I could hear my Australian visitors huffing and puffing behind me, cursing at me under their breath. Meanwhile, I was chirping “it will be worth it once we get up there”. I knew I wasn’t wrong, I had been to the core area of the aptly named Enchantment Lakes before. It is worth toiling up the steep section, known as Aasgard pass, which delivers 2000 feet of elevation gain in just three-quarters of a mile. The core area truly is nothing short of breathtaking, a myriad of glistening lakes and rugged peaks where mountain goats roam and fat marmots hide between the rocks. We were laden with heavy packs, and thankfully we didn’t have to rush like many of our fellow hikers, we had the golden ticket - a permit to camp in the core area.
This year we had finally had the luck of winning a permit, which are allotted each spring through a lottery process. After years of trying, luck was finally on my side!
As we reached the top of Aasgard Pass an audible sigh of relief drifted through the air, the views took away what little breath we had remaining after the steep ascent. In front of us laid a panorama of clear blue lakes still partly frozen with icebergs adrift in the icy waters. Dragontail Peak loomed above us as we crossed flimsy snow bridges across waterways and hiked through stands of Alpine Larches, and a herd of mountain goats hot on our tail. By Perfection Lake we found the perfect camp spot and set up home for the next few days, sharing the views of Prusik Peak with only the goats. The environment here is nothing short of magical and the area offers habitat for many species on the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife’s “Species of Concern” list. The water quality of the lakes and waterways are of extraordinarily high quality and as such play an important role in both domestic water use and irrigation in the surrounding areas. There is little wonder that the Enchantment Lakes are wildly popular, however it suffers from being too popular for its own good, and as a result the Forest Services have taken a variety of steps to try to minimize environmental impacts.
It has been determined that the carrying capacity of the core area is 60 people at any one time. Between 15th of May and 31st of October when the trail is at its most popular, hikers must have permits to camp in any of the five established zones of the Enchantments. Seventy five percent of the permits are distributed via the lottery which is held in February/March each year. The remaining twenty five percent are issued each morning at 7.45 am from the Leavenworth ranger station for trips beginning the same day. Again, if there are more applicants than permits another lottery takes place to assign the limited permits. As a result, we felt extremely lucky to have our overnight permit tied to our tents as we sat down to watch the first night's sunset with a well-earned glass of wine.
We woke early the following morning to the bleating of baby goats. But with so much beauty around we didn’t mind, spending the next few days hiking and scrambling up various peaks in the core area. Watching bright pink sunsets and going for icy dips in the partly frozen lakes. There is so much to explore in the core area you could easily spend upward of a week here hiking, scrambling or climbing the surrounding peaks. We scrambled up Little Annapurna gawking at the endless views and hiked to Gnome tarn with its water perfectly mirroring Prusik Peak above. One day we scrambled to the base of Prusik Peak trying to spot our friends climbing the West Ridge, taking on 4 pitches of 5.7 rock climbing. We fruitlessly attempted to catch trout in Inspiration Lake before giving up and jumping in racing each other to the floating iceberg. The last day, as if the Enchantments hadn’t already spellbound us with its beauty, a perfect rainbow span across Perfection Lake. I was half expecting unicorns to arrive.
It was with reluctance that we started our hike out, coming out the Snow Lake trail with its endless switchbacks. It had been a perfect four days, and the first day's strenuous hike up Aasgard Pass had long been forgotten. Only the promise of cold beers and bratwurst in Leavenworth kept us moving forward leaving the enchanting Enchantments behind. I hadn’t had enough though, far from enough, so when the larch started to turn in the end of September I returned. This time I had no camping permit so instead I started out from Seattle at some ungodly hour to hit the trailhead before first light. Allowing me enough time to hike the full 18 miles in one day. I set a fast clip, barley taking a breather at Colchuck Lake which is admittedly stunning on its own. This time it was me racing up Aasgard Pass with a light day pack looking with envy at those struggling up weighed down by heavy overnight backpacks. The hardest thing about completing the through hike in one day is not necessary the mileage but rather the sheer beauty which have you stopping time and time again. The core area was now exploding in bright yellow Alpine Larch. A conifer which turns yellow in fall before losing all its needles, growing new bright green ones in spring. By the time I was coming down the last switchbacks to the car park the sun’s rays were getting low. My legs were tired from the big day, but a big cheesy grin adorned my face, another glorious day in one of the most spectacular wilderness areas Washington State has to offer.
No permit, no worries.
So once again you didn’t win the lottery, do not worry, there are other ways to explore this beautiful area. You can tackle the 18 miles and 6000 feet of elevation gain in one day. Most people start at the Colchuck Lake trailhead and come out the Snow Lake trailhead. This means you need to either have two cars and shuttle between the two trail heads, or you can try your luck at hitching a ride back to the Colchuck Lake trailhead. If this sounds like too big of a bite, do not fear, twenty five percent of the overnight permits are allotted each morning at the Leavenworth Ranger station. Make sure to be there in time to enter your name and cross your fingers your name is pulled out of the lottery. If you don’t like the idea of chancing it, driving all the way to Leavenworth for a maybe permit. No problem, outside of the high season there is no quota, leaving you free to camp anytime between 31st of October to the 15th of May. The weather may be a little chillier but you will likely encounter few other people. Alternatively, you could choose to hike and camp in another part of The Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Ingalls Lake is another stunning hike and here you can hike and camp any time of year without a permit. Ingalls Lake is also home to the Alpine Larch making it a spectacular fall destination.