northwest have to offer. Named for the network of sparkling high-alpine lakes dotting a stair-cased plateau, the Enchantments are an awe-inspiring experience for any lucky enough to snag a limited-access permit, or brave enough to attempt the single-day “Death March” along the 21-mile trail up and down this thoroughly difficult traverse.

    The approach to the Enchantments Core Zone is often best made from the Lake Stuart Trailhead, via Lake Colchuck and over the intimidatingly steep scramble up Asgard Pass. Good physical conditioning and route-finding skills are necessary for this hike, whether attempted as an overnight or a day-hike, as the trail gains and loses over 7000 feet of elevation. Going over Asgard first clears the most difficult hurdle early in the hike, and the geography allows for a steady, if knee-wrenching decline the entire rest of the way. 

    The season for hiking the Enchantments officially begins in early May, though late snows are present into late June. The most popular months for the hike are July and August, when the snow has dissipated enough and the weather is most favorable to being at altitude. Long days in the Washington summer are very helpful for those attempting the day-hike as well.

    In October, before the first snows hit, the Enchantments take on their most vibrant and magical nature, as the larch trees found only in the Northern Cascades begin their autumnal shift to brilliant yellows. The larch is known as one of the few deciduous conifers, and its fall colors are one of the most spectacular sights in Washington.


Lake Colchuck

The first part of the Enchantments hike is the easiest section, a gentle, steady climb up to Lake Colchuck, a beautiful alpine lake seated at the base of Dragontail Peak, and fed by what remains of the Colchuck Glacier on the peak's western slope.

The trail begins in forest, following the twists and turns of Mountaineer Creek as it cascades out of the mountains from its source at Lake Stuart. Roughly two miles from the trailhead, the trail forks, with the right fork leading toward Lake Stuart. The left fork crosses Mountaineer Creek on a small footbridge and begins a slow, steady ascent toward Lake Colchuck.

Another mile and a half of switchbacked trails ascends up along granite benches with stunning views of the Stuart Valley, with distant Mount Stuart and Sherpa Peak rising like jagged teeth above it.

Eventually, the switchbacks end and Lake Colchuck comes into view, Dragontail Peak rising above it. To the east of the Lake, a smaller lake rests with numerous campsites and beautiful views of the surrounding enscarpment reflected in its still surface.

Stuart Valley

Lake Colchuck

Little Lake Colchuck


At Lake Colchuck, the difficulty of the trail becomes immediately apparent. The steady grade of the climb up to the lake disappears halfway through the circuit of the lakeshore, and the rugged scramble up to Asgard Pass begins.

The first challenge of this section comes in the boulder field at the base of the remnant of the Colchuck Glacier. Careful navigation of the boulder field is required, as a misstep here could lead to a painfully twisted ankle or worse. Cairns are set up along the way to assist in navigation, but attention must always be paid to the sturdiness of the rocks beneath your feet. Past the boulders, the trail begins again for a few hundred meters before the Asgard ascent starts in earnest.

There are multiple routes up Asgard, but the easiest, relatively speaking, crosses the rocky slope to the left of the large granite outcropping halfway up. Following to the right risks a slip into the dangerously swift flowing creek and waterfall. The slope is steep all the way up, and navigation difficult, often requiring scrambling on all fours.

The climb is rigorous, but the view you get for a reward is more than worth it.

Colchuck Glacier Talus Field

Asgard Ascent

Asgard Pass

The Upper Basin

Atop Asgard Pass, the breadth of the Enchantments is laid out before you. The towering summit of Dragontail Peak marks the highest point of the surrounding mountains, and remnants of glacial ice cling to the jagged ridge along the first of many lakes in this section.

Few things grow at this point, with only a few larches clinging to the barren rock face above the tree-line. The trail through this section is very easy to follow, flat and well marked for the majority of the upper basin.

There are half a dozen lakes in the upper area of the plateau, the largest being Isolation Lake. Tranquil Lake is a smaller, if no less beautiful lake on the northern side of the upper basin, and the trail through cleaves a path between the two as it heads toward the first stage of descent.

At the edge of the upper basin, stretching in a line all the way toward the rounded summit of Little Annapurna to the south, a line a larches marches the end of this section. The trail descends here, with stunning views of Crystal Lake, following the meandering route of Snow Creek, which begins in the glaciers wrapping Dragontail Peak.

Tranquil Lake

Isolation Lake

Snow Creek Glacier Basin

The Middle Basin

Descending from the Upper Enchantment Lakes, the trail winds somewhat steeply down toward the shores of Inspiration Lake.

Several excellent views can be found along this descent, of Crystal Lake and the valleys to the south, and of Little Annapurna towering over everything, a near mirror image of its namesake in Nepal.

Inspiration Lake is a deep sapphire colored lake surrounded by steep granite cliffs, its eastern shores a forest of Larches. At the outlet stream for the lake, a continuation of Snow Creek, the trail crosses and drops down to Perfection Lake.

Larches become more and more plentiful throughout this section, and some of the most spectacular views of the Enchantments can be found here. There are several small spur trails throughout the section, including those up to Prusik Pass and Gnome Tarn, with rewarding views for those looking to further explore the Core Zone.

As the trail winds through a Larch Forest and further descends, the last views of Little Annapurna appear across the lake, signaling the end of the Middle Basin.

Little Annapurna and Crystal Lake

Inspiration Lake

Mount Temple

Perfection Lake

The Lower Basin

As the trail descends into the lower basin, grasses and trees become more varied and plentiful. The meander of Snow Creak becomes wider in some places, and cascades and waterfalls become more plentiful as the trail drops down the terraced granite landscape.

Two major lakes mark the end of the Core Zone. The first, Leprechaun Lake, is an large amorphous pool surrounded by larch forests and rolling granite, Mclellan Peak rising above its still mountain waters.

Lake Vivian, one of the more popular spots in the Enchantments, is the final lake in the Core Zone, resting in a deep basin beneath the conical summit of the Temple high above. Here you can find your first views of the Snow Lake Valley.

As the trail begins its descent, the larches fade into a mix of green conifers, their autumnal yellows melding into a mottled forest that descends and builds to fill the valley below.

Many stop along the shores of Lake Vivian to spend a last night in the Enchantments, and it is a popular spot for day-hikers looking for a taste of the Core Zone before descending back to Snow Lake.

Snow Creek

Leprechaun Lake

Lake Vivian

Snow Creek Valley

The final leg of the trail is a thoroughly difficult and knee-shattering push to the Snow Lake Trailhead, roughly 8 miles away. The descent from Lake Vivian is a rapid descent of around 4000 feet within the first mile and a half, requiring careful steps and concentration to avoid a slip and fall.

Thick forest returns during the descent, and soon bounds the trail on both sides. At the base of the switch-backed drop, the trail levels out and follows Snow Creek, here a wider, more placid stream, to the artificially formed waters of Snow Lake.

Winding through the forested shores of the Lake, the trail passes through numerous campgrounds before crossing the wide rocky dam that forms the lake.

Leaving Snow Creek and the lake it feeds, the trail follows a high cut above Nada Lake and continues a long, steady descent toward the distant trailhead.

From the trailhead, it is an easy hitch-hike back to the start, unless alternative transportation has been arranged. Ahead lies a welcome beer and sausage dinner in Leavenworth, and a mountain's worth of memories.

Snow Lake Valley

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