Thru Hiking the Enchantments

One of most iconic hikes in Washington’s Cascades, the Enchantments trail stretches nearly twenty miles through the rugged Alpine Lakes Wilderness. To hike this unique alpine area, you have two options: (1) enter the lottery and hope to score a coveted permit for a multi-day camping trip, or (2) make it a thru hike. The chances of winning a permit are around 8% overall, and only about 2% for the area within the Core Enchantments. If you’re considering making it a day hike, the total distance is just under 20 miles with over 5,300 feet of vertical – with essentially all the gain coming within the first six miles. If you hike regularly, it’s a long day but certainly an achievable feat.

We first heard about this hike about a year ago when were staying in Whitefish, MT – our first stop after escaping NC to try out the digital nomad lifestyle. One night when we were having drinks with our hosts, their daughter and son-in-law began tossing around ideas for where we should visit next. They asked if we’d considered the North Cascades, and more specifically the Enchantments, as it was a hike on their own bucket list. Knowing they were two outdoor lovers who were well-acquainted with much of the Western U.S., we immediately filed the Enchantments away in our list of potential must-dos.

When we found ourselves in Washington earlier this year, we knew we couldn’t leave without making the celebrated trek. We picked a random day in August (with a few flex days for potential rainouts), booked accommodations, and spent hours reading about others’ experiences thru hiking the trail. After completing the journey ourselves, we thought we’d throw our own account out there. If you’re looking for some insight and tips about taking on this incredibly scenic thru hike, we’ve detailed our experience below. We hope it gives you some useful info of what to expect on the trail.

Getting to the Trailhead

If you’re making this a thru hike, you’ll either need to have a second vehicle or plan a shuttle service. Most thru hikers begin at the Stuart/Colchuck Lake Trailheads and end at the Snow Lakes Trailhead. Presumably, the is the direction you will follow. This standard route has you ascend Aasgard Pass, hike through the Core Enchantments, then descend past Snow Lakes. The opposite direction has significantly more elevation gain (~7,400’) and would require you to descend Aasgard Pass (not impossible, but my knees cringe at the thought).

Without two vehicles, Stephan and I hired a shuttle van from Leavenworth Shuttle & Taxi. On weekdays, the earliest shuttle will pick you up at the Snow Lakes Trailhead at 6 a.m. and drop you off at the Stuart/Colchuck Lake Trailheads to begin your hike. On weekends, the earliest shuttle departs the Snow Lakes Trailhead at 5 a.m. We hiked on a Tuesday and booked the 6 a.m. shuttle. Our driver arrived on time and, after a 20-ish-minute drive, we were on the trail at 6:30 a.m. sharp. The cost for two of us was $60. It’s a little pricey but, in our opinion, well worth it to not deal with the hassle of a car rental. The closest rental companies are in Wenatchee, about 30 minutes south of Leavenworth. Whether you park one or two vehicles, don’t forget – a Northwest Forest Pass is required on vehicles at both trailheads.

Stuart/Colchuck Lake Trailheads to Colchuck Lake

The epic trail through the Enchantments begins with a steady climb through a thick forest up to Colchuck Lake. Gaining about 2,100 vertical feet in 4.1 miles, this first section of trail is arguably the easiest. Not only is the initial ascent pretty moderate, but the terrain is also significantly more modest than the rest of the trail. With fresh legs and a sense of anticipation of what was ahead, we were able to pretty well crush this section of trail. Beginning at 6:30 a.m., the temperature was crisp, hovering just below 50°F, and the dimly-lit forest quiet and still. We weren’t sure what to expect in terms of traffic, but we passed only about a half dozen other hikers through this first section.

We reached Colchuck Lake in just under an hour and a half, and stopped briefly to take some pictures. Even though the towering peaks shaded the lake from even a hint of morning light, we could still make out the water’s vibrant teal hue. We snapped a few photos of infamous Aasgard Pass to our east, then began boulder-hopping around the southwestern shore of the lake.

The mile-long boulder field to the pass was easier to navigate than we’d anticipated. Earlier in the summer we hiked the boulder scramble up to Granite Mountain Lookout (the standard summer route was still snowed out), and actually found that to be a bit more challenging due to the pitch and sheer size of the boulders. Pleased that we were keeping such a solid pace, we continued bounding around the lake, reaching the bottom of Aasgard Pass about 45 minutes later.

Aasgard Pass

Aasgard Pass is widely considered one of the hardest (hiking) ascents in the Cascades, gaining more than 2,200 vertical feet in just one mile. Although it’s a pretty steep pitch of dusty scree and rocks, our personal experience was that it wasn’t nearly as challenging as we’d anticipated. If you’re a well-seasoned hiker accustomed to loose terrain and big-gain hikes, the pass shouldn’t give you too much trouble. Although it’s rated as class 3, there’s no gnarly exposure here and it’s pretty easy to maintain the route. That said, it is considered a difficult and potentially dangerous ascent (especially in snow conditions), so don’t underestimate the climb. It’s where a lot of hikers seem to struggle a bit, so be prepared to take regular breaks to catch your breath and hydrate.

The trail up Aasgard Pass is fairly straightforward and marked with cairns, but sometimes they take a minute to spot amongst all the other boulders. We’ve highlighted the general path below in yellow as a rough guide. When making your way up the pass, the most important thing to remember is to stay to your left (and make sure you keep left of the large grove of trees). A small waterfall runs down the center of the pass, and the right side has much more dangerous terrain (it was also the site of a large slide just a few weeks before we hiked).

For us, Aasgard Pass was where the hike really started to get interesting. Not only did we enjoy the challenge of the steeper pitch, but the scenery really starts to get incredible as you ascend the pass. From the bottom, it looks like a daunting journey, with a near vertical wall of rocks and scree plunging beside Dragontail Peak. As you make your way up, you get a bird’s-eye view of Colchuck Lake, surrounded by layers of jagged summits.

By the time you reach the top of the pass, you will have traveled 6 miles and gained more than 4,300 feet of elevation, leaving just 1,000 vertical feet over the remaining 13 miles. As soon as you crest the top, a small, aquamarine tarn welcomes you to the start of the Core Enchantments.

The Core Enchantments

The ultimate reason for doing this hike! The next four miles are the most scenic, winding through the rocky terrain of what’s known as the Core Enchantments. Here, we found ourselves enveloped by craggy summits, sapphire tarns, and the company of the occasional mountain goat. The landscape was even more rugged than we’d anticipated, and unlike any other alpine region we’d hiked.

As we made our way through the Core, the trail twisted and turned over windswept rock, following the banks of the Upper Enchantment Lakes. We quickly understood why it was named the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, as dozens of small tarns peppered the landscape, each with a slightly different jewel-toned hue.

We took our time through this section, as there was just so much scenery to enjoy. It’s instantly obvious why Core permits are so coveted – you could easily spend several days quietly exploring this section of wilderness. We wandered past Tranquil, Isolation, and Inspiration Lakes, and the small pools of the Brisingamen Lakelets. When we reached the Enchantment Basin, we paused for a quiet lunch by Perfection Lake. Similar to our experience on the first portion of trail, we saw very few hikers through the Core and were really able to revel in how blissfully peaceful it was.

Core Enchantments to Snow Lakes

The descent from the Core Enchantments is almost as extreme as the climb up. After passing Leprechaun Lake and Lake Viviane, the trail seemingly comes to an abrupt halt atop a rocky precipice overlooking the Snow Lakes.

From here the trail descends over rock slabs and slickrock, losing 1,400 vertical feet in just one mile. Similar to Aasgard Pass, this section is surprisingly slow going (it took us about an hour). Not only is it quite steep, but there’s not always an obvious path over the large rock slabs. Although there are cairns marking the route, we still managed to briefly lose trail two or three times during this one short section.

After clambering down the sloping granite slabs, the trail turns to packed dirt (albeit rock-strewn and heavily rooted) as it coils around the scenic Snow Lakes. As you pass the far northeastern tip of the largest lake, the trail crosses a small, stone dam. While many hike reports suggested the dam was frequently wet with at least a few inches of water, it was unexpectedly dry when we crossed.

From the dam, it’s about a mile further to Nada Lake – the last colorful pool on the trail. Pause and enjoy one last view; from here, it is another six miles of somewhat grueling downhill to the Snow Lakes Trailhead.

Snow Lakes to Snow Lakes Trailhead

From blogs and hike reports we read online to hikers we met on various trails throughout Washington, everyone who’d thru hiked the Enchantments said the same thing – the last six miles of trail are the most brutal. It seemed a surprising statement, especially given everything you read about Aasgard Pass’ notorious pitch. However, it is absolutely true. After coming down from the scenic highs of the Core, there is virtually nothing to look at (aside from a quick peek at picturesque Nada Lake); you lose another 4,200 vertical feet; it’s now the hottest part of the day and there’s a decent amount of sun exposure; and the terrain is still surprisingly rugged. Although we were doing fine in terms of energy level and strength, I know I must have checked my Garmin half a dozen times over the last 6 miles and 2.5 hours thinking, ‘shit… are we ever going to see the trailhead?!’

Even though the finish is a bit anticlimactic, this is a gorgeous trail overall and makes for a pretty memorable adventure. Considering we hiked in late summer and at the apex of yet another historic wildfire season, we could not have asked for better conditions – cool temps, a light breeze, and very little smoke or haze. After obsessing over weather reports and smoke forecasts for at least two weeks, I couldn’t believe our stroke of luck. We began poring over photos the minute we got home… feeling grateful for beautiful trails and for the awesome people we’ve met along the road that have pointed us toward them.

Total distance: 19.3 miles
Elevation gain: 5,310 feet
Elevation loss: 7,422 feet
Maximum elevation: 7,841 feet

Pro Tips:

  • Beware of temperatures. It can be brutally hot in the summer, and it’s not unusual for temps around Leavenworth to climb into the 90s or even triple digits. Start as early as possible so you don’t find yourself on the hardest part of the ascent in mid-day temps or full sun.
  • That said, carry some sort of water filtration system with you. If you’re hydrating properly (especially in the heat), you won’t be able (or want) to haul enough water in your day pack. There’s water along most of the route, so filling up should be easy (the last easily accessible water spot was around mile 15 (about 4 miles before the Snow Lakes TH), at a small footbridge that crosses Snow Creek). We use the Platypus QuickDraw for its compact size, lighter weight, and fast flow.
  • Make sure you’ve also got enough calories. We didn’t want to carry tons of extra weight in food, so we each brought along six or seven energy gels. They’re a great portable boost for keeping your blood sugar up, and weigh almost nothing. Bonus: you don’t feel like you constantly have to pause to eat. While you’ll certainly want to spend some time exploring the Core, it’s a long day and you’ll want to keep moving. We really like the Huma Gels – they’re vegan and surprisingly tasty.
  • Know your limits and abilities. You read so many reports of Aasgard Pass being super brutal, so we were surprised at how easy we found it. However, everyone has a different level of fitness and there is such a wide range of hiking abilities that it’s sometimes hard to judge from others’ experiences. The terrain is definitely rugged (this is not 20 miles of level, dirt trail), but if you are used to hiking long distances (10 to 20 miles) and trails with 4,000 to 5,000 feet of gain, this is probably a very achievable day trip.
  • Hiking time: Again, this is going to be super variable. Faster hikers (and those running portions of the trail) can do this in 8 to 10 hours. The average (from my own hike report research) seems to be between 12 and 13 hours. Slower hikers can take up to 15 hours, some even longer. We did this in just over 10 hours with about a 9.5-hour moving time. We are typically speedy hikers, and we were definitely moving the last few miles.
  • If you are interested in photography, but don’t want to carry a ton of extra weight, choose a wide-angle lens. I brought my standard 16 to 50mm, while Stephan brought his ultrawide. His lens proved to be much more valuable. The scale of the mountains and lakes is unreal, so you’ll probably want that shorter focal length to capture as much of the incredible landscape as possible.
  • Do your research! We are just one pair of hikers who have done this trail. We’re avid hikers who typically hike fairly quickly. We tried to provide as many stats as possible to give you a gauge of our experience. Everyone is different, though, so take each experience with a grain of salt and consider your own abilities. Find blogs and check out trip reports on AllTrails and WTA. The Washington Trails Association website is exceptional, and you can get some fantastic information from that resource. The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest also has invaluable information for preparing for the hike itself, as well as info about the permit lottery.
  • If possible, hike on a weekday. As you’d expect, weekends are known for being significantly busier. We opted for a Tuesday and saw maybe 20 to 30 other hikers over the course of the entire day. Interestingly, we actually saw the highest number toward the end of the hike, with several pairs coming up from the Snow Lakes TH to spend a few days camping in the Core.

Our strategy:

To maximize our time in the Core Enchantments and keep our overall hike time reasonable, our strategy was to make up time on the first and last portions of the trail. Our fastest sections were the first 4 miles (up to Colchuck Lake), and the last 8 miles (from Snow Lakes down to the trailhead). We kept an average pace of about 3.2 mph on the first section, and closer to 3.8 mph on the final portion. The gain up to Colchuck is actually pretty moderate (~2,100 vertical feet over 4.1 miles), as is the loss from Snow Lakes to the TH (~4,200 vertical feet over 8 miles).

We assumed the slowest sections would be the boulder field around Colchuck Lake, the climb up Aasgard Pass, and the steep, one-mile descent from the Core (Lake Vivian) to Snow Lakes. This was undoubtedly the case. Below is a breakdown of our times:

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