So You Want To Thru-Hike The Enchantments
Larch madness. Or the Larch March. That’s what we call the small window of time in early October when the Larch trees in the Pacific Northwest—disguised as evergreens for most of the year—drop their ruse and turn a brilliant color of gold. It doesn’t happen every year. Whether it be rain, snow, apocalyptic smoke, or early winter winds, several factors can, and often do, conspire to ruin a good Larch season. But when the conditions align, there’s nothing quite like it. And there’s no place quite like The Enchantments to experience it. So when the forecast called for clear, calm weather during the second week of October, Quin and I took it as a sign, packed our day packs, and drove the van out to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
Growing up in Washington, hiking The Enchantments feels a bit like a rite of passage. Even more so if you happen to be in the outdoor community. And yet, somehow, it alluded me until this year. To be fair, I have technically been to The Enchantments before. One of the first photos I ever posted on Instagram was a black and white portrait of me at Stuart Lake. And I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve hiked up to Colchuck. I’ve even huffed it up Aasgard Pass a time or two just to turn around and head back to my car.
I’ve never been one of the lucky few to win an overnight permit into the “Core Enchantments.” And I’ve always convinced myself that I wasn’t up for doing the thru-hike in one day. It was rubbish, really. Yes, it’s a strenuous hike. Yes, it’s a very long day. Yes, my feet felt like complete and utter mush by the end. But I honestly think that anyone in reasonably good shape can complete The Enchantments in one day. Like most long-distance endeavors, it’s more of a mental challenge than anything else. But when the views live up to their name, as they do in The Enchantments, even the mental challenge is easily surmountable.
The Enchantments At A Glance
Distance: Approximately 19 miles
Difficulty: Extremely Difficult
Total Elevation Gain: 5,000 feet
Total Elevation Loss: 7,000 feet
Highest Elevation (Aasgard Pass): 7,841 feet
A Note On The Trail Distance: There is a lot of discrepancy in the distances reported for The Enchantments. During my research, I routinely came across mileage that varied from 18-23 miles. To me, a 5 mile split on a trail that is—at most—23 miles long is mind-boggling. I clocked 19.25 miles on my Gaia GPS App, and Quin got 22.5 miles on his Apple Health App. While the discrepancy between our two distances explains why there’s so much discrepancy online. . . it doesn’t get us any closer to an accurate distance. I’ve given approximate distances for each section of the hike based on my GPS and the amount of time each leg of the hike took us. They are just that – APPROXIMATE. My best advice is to mentally prepare for a 23-mile hike and be pleasantly surprised if you get back to your car a few miles sooner than you anticipated!
Length of Time: Because The Enchantments is such a long trail, the length of time it takes to hike will vary wildly on the individual. That being said, I think for the average hiker, 12 to 14 hours is a fairly solid bet. It took Quin and me approximately 13 hours to thru-hike the Enchantments (starting at the Stuart/Colchuck Lake Trailhead at 5:10 AM and finishing at the Snow Lake Trailhead at 6:05 PM). We are not exceptionally fast hikers, we didn’t train at all, and we stop A LOT to take photographs.
What Permits Do You Need For The Enchantments
Most people who choose to hike The Enchantments in one day do so because they want to avoid the permit system. Camping overnight in the Enchantments is strictly regulated between May 15th-October 31st. If you want to backpack, you’ll need to secure one of the highly sought after overnight permits awarded by the Forest Service through a lottery that opens in February. You can also try for one of the limited same-day permits available at the ranger station in Leavenworth. Either way, you will need a lot of luck.
You DON’T NEED one of these elusive overnight permits if you are a day hiker. But you can’t show up empty-handed. Day users can obtain a free, self-issue, wilderness permit at the trailhead. This is not the same as the very difficult to get overnight permit, required for camping in The Enchantments.
You will need a National Forest Recreation Pass, which can be purchased at the trailhead for $5. The “America The Beautiful National Parks Pass” will also work. This may seem obvious, but if you leave a car at both trailheads, you will need a pass for each vehicle!
When to Hike The Enchantments
The Enchantments overnighting permit season runs from May 15th to October 31st, however the trail is frequently covered in snow both early and late in the season. To be on the safe side, plan your hike for mid-July to late-September. For Larches, some time during the first two weeks of October is generally your best bet. Regardless of when you hike, check both trip reports and weather forecasts before getting started.
What Direction Should You Hike In
You can thru-hike The Enchantments in either direction, but I would suggest starting from the Colchuck Lake Trailhead and ending at the Snow Lake Trail Head. That is the direction that Quin and I hiked in, and that’s the direction that this guide assumes.
Starting at the Colchuck Trailhead allows you to get almost all the elevation gain over with in the first 6.5 miles or so. And a lot of that is during the approximately 1-mile climb up Aasgard Pass. Personally, I will always choose short and really steep over long and still pretty steep.
Moreover, the Snow Lake Trailhead is located almost 2,000 feet below the Colchuck Trial Head. So if you start at the Snow Lake Trailhead, not only will you be traveling uphill for nearly 10 miles, you will be adding 2,000 feet of elevation gain to your hike.
Transportation To The Trailheads
Drive Two Cars: The easiest way to thru-hike the enchantments is to leave one car at the Snow Lake Trailhead and a second car at the Stuart/Colchuck Lake Trailhead. As far as car shuttles go, this one is pretty easy. The trailheads are only 8 miles apart from each other, and you will pass right by the Snow Lake Trailhead on your way to the Stuart/Colchuck Lake Trailhead.
Use A Professional Shuttle Company: If you don’t have access to two cars, you can theoretically use one of the local shuttle systems. Of course, we hiked The Enchantments in October of 2020 (year of Covid-19…or at least the first year…), so the shuttles weren’t running. Loop Connector and Leavenworth Shuttle & Taxi are two local options.
Hitch A Ride: Hitchhiking is always an option, but it comes with risks. Other than the cliche horror flick safety concerns, you have to worry about being able to find a ride at the end of your hike. Colchuck Lake is a popular hike, and during the day, you’ll likely see some people driving up Icicle Creek Road. The thing is, you probably won’t finish your hike until the evening, and not many people drive up to a trailhead at night.
Pro Tip: Budget half an hour for the trip between Snow Lake Trailhead and Stuart/Colchuck Lake Trailhead. It may only be 8 miles, but once you turn off Icicle Creek Road, it’s a bumpy ride on a classic PNW forestry road.
What To Pack For The Enchantments
On the day we hiked The Enchantments, the temperature ranged from about 40° F to 70°. Even though we had nearly perfect weather, I still used almost all my layers at one point or another. The weather can change quickly and dramatically in The Enchantments, and it’s essential to be prepared for anything Mother Nature feels like throwing your way.
Day Pack: Ospreys Sirrus 36L Backpack is my favorite day pack. It’s not the lightest pack I own, but I find that with the support it offers—including padded waist straps—it’s much more comfortable than many ultralight packs. It’s little sister, the Sirrus 24L Backpack, also comes with all the bells and whistles. It’s nice to have the integrated rain cover as well! I also like Patagonia’s 9 Trails Backpack, and that’s what I had for this trip.
Down Jacket: Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hooded Down Jacket is my go-to layer for warmth right now. It has an excellent warmth to weight ratio and packs down to nothing in my bag.
Rain Jacket: Rab Kinetic Plus Hooded Jacket is hands down the best waterproof jacket I’ve owned. It’s the perfect blend of comfort and function.
Breathable Base Layer: When you need temperature regulation and comfort over the long haul, Icebreaker base layers are a great, environmentally friendly option.
Hiking Boots: I always hesitate to recommend hiking shoes because I know that everyone has different preferences, and what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. That being said, I’m on my third pair of Keen Terridoras (in three years), and when my current pair falls apart, I’ll probably get another pair.
Good Hiking Socks: Merino fibers naturally resist odor during extended use while also providing superior breathability and softness. I own a few pairs of these Darn Tough socks and a couple Smartwool socks, and I honestly love them equally.
Ten Essentials: Whether you’re going on a short day hike or camping deep in the backcountry, you should always carry The TEN ESSENTIALS for outdoor adventure with you. They might just save your life!
Headlamp: There are fancier headlamps out there, but I like to keep it simple. The Petzl Actik Core Headlamp is easy to operate, very lightweight, and charging is a breeze with a micro-USB or AAA batteries.
Trekking Polls: With all the elevation gain and loss on The Enchantments, trekking poles are a godsend. I found them particularly nice to have on the decent. When you’re not using them, you’ll hardly even notice that these Trekking Poles are there! Made with an ultralight carbon construction, and featuring a completely collapsible folding design, these poles are a backpacker’s best friend.
Water Filtration System: You definitely do not want to carry all of your water on this hike. Luckily you don’t need to because there are endless sources to refill at. All you need is a good water filter. I brought the Gryle Water Purifier Bottle, and Quin brought the Katadyn BeFree Water Filtration System. Both are all-in-one systems and worked perfectly for our purposes.
Food: I’m not going to tell you what to eat! But we brought a baguette, some cheese, a bag of Sour Patch Kids, a couple food bars, and an apple.
Bug Spray: Mosquitos are notoriously vicious in The Cascades. By the time we hiked The Enchantments in October, it wasn’t an issue. But if you’re hiking in July or August, Bug Spray is a must.
Camera: At some point, you’re going to want to take a photo – even if it’s just on your phone! Given the hike’s difficulty, Quin and I tried to minimize the heavy camera gear we packed. We brought the Sony a7rIII with a 16-35mm f4 lens and the Sony RX100 VI. Check out my COMPLETE CAMERA GEAR GUIDE for a list of the gear we use on our travels!
Pro Tip: Always be aware of the weather. If you are hiking The Enchantments early in the season (basically before mid-July), you may encounter snow and ice at the higher elevations. If that’s the case, you may want to pack micro-spikes or other traction devices. Make sure to check Washington Trails Association or AllTrails for an up to date trail reports.
Pro Tip 2: If you’re looking for more outdoor gear and apparel, check out my Complete Hiking and Camping Gear Guide.
Backcountry.com is also a great resource. Not only do they carry a large variety of widely respected outdoor brands, but their expert Gearheads are also always available to answer specific questions you might have about the right gear for you. Plus, you can get 15% off your entire order by using JESS15 at checkout.
Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace is built on seven core principles that outline the best available minimum impact guidance for enjoying the outdoors responsibly. The principles include:
Plan Ahead and Prepare
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces (aka stay on the trail)
Dispose of Waste Properly (use the provided pit toilets)
Leave What You Find
Minimize Campfire Impacts (There are no campfires permitted in The Enchantments)
Be Considerate of Other Visitors
I encourage you to visit The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics for more detail regarding these priciples, as well as information on how you can protect the beautiful places we all love so much. © 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: www.LNT.org.
Pro Tip: There are well-signed pit toilets strategically placed throughout The Enchantments. Please use them for your solid waste needs! (we’re talking poop here, not garbage). There’s really no excuse not to.
LNT & Mountain Goat: Mountain Goats are attracted to the salt in human urine (which is why you often see them near trails or at campsites). This is also why it’s recommended that you pee on large rock surfaces. Otherwise, the goats may dig up fragile vegetation to get the salt.
In The Enchantments, Mountain Goats have been known to occasionally follow people around. While they are pretty darn cute, they are also wild animals, and can be aggressive. Do not follow, harass, or feed them. If you feel threatened, you can toss rocks at the goats to scare them off. But this should be a last resort.
How To Thru-Hike The Enchantments
I’ve broken the thru-hike down into a few different segments. Approaching the hike in this way will help with time management and expectations. With no further ado, let’s get hiking!
Stuart/Colchuck Lakes Trailhead To Colchuck Lake
Distance: 4.5 miles
Total Distance Hiked: 4.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 2300
Time: 2 hours
We left our van in the Stuart/Colchuck Lake Trailhead parking lot at 5 AM. I filled out the day permit and attached it to my backpack the night before, knowing that I’d be a little more than a half-brained zombie at that ungodly hour. It was pitch black outside, but a dozen or so bobbing headlights milling around let me know that we weren’t alone, despite the early walkup call. I knew the trail would be busy; it was Larch season after all. I was still a little surprised, given the hike’s difficulty and the fact that it was a Tuesday morning. But it’s also 2020, and the days of the week stopped having meaning for most of us months ago.
I was happy to do this portion of the trail in the dark. I’ve done it before, and while the forest is pretty, there aren’t any real views to speak of – so you aren’t missing out on much. The first two miles or so are relatively comfortable with only a slight incline. The second half is more difficult, but it’s a nice warm up for what’s to come. Plus, you can take a much-deserved break when you reach Colchuck Lake!
Pro Tip: Don’t miss the turnoff to Colchuck Lake! After a series of rocky switchbacks, you will reach the trail junction for Stuart and Colchuck Lakes (approximately 2.5 miles in). You want to go left. There is a sign, but it can be easy to miss in the dark. Shortly after turning onto the Colchuck Lake Trail, you will cross a log bridge. The trail heads right after the bridge.
Colchuck Lake To The Start Of Aasgard Pass
Distance: 1.25 miles
Total Distance Hiked: 5.75 miles
Elevation Gain: Relatively flat. The most challenging part of this section is a short boulder field crossing at the lake’s end.
Time: 45 minutes
Colchuck Lake is a popular destination in and of itself, and it’s not difficult to see why. If I hadn’t already been many times, it would have been tough to continue without spending a significant amount of time here. At the very least, I’d suggest taking a short break to admire the views of Aasgard Pass, waiting for you on the other side of Colchuck’s brilliant blue water. You can see the Pass on the right side of Dragontail Peak.
Once you’ve finished admiring the views at Colchuck Lake, follow the trail counter-clockwise until you reach Aasgard Pass. You will need to navigate a boulder field at the far end of the lake. There are cairns, but it’s not always clear where the trail is. It also doesn’t really matter. Just keep moving forward, and eventually, you’ll get dumped back out on the trail.
Distance: 1 mile
Total Distance Hiked: 6.75 miles
Difficulty: Extremely Difficult
Elevation Gain: 2,000 feet
Time: 1.5 hours
You’ve got this! I’ve hiked up Aasgard Pass three times in my life, and each time it was far longer and harder than I remember it being. But the part I want to emphasize here is that I’ve done it three times! Which means that it’s not so hard that I never wanted to do it again. On the contrary, this time around, I was actually pretty excited. This was the first time that I would get to keep going after I reached the top! Spoiler alert: It was more than worth the momentary struggle.
The trail up Aasgard Pass is steep, rocky, and difficult to follow at points. Keep following the rock cairns, and you should be fine. Just make sure that you keep to the left side of the grove of evergreen trees. Otherwise, you head into treacherous territory.
Slow and steady wins the proverbial race up Aasgards Pass. There are multiple false summits, and the Pass is longer than it looks from the base. So take your time, stop for water breaks, enjoy the increasingly stunning views of Colchuck Lake, and take comfort in the knowledge that this is without question the most difficult part of your journey.
The Core Enchantments
Distance: 3 miles
Total Distance Hiked: 9.75 miles
Elevation Loss: 1,000 feet
Time: We spent 3 hours in the Core Enchantment Basin. Given the relatively short distance and easy terrain, you could probably do it in half that time if you really hustled – but why would you want to?
Congratulations! You Made it to The Core Enchantments. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. As the saying goes, it’s all downhill from here. Okay, okay, that’s not technically true. But you could have fooled me.
Quin and I made it to the Pass at 9:30 AM, four and a half hours after saying goodbye to the van. Almost immediately, we were surrounded by sparkling alpine lakes stretching out in every direction across the granite landscape. We hadn’t eaten anything yet, so we took the opportunity to find a nice spot in the sun overlooking Tranquil Lake and feasted on the baguette and cheese we had packed. As it turned out this meal, would be the only substantial meal we ate until we got back to the van almost 14 hours later.
Once we left Tranquil Lake, we made our way past several smaller lakes until we hit the Pass overlooking the Core Enchantment Basin. The view of Prusik Peak looming over Inspiration Lake at this point is one of the best on the entire trail – or anywhere, for that matter. A close second were the views of Prusik Peak from above Perfection Lake.
Pro Tip: Because a large portion of the trail through the Core Enchantments traverses over large slabs of granite, it can be easy to lose the trail. However, numerous cairns mark the way. Try and stick to the path designated by the cairns to avoid created unnecessary and confusing social paths through the landscape.
Descent From Core Enchantments To Snow Lake
Distance: 1.5 miles
Total Distance Hiked: 11.25 miles
Elevation Loss: 1,400 feet
Time: 1 hours
After frolicking our way through the Core Enchantments, Quin and I abruptly found ourselves on the edge of Lake Viviane, gazing down on Snow Lakes in the distance. The lakes seemed impossibly far away, and just like that, the spell was broken. The descent to Snow Lakes isn’t nearly as steep as Aasgard Pass, but it’s still steep, rocky, and uneven.
Pro Tip: When we hiked this section, we passed a man that had tripped and suffered a pretty gnarly looking head injury. The point is, take your time on this decent and try to complete it before the sunsets. I wouldn’t want to do it in the dark, even with a headlamp.
Snow Lake To Nada Lake
Distance: 2 miles
Total Distance Hiked: 13.25 miles
Elevation Loss: 600 feet
Time: 1.25 hour
I think of this section as the beginning of the end. Not so much in an ominous sense, but everything is kind of a blur from here on out. There was only one focus at this point in the hike – getting back to the car. Our cameras had been long since packed away, and covering ground was the main objective. Luckily, that was pretty easy to achieve. The only potential obstacle along this section of the trail is a small dam that you will need to cross as you’re leaving Snow Lakes. In October, there was no water, and it was a nonissue. If you’re hiking earlier in the season, you might need to remove your shoes.
Pro Tip: By the time we hit Nada Lake, the dull aching in my feet, legs, and back that had been slowly creeping in since our descent was swiftly morphing into a sort of living rigor mortis. If it hadn’t been for the two ibuprofen that I washed down with a cool drink of freshly filtered alpine water, the last 6 miles would have been a serious struggle. I guess I’m just saying, make sure your first aid kit is stocked.
The Final Push: Nada Lake To The Snow Lake Trailhead
Distance: 6 miles
Total Distance Hiked: 19.25 miles
Elevation Loss: 3600 feet
Time: 2.5 hours
Remember when I said that Aasgard Pass was “without question the most difficult part of your journey?” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I lied, so much as I neglected to distinguish between different types of difficult. With 2,000 feet of elevation gain in less than a mile and no discernible trail, Aasgard Pass is physically demanding. But it was the last six miles from Nada Lake to the Snow Lakes Parking lot that almost did me in. Maybe it was the knowledge that the best was already behind me, or perhaps it was the fact that every part of my body was aching at this point, but I think there’s a fair argument to be made that this is actually the hardest stretch of The Enchantments.
Don’t get me wrong, the scenery is still pretty – although noticeably less enchanting. Plus, it’s easy to cruise along this portion of the trail at a good clip. If I could do it again, though, I would probably opt to spend even more time in the core zone and risk hiking these last few miles in the dark. I wouldn’t have missed much.
So Is Day Hiking The Enchantments Worth It?
The Enchantments get a lot of hype in Washington. To be honest, I didn’t think there was any way it could live up to a lifetime of built-up expectations. But it did! I’m definitely going to continue to enter the lottery for overnight permits. Given my interest in photography, I would love to shoot some of the alpine lakes in the core during golden hour, but that’s pretty tough to pull off on a day hike. I would absolutely thru-hike The Enchantments in one day again though, just for the experience of it. Even if I didn’t take a single photograph. And there are not many places I can say that about!
Please note that this blog post includes affiliate links from Backcountry.com. If you do choose to purchase something, I may earn a small commission – at no additional cost to you. As always, all ideas and opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.
Questions? Did I miss anything? Leave a comment, and I’ll see you on the trail!
Thank you so much for your support! Happy Adventuring. – jess