My Band of Brothers and I enjoyed a very memorable, "once in a lifetime"...
Ahhh, the Enchantments. Believe the hype. It's easily one of the most beautiful places in all of Washington, and as such, a favorite for hikers, runners, and climbers alike.
There's no easy way into this fantastical three-tiered alpine basin located outside of Leavenworth, but once you do get in, it's a feast for the eyes in every direction: impossibly clear lakes, rugged peaks, and an abundance of wildlife all await your arrival. Not to mention it's on the eastern side of the Cascades, which usually means favorable weather in the summertime.
Before you pack your bags though, there's an important piece of information you need to know: the good folks at the National Park Service have a tightfisted overnight permit system in place. Most of the permits are given out early in the year by a lottery system, and only a few are held aside for a daily drawing that takes place at 7:45am at the ranger station in Leavenworth.
That said, the good news is that the overnight permit system keeps the basin in good shape, and there's no limit on day hiking (self-issue at ranger station or trailhead). Although a single-day trek across the Enchantments is beyond the fitness capability of most people, it is certainly possible, and a growing number of hikers and runners do it every year. For the rest of us, there's the "day of" lottery to try and a huge selection of shorter hikes (like Colchuck Lake and Stuart Lake) nearby if you aren't so lucky.
There are two main routes into the Enchantments: one via a ten-mile hike from the Snow Lakes trailhead, and the other via the Stuart Lake trailhead by way of a six-mile hike that goes to Colchuck Lake and then up and over the notorious Aasgard Pass (2,200' in less than a mile). We decided to do our hike from the Stuart Lake trailhead for the sole reason that we had a permit to camp at Colchuck Lake. (Many hikers and runners cache a car at either end to make it a nice one-way trip, but we opted for the in-and-out route to simplify our transportation.)
From the Stuart Lake trailhead, begin on a gentle uphill grade into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. You'll cross over Mountaineer Creek at 1.65 miles, and at just under 2.5 miles reach a signed junction. Turn left to continue to Colchuck Lake. Cross Mountaineer Creek once again and head right through a boulder field and then climb earnestly for the next 1.5 miles until you reach the lake at 4.3 miles.
There are twelve potential campsites and four pit toilets at Colchuck Lake and the adjoining tarn, and many enjoy a nice view or quiet location off the main trail. Camp here or continue on to Aasgard Pass.
Aasgard Pass is located on the southeast side of the Colchuck Lake, about a mile beyond seeing the lake for the first time. To get there, follow the trail along the west side of the lake, passing by a small tarn and then through a boulder field at the south end of the lake. Cairns mark the way through the boulder field, but use caution here as the rocks are huge and sharp. Ouch.
You'll also pass through two separate stands of vegetation in this boulder field, and although the trail is fairly well trampled, it's good to keep in mind that the crossings run parallel to the shoreline within one-hundred feet from the water's edge. Give or take.
Once you reach the base of Aasgard Pass, the going becomes much tougher. You'll be climbing up towards the large rock outcropping about half-way up the pass, keeping the vegetation to your left. Cairns also mark the way here, but just in case, be sure to skirt left around the outcrop and stay left close to the wall as you climb further up.
Eventually the route will begin to head west, and you'll cross a waterfall (you won't notice this falls if there is a lot of snow on the pass) and then head to almost (vertical) center on the pass as you make your final push to the top. There was another set of waterfalls on our right for the last portion of the pass, but the route never crossed it.
At the top of Aasgard Pass (7,850'), you'll be treated to a fine view looking back down on Lake Colchuck and then across the North Cascades up to the top of Mount Baker. Soak it all in and move on. The hardest part is behind you (until you go back down!), and there's only miles of glorious views ahead.
With Dragontail Peak to your right, head left around the small tarn to the highest lakes in the upper basin, Tranquil and Isolation Lakes. These are the last two to melt out, so expect lots of snow in the early summer. Both have good campsites.
Continue on and drop down into a large U-shaped area with Little Annapurna Peak on your right. The trail stays in the middle of this mostly flat and lake-free area (although there are small ponds all around). Little Annapurna is a great scramble, and can be done fairly quickly as a snow climb, or by following the bedrock up that is just-right-of-center. The views from the top are outstanding in all directions (you can even see Rainier) and give a great perspective of the Enchantment Lakes basin.
Back on the main trail, you'll next catch a glimpse of Crystal Lake on your right – there's a great little rock overlook to take pictures of the horseshoe-shaped lake from – before you begin your drop down into the middle basin of lakes.
This middle basin of lakes is arguably the favorite, home of Inspiration and Perfection Lakes, which are most-aptly named. The descent into this basin is fairly steep, but the elevation drop is only a few hundred feet or so, and you'll be at the shores of Inspiration Lake fairly quickly. Inspiration drains into Perfection Lake by way of a waterfall, and between the two lakes is a rock knoll that has a couple great campsites.
Follow the trail along the east shores of Inspiration Lake, and then turn right after passing the rock knoll (you'll see a toilet sign) and head down to Perfection Lake's boggy north shore. It's here that you'll notice an abundance of larch trees, which is a coniferous and deciduous tree (explain that!). These beauties change to a bright yellow in the fall before losing their needle-like leaves.
Moving on, follow the trail around Perfection Lake, turning right at the junction (left goes to Prusik Pass). Stay left at the minor trail-split further on and head up slightly before dropping back down and around the corner to the waterfall that separates Perfection Lake from smaller Sprite Lake. We saw a few people fishing for trout here and doing quite well.
From there, descend a couple hundred feet on a huge slab of granite and pass braided streams into the lower basin of lakes. You'll come to Leprechaun Lake first, beautifully framed by rugged McClellan Peak up above. Continue on by traversing the side of a huge granite monolith (this can be climbed for a wonderful view) to Lake Vivian with Prusik Peak towering overhead. Several campsites are available nearby.
It's here that you've reached the end of the Enchantments. You can either continue on to Snow Lakes and Nada Lake and out to the Snow Lakes trailhead about eight miles away, or turn around and begin your long trip back up the basin and down Aasgard Pass.
Permits & Tips
Northwest Forest Pass required for parking. Overnight Enchantments Permit required for camping. The Wenatchee River Ranger Station in Leavenworth is the best resource for current trail conditions, and has a toilet and campsite map available. Self-issue day use pass required, which can be filled out at the ranger station or at the trailhead. Water can be filtered from lakes and streams. Toilet available at trailhead. No dogs or fires allowed. Get an early start on Aasgard Pass. Bring toilet paper.
How to get there
Head east on US 2 to Leavenworth.
Just after entering town, take a right (south) onto Icicle Creek Road.
Follow the paved road for 8.2 miles and turn left onto FR 7601 (about a mile past Eighmile Campground).
Follow on harsh gravel for another 3.7 miles to the parking lot and trailhead.