enchantments 101: the basics

Located in the Central Cascades, the Enchantments are the stuff of dreams. I put together a list of helpful information for anyone getting out there for the first time. Have fun, stay safe, and be sure to share photos when you return!

1.    Trailheads: Snow Lake vs. Stuart Lake

Though often referred to as a loop, the Enchantment Lakes trail (what people most commonly associate with the phrase “the Enchantments”) is anything but. There are two trailheads: the Snow Lake trailhead and the Lake Stuart trailhead, which are roughly 12 miles and 1,500 feet of gain apart.

Source: USDA Forest Service

If you begin at the Snow Lake trailhead, you’ll slowly wind your way up a long series of switchbacks before finally crossing Snow Creek and arriving at lower Snow Lake. From there, several campsites await, stretched between lower and upper Snow Lakes. Mosquitoes can be quite bad here so be prepared. Heading up this way adds about 1,500 feet of total gain to your trip but for those with a Snow zone permit or who would rather go down Aasgard than up it, this is the way to go. If you have a permit, consider bringing a day pack so you can make the relatively short trek up to the upper basin to scramble a peak or bask in the sunshine.

If you begin at the Stuart Lake trailhead, you won’t have to do that extra 1,500 feet of gain but you will have to contend with ascending Aasgard Pass. The trail up to Colchuck is relatively straight forward and moderate. Mind the fork that goes left to Colchuck and right/straight to Lake Stuart. Once at Colchuck, take a minute to bask in the turquoise waters and refill your water before you tackle Aasgard (also properly known as Colchuck Pass). At 1900 feet of gain in just 0.9 of a mile, Aasgard will have your thighs burning. Stick to the left of the pass, go slow, and be careful while navigating the boulders and talus slope. When you finally top out after climbing the pass, the upper basin will stretch out before you and you’ll mostly descend all the way through the core.

2.    Wildlife:

Though you may encounter the occasional black bear down low on the trail, they are few and far between and likely more scared of you than you are of them. However, once you’re in the upper basin there are goats galore. They are bold and well-habituated to humans, which can translate to rather aggressive behavior; don't be surprised when they follow as you leave camp to pee. Make sure to pee on hard rock or other durable surfaces as the goats will destroy vegetation in the quest for your salty urine. Also be sure to hang food and trash up in bags—those goats (and other smaller creatures) will try to eat right through your pack. I have even seen them gnaw the sweaty straps on a backpack. As with all wildlife, maintain a safe distance. Don’t try to pet or feed them, cute as they may be!

3.    Pit toilets:

There are several well-signed pit toilets located throughout the Enchantments and some of them offer mighty fine views. That said, if you can't make it to the toilet and you're pooping rather than peeing, I strongly encourage you to pack it out. Not sure how to do that? Don't worry, I have a blog for that! This is a delicate, heavily trafficked area and the better we manage our waste, the more pristine it will stay. If you have to pee along the way, make sure to pee on the plentiful granite along the trail or other durable surfaces to prevent goats from destroying fragile vegetation in their quest for salt. This also applies to any sanitary items. In the event that you’re menstruating while on the trail, make sure to pack out your sanitary items! 

4.    Aasgard Pass:

As I mentioned above, Aasgard is the colloquial name for Colchuck pass. It gains 1,900 feet in 0.9 miles and takes you up a series of switchbacks through a boulder field/talus slope before gaining the upper Enchantments basin. It’s a strenuous section of the trail that will have you high-fiving your team after you get to the top! If Aasgard is covered in snow, be aware of the avalanche risk and forecast. Go prepared with an ice axe, crampons and/or some other form of traction (you might be fine with microspikes but Yaktrax probably won’t be your best friend) and the skills to use them should you take a tumble.  You’ll also want a probe to check for hidden meltouts underneath the snow. When ascending, stick as far to climbers left as possible (see image below). There is a stream that flows down the pass on the right side that you’ll want to avoid. In the winter, a fall there can be fatal. Whatever you do, make sure you have enough water for the trek up the pass. There is a stream flowing down climbers right that’s deliciously cold but it can be tricky to reach for a refill pending conditions on the pass! Once you gain the upper basin, treat yourself with some water, a snack, and a little rest before carrying on to your destination.

Map credit: Ken Poore

5.    Bugs:

In my experience, bugs are the heaviest at Snow and Colchuck Lakes. I recommend bringing your spray of choice to keep the pesky critters away. You can also treat your tent and sleeping bag with permethrin which is an odorless treatment that won’t harm your sleeping bags, clothes, or tents but will keep away mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, etc. If you have cats, make sure you treat your soft goods in an area they won’t get to as permethrin is toxic to cats in high doses.

6.    Fires:

As I’m sure we can all imagine, fires are not allowed in the Enchantments (unless it’s absolutely necessary to save your life). Not only do they leave unsightly scars, it’s also a very delicate environment and the surrounding area is prone to wildfires in the summer season. So, make sure you bring your backpacking stove and plenty of fuel to enjoy hot food and drinks on your trek.

7.    Car shuttling or the Loop Connector Shuttle:

As I mentioned above, the trail is often referred to as a loop but it doesn't connect, leaving through hikers with a logistical question: what do you do about cars? There is a Loop Connector shuttle that will save you some of the hassle of shuttling cars. Check their website for details! If you prefer to shuttle and have more than one car in your group, it’s best to drop one car at the trailhead that you will be exiting from and then cram everyone into the other car and shuttle to the trailhead you will be entering from. In the event that you only have one car, I suggest leaving it at the trailhead you will be exiting from and hitching a ride to the other trailhead in the morning. There’s likely to be more traffic in the morning and then you won’t have to deal with the hassle as you return to the car from your epic adventure. Some people also stash bikes at the trailhead they will be exiting from and make the 8 mile, 1500 feet of elevation ride backup to the other car. More power to you if that’s the route you prefer!

8.    Camping before you hit the trail:

Technically, camping is prohibited in the parking lots at the trailhead though many people lay a bag out at night and hit the trail at the crack of dawn. Just note that if the rangers catch you, they may ticket you. The safer alternative is to book a site at one of Leavenworth’s many other campsites or, if you’re feeling really luxe, snag a hotel.

9.    Car permits:

You will receive a permit for your car if you snagged an overnight permit and that will allow your car to stay in either parking lot overnight. If you’re planning to thru-hike and don’t have a permit, you must have a NW Forest Service Pass to park at the trailhead. At the Snow Lake trailhead, it’s easy enough to park outside the lot on the shoulder of the road but this isn’t an option at the Lake Stuart trailhead.

10. Water filtration:

Chances are, you won’t want or won’t be able to carry enough water for your trip. With ample water sources along the trail, you really don’t need to. What you do need is a water treatment/filtration system. In the Enchantments, you’re most likely to encounter bacterial and sedimentary contamination in the water. Any bacterial filter will safely remove that for you. Far less likely yet still possible are viral contaminants, which you will need a viral filter or chemical treatment to address. I personally use a Katadyn pump or BeFree bottle to filter my water and if I’m nervous for any reason, I’ll throw in an Aquamira tablet to seal the deal. A few drops of an electrolyte supplement and bam, I’m good to go. Whether you prefer a different brand of filter, iodine to chlorine, electrolyte supplements or not, make sure you have this all planned out before you hit the trail!

11. Classics scrambles and climbs:

The Enchantments are home to several super classic scrambles and climbs. From Dragontail to McClellan to the sweet summit block of Prusik, the views don't disappoint! Depending on your objective and the season, you'll need a rack, rope, crampons, axe, or just a good pair of trail runners. It’s possible to hit one or more of these in the same day depending on your fitness level, and you can tag a whole bunch if you got a golden ticket! Make sure you snag a topo map, do your research, and know the details before you go!

12. Campsites:

Because this is such a delicate environment, you are only allowed to camp in designated campsites. They can sometimes take a bit of work to find, but please respect this rule. All members of your party must stay in the same campsite, as there aren’t enough up there for people to branch out; they essentially give out the same number of permits as campsites. The early bird gets the worm, so to speak, so if you want the prime spots, get on the trail early! The Core often remains snowy into Early July which does open up a lot of terrain you can't otherwise camp on. Depending on your experience and preferences, that can be a blessing or a curse! Be sure to check conditions before heading up, and go prepared!

13. Distance:

WTA will tell you that the trail is 18 miles. Many people report that something more along the lines of 20-21 miles. Some of the discrepancy is due to wandering about, awestruck by the beauty of the place. I think it's best to be prepared for about 20 miles of hiking just in case. That said, if you are scrambling up any peaks along the way, your distance will increase!

14. Permit Season:

The permit season runs from May 15 to October 31. If you have a permit on the earlier or later end of the season, be aware of trail conditions and trailhead access. With deeper snows, the road to the Stuart Lake trailhead can be closed,  addind an additional 4 miles of hiking onto your trek. Further, in the shoulder season there is likely to be snow on the trail and in the upper basin (or below, depending on the year). Be prepared with the right gear and snow camping knowledge. The upper basin is STUNNING in a mantle of white but it does require additional gear, preparation, and navigational skills! Be especially careful around melting pools of water when there's snow, no one wants an accidental dip in the chilly water! Also be aware of snow bridges across/near lake outlets and streams.

15. Permit zones:

Permits are designated by a zone name, like Colchuck, Snow, Stuart, Eightmile/Caroline, and Core. You can only camp overnight in the zone designated by your permit. For example, if you have a Colchuck permit, you have to camp in the Colchuck Zone near Colchuck Lake, and then day hike in and out of the Core. The one exception is the Core permit, a.k.a. the golden ticket that lets you camp in any zone. Many people with Core permits will start their journey by camping at Colchuck or Snow Lake the first night, then push up to the Core for the remaining days/nights. The Enchantments are monitored closely by Rangers, and they often sweep through the entire area during a day and check for permits. If you do not have a permit, or are camping in the wrong zone, they can fine and expel you. Similarly, poaching (camping without a permit in any of the zones) will earn you a ticket to the tune of up to $5,000 and up to 6 months in jail.

In sum, the Enchantments are AMAZING. Stick to sound LNT principles while you’re up there, stay safe, snap a million photos, and treat yourself when you’re done. You will certainly deserve it!