Day hiking through the Enchantment Lakes Basin: A local’s guide

Bottom line: Through-hiking the Enchantments in one day will challenge and reward you, but it’s not for everyone.

Why hike the enchantments in a day

The Enchantment Lakes Basin is known throughout the Pacific Northwest as a beautiful wilderness area. This tiny basin in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is a little slice of the Sierras in Washington. Pristine alpine lakes strung together by cold, rushing mountain streams dot a rugged landscape of glacier-polished granite and stunted larch trees. 

This is my neck o’ the woods. I’d like to welcome you and share some tips for getting the most out of your day hike through the Enchantments.

Backcountry camping permits for this stunning locale are restricted by draconian quota limits and only a lucky few applicants are randomly selected each season. The walk-up permit allocation at the Leavenworth Ranger Station was eliminated during Covid, so the only way to get a overnight backcountry permit is through a lottery on recreation.gov — and if you don’t get one long before summer, you can pretty much forget about it.

That leaves day hiking in the Enchantments

Day hiking doesn’t require a quota permit. The permit for day hiking is self-issued at the trailhead.

Even though the through hike is long and involves significant elevation gain, hundreds of people hike through the Enchantment Lakes Basin every nice summer weekend. A ranger once told me that he counted 300 in one day. That was in 2019, before Covid.

“It was a magical and special experience that I’ll cherish forever.”

Hiker from Olympia

The trail 

The Enchantments trail consists of the Stuart Lake Trail, Colchuck Lake Trail and Snow Lakes Trail.

Hiking through the Enchantments core is beautiful and memorable. And it’s tough getting there. For most hikers, this is the hardest day hike they’ve ever done.

Dozens of guidebooks and web sites describe the trail in detail. See the list of resources at the end of this article. 

The enchantment through hike is not a complete loop. There’s an eight mile road section that connects the two endpoints of the trail. Those endpoints are known as the Snow Lakes trailhead and the Stuart Lake trailhead. 

Whichever direction you decide to hike this trail, you will start in low elevation forests for the first few miles. Then you’ll come to a large subalpine lake – Colchuck Lake or Nada Lake — the first of many lakes along this route. 

You’ll hike past large lakes like Snow, Inspiration, Perfection and Lake Viviane. Smaller lakes like Spirit Lake, Lake Olrun and Lake Sigrun. And a string of tiny lakes in the upper core known as the Brisengamen Lakelets. (Older maps might not show all of these names.) 

The waterways connecting these lakes will require you to cross logs, rocks, and occasionally fords. In the early season, sometimes into July, some streams are crossed on snow bridges. 

“What an amazing challenge and wonderful experience.”

Hiker

Decide when to schedule your adventure 

That brings us to the decision about when to do the Enchantments through hike. Each part of the season has its unique qualities.

In may and June, the core and passes will be covered in snow and the lakes will be frozen. By July, the trail is a mix of snow and bare rock, with the lakes at various stages of melting out. Mosquitoes are legion.

In August, the trail is bare and the weather is most reliably clear. It can get smoky.

September brings less stable weather, so you could experience mist, rain and even occasional light snow — and less crowded trails.

The larch trees turn gold in October and it’s always a guessing game as to which week will provide the most glorious autumn colors before blustery weather blows the golden needles to the ground. 

“Every step was worth it!”

Hiker from Eugene

Get in shape for the hike  

Since the best season for the Enchantments is later in the summer, you’ll have time to get fit for a long day hike. Start at the gym in the winter. Get on your bike as spring emerges. Start hiking low-elevation trails while you wait for the high country to melt out. Work your way up to the best conditioning hikes for the Enchantments.

Make plans

Finalize plans with your friends. Who’s driving? Who’s bringing team gear, like first aid or an InReach? Will you do training hikes together?

In the week ahead of your hike, keep an eye on the Enchantments weather forecast. If you have the flexibility, try to do the hike in clear weather. The scenery is totally worth the wait.

Decide which direction to hike 

Clockwise or counter-clockwise? The most popular direction to hike through the Enchantments is counter-clockwise, starting at Stuart Lake trailhead with Colchuck Lake as your first lake and Aasgard Pass as your ascent route.

There are a few good reasons to do it this way, the most compelling of which is the elevation gain: You end lower than you started and it takes less time.

Arrange transportation or a car drop 

You can choose from the two-car method, shuttle method, friend drop-off method, thumbing method, or walking the eight miles back to get your car at the end. If you’re planning to use an Enchantments shuttle, make arrangements for that online well in advance.

Pack the right gear 

What you carry on a typical day hike might not be what you need on this hike. It could be too much, or (most likely) not enough.

You’ll need the ten essentials plus some extras for this long day hike.

“It’s an amazing and breathtaking hike, for sure.”

Godwin

It’s go time 

A day or two ahead, start hydrating. Pack your pack and gather your food. Confirm with your friends.

Enchantment through hikes start at oh-dark-thirty, so get to bed early. Or stay overnight in Leavenworth or Icicle Creek. There are plenty of hotel rooms and short-term rentals in town and in Wenatchee 30 minutes east.

Get your trailhead parking pass. You can buy it at a ranger station, some retailers, the trailhead, or print one online. (If you’re planning to camp in the Enchantments, you must have a camping permit, which comes with a parking pass.) 

Get to the trailhead early. The parking situation is much talked-about in town and online. Weekends are the toughest times to park at the Stuart or Snow Lakes trailheads.

Stock your second car with a cooler and some salty snacks for the ride back to town.

On the trail

It takes about 15-18 hours to hike through the Enchantments. You’ll probably have plenty of daylight in the summer, so you do not need to run or even hurry. Set a steady pace that everyone in your group can sustain. Remember your manners and trail etiquette.

It can get hot. Hydrate. Swim to cool off. 

Goats can interrupt your journey. They live here, it’s their home you’re visiting. They can be sooooo cute. And they can be dangerous if threatened. Give them space.

You’re unlikely to encounter a bear, but it’s possible, particularly in the lower elevation stretches of trail. Bear spray is optional. I’ve never heard of anyone using it there.

Emergencies happen. Elevation can make people suddenly sick. Tired hikers are prone to injury. When it happens to you, or someone you find on the trail, it takes absolute priority. Take charge. Protect your own safety and the safety of others. Tend to the injured or sick person, even if they’re not in your party. Don’t let bystanders take unnecessary risks.

An emergency might mean staying overnight. Never leave a distressed hiker unless it is to go for help. Once the patient is on their way to definitive care, you can resume your hike — with a story to tell.

Remember that cooler you left in car 2? Or the beer and bratwurst you’ll have in Leavenworth? (The thought might keep you motivated through the last few miles of your through hike.) Celebrate your successful adventure!

Congratulations!

“What an amazing day it turned out to be. Certainly the through hike is not a hike. Give it the fullest respect.”

Thru hiker

Where to get more detailed information and current trail conditions for your Enchantments through hike: 

Enchantments Hiking & Backpacking group on Facebook

Earthtrekkers.com 

USFS

WashingtonTrails.org domain is for sale.

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