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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

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When is the best time of year to day hike through the Enchantments?

Bottom line: July and August are the most popular times, for good reason. The trail conditions and weather are most favorable then.

First off, people through-hike the Enchantments year-round, including on skis in January.

For most hikers, who are looking for a summer hiking experience, the best time to go is when the snow has melted off the trails but before the weather turns sour in the fall.

Starting around July 4 of a typical season, the trail is mostly snow-free and the lakes have melted out. The weather in the Pacific Northwest famously turns nice for 60 days starting July 5. Usually.

The summer days are longer so you can start earlier in the morning and have more daylight to finish your hike.

Late August brings occasional thunder storms. The wide-open, exposed Core is no place to be in a lightning storm. Those storms, unfortunately, bring wildfires to the region. And that means forest fire smoke.

By Labor Day (first weekend in September), the blue skies begin to intermittently turn gray. Rains return, lightly at first. Dry weather is much less reliable. Snow is possible.

As of the beginning of October, it’s officially the season of potential snowfall in the Core. Serious snowfall can happen earlier. Regardless, it’s something that can make misery of a nice trip if you’re not prepared.

I’ve hiked the snow-covered Core and it’s a beautiful, unique landscape. The lakes are partially or completely covered in ice. The peaks hold large snow fields. The trail is a deep rut in the snow.

Snow also adds time, complexity and risk to the journey. You’ll want to have the right hiking shoes and be skilled and equipped for travel over snow and ice.

But I know people who have made the trip on backcountry skis and said it was unforgettable.

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How bad really are the mosquitoes in the Enchantment Lakes Basin?

Bottom line: Mosquitoes begin to bug thru hikers as the lake ice melts away, typically in June, and continue through August. They’re worst at lower elevations, such as Colchuck, Nada, and Snow Lakes.

If you’re day hiking through the Enchantments, you’ll want to be prepared for the bugs. Mosquitoes and black flies are the most pesky insects in the Enchantments.

Mosquito season in the Enchantments begins when open water is available for them to breed. Lakes begin to melt out in June most years.

By late August, the mosquito population typically has started to wane, especially at high elevations in the Core. And by mid September the mosquitoes are gone for the winter. I assume they move to Florida, IDK.

For current reports of bugs in the Enchantments, follow an online group like Enchantments Hiking & Backpacking on Facebook.

Insect repellant is one of my essentials to pack on the thru hike. But I gave up DEET years ago because of its potentially harmful health effects. Plus it’s hard on my outdoor gear. Oh, and the smell.

Instead, I use picaridin-based repellants to keep mosquitoes off me while hiking. Natrapel wipes are my favorite convenient method of applying repellant. I also have a small spray dispenser of liquid Sawyer Premium, which has 20% picaridin.

In heavy mosquito season, or when backpacking in summer, I also spray my clothes with permethrin. Sawyer sells a spray bottle big enough to treat a couple of sets of outdoor wear.

Permethrin is supposed to survive several trips through the washing machine before you have to reapply it. Personally, I can’t keep track of washes, so I reapply lightly to clean clothes for each trip.

Permethrin goes on your clothes and gear, not your skin. Be sure you’re using a permethrin product intended to be applied to fabrics you wear. Some permethrin sprays are only for use with farm animals or as household insecticides, so they contain petroleum products.

If you’re averse to chemicals, feel free to try any of the all-natural products out there. In that case (or in any case) take along an applicator of After Bite, Itch Away or similar reliever.

Some hikers completely avoid insect repellants and instead use mosquito net clothing items. Head nets are most popular. They can be a bit claustrophobic on a hot day, but they work 99% to prevent bites.

A friend and I tried battery-powered repellants that emit a high-pitched ultrasonic sound — and she discovered that they attracted bees. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t work for you.

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How’s the smoke in the Enchantment Lakes Basin?

Bottom line: Several online resources help you make an educated guess about wildfire smoke and air quality for your through hike of the Enchantments.

First off, hiking in unhealthy smoke is never a good idea. Sometimes, we just have to save it for another day. If you decide to go anyway during fire season, see the last section of this post, about being prepared for smoke.

A little lingering smoke creates amazing sunrise and sunset colors, and gives your Enchantments photos a mysterious foggy look.

Note: The map shown above is a snapshot and does not represent current conditions. Read on to find a link to that map and more.

Here are some online resources for researching Northwest smoke and air quality levels for your through hike of the Enchantments.

Smoke and air quality index sites

AirNow (US EPA). Map of air quality monitors. (Leavenworth, the closest, is Zip Code 98826.)

AirFire (USFS). Maps of 24-72 hour smoke forecasts. Scroll to “Northwest,” then in the “Today” column, click “MAP” for any of the available models. It can be useful once you learn your way around.

Web cams

Leavenworth downtown webcams provide a visual clue. This camera at the Icicle Creek Chalet is the closest camera I’ve found to the Enchantments. The golf course camera is nearby. Mountain Home Lodge is east of the Enchantments at about 2000 feet elevation.

Facebook groups include posts of trip reports and photos by hikers who have recently through-hiked the Enchantments. The best of these in my opinion is the “Enchantments Hiking and Backpacking” group.

How to prepare for smoke while on a day hike in the Enchantments

If you’ve determined that the smoke levels are OK, then you should be ready for sudden changes in smoke in the Enchantments.

The best preparation for smoke is to carry one N-95 face mask per person. The kind with a ventilator valve are best because you don’t have to rebreathe your exhaled air. That makes a mask more comfortable to wear when exerting, which means you’re likely to keep your mask on until you’re done exercising or the smoke clears up. Keep masks handy and keep them dry.

A bandana or other cloth mask is not nearly as effective against smoke as an N-95 mask. The N-95 mask (or P-100) filters a lot of the nasty chemicals that make smoke so unhealthy and dangerous to breathe.

A disposable mask can’t make it totally safe to exercise in smoke. If you or someone in your party starts showing symptoms, stop and reassess your plans. Symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath, headache, chest pain and fast pulse, among others.

Hikers with respiratory concerns, such as asthma, should definitely carry their medications and let companions know of the condition before the hike.

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What is the best footwear for through-hiking the Enchantments?

Bottom line: Wear what’s comfortable for you. Most hikers wear trail running shoes.

For starters, I know someone who did the whole hike barefooted. But I recommend shoes or boots, depending on when you thru-hike the Enchantment Basin.

I sport the usual trail runners (Hoka Mafates replaced La Sportiva Bushidos for me in the season of this writing) and I carry Crocs.

Trail runners are versatile so they work well from Aasgard Pass to Snow Creek. They drain well, in case I step in water. And they’re lightweight.

With well ventilated trail shoes, you can just walk through water crossings and hike wet. It’s only one day. You’ll live.

Water shoes are my own choice. But changing shoes twice per crossing is time consuming. (Bring a little towel.)

What about sandals? The Core is largely hikeable in sturdy sandals, Chacos or Tevas, if that’s your thing. I wouldn’t want to be in sandals trying to descend either end of the Enchantments.

Do you need boots? Before the snow cover has melted off the trail, stiff waterproof boots are nice. They are warmer and provide better traction on sloped snow.

Speaking of snow, there are places where you wouldn’t want to go for an uncontrolled slide. (And any slide on snow in nylon clothes is uncontrolled.) Micro spikes are therefore advisable in the spring, until the snow has mostly disappeared from the route.

What about climbing shoes? You’re probably asking because you’ve heard Aasgard Pass is a real “climb,” or you actually plan to do some climbing. Aasgard Pass isn’t a technical climb, so climbing shoes are not required. As for making a side climb, you just won’t have a lot of time. It’s rare to carry gear up to the core in your pack, climb, then hike the whole way out in one day, but people do it.

Whatever you choose, they should be well broken in, not brand-new. Hike at least 20 cumulative miles in new footwear before takling a long day like the Enchantments.

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Where can we swim on our Enchantments hike?

Bottom line: Most thru hikers in the Enchantments swim at the lower elevation lakes, like Viviane, Snow or Nada Lakes.

Given the best time of year to day hike through the Enchantment Lakes Basin, it can be hot.

Reason enough to take a quick break and jump in a chilly mountain lake. Plan on 20-30 extra minutes to find the right spot, swim, dry off and get your clothes back on.

The lakes in the basin are cold. It doesn’t take long to cool down! But beware the risks of staying in the water too long. Hypothermia can lead to drowning.

Upper Snow Lake and Nada Lake will be the warmest lakes, relatively. The south shore of Upper Snow is mostly beach. The south end of Nada is smooth granite.

Inspiration Lake has a big flat square granite slab on the shore, near where the trail to the (non-existent in 2022) toilet would be. Great for afternoon sunbathing, if you have time.

Colchuck is a swimming favorite but you’ll probably be there early in the morning, anxious to get started up Aasgard Pass before it gets hot out.

Some kind of water shoes are good to have for getting in and out of the lakes. Crocs or sandals are the thru hiker favorites.

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What about transportation for our Enchantment Lakes thru hike?

Bottom line: There are ways to avoid an eight-mile road hike between the Snow Lakes and Stuart Lake trailheads after a long day on the trail. Bum a ride, hire a ride, take your own car(s) or even a bike. Here are the details.

You need to manage an incomplete loop trail when through hiking the Enchantments.

The absolute best option is to have a friend or family member drop you off in the wee hours and pick you up that night with a cooler full of ice-cold refreshments and salty snacks. That’s love!

Having a ride means you don’t need to hassle with parking a second car, or even a first car. You can just hop out and hop on the trail. And you don’t have to worry about trailhead break-ins or vandalism, which, sadly, happens sometimes.

Don’t have a willing friend or relative in the valley? Hire a ride! When you’re done with your hike, the price will seem small. Here are some options. (I gain nothing by linking to these vendors.)

Leavenworth Shuttle & Taxi LLC operates regular runs between trailheads in the morning. Phone (509) 548-7433. Book online. They pick you up at the Snow Lakes trailhead and drop you at the Stuart Lake trailhead. As of this writing, they have a 2-person minimum and a $30 per hiker fee.

Loop Connector Shuttle operates on a schedule between trailheads in the mornings on weekends. As of this writing the cost is $24 per hiker. They also run on weekdays if your party is 6 or more (or pay the equivalent). Book online. No phone.

Uber drivers will pick you up almost anywhere, including your hotel or a parking lot in town — and take you wherever, including the trailheads. Download the app, register, connect a payment method and go. It’s not the cheapest way, but it operates at your convenience.

Taxi. Yep, Leavy has a taxi service and they serve the trailheads. 509-548-7433.

Private transportation: Take two cars. Drop one at the far-end trailhead (usually Snow Lakes) and the proceed to the starting trailhead (usually Stuart Lake) to begin hiking.

See the paragraph below about parking passes. and note that the round-trip drive from the Snow Lakes trailhead to Stuart Lakes trailhead and back takes about an hour.

Mixed wheels: Bike back. Drop off an old mountain bike at the far-end trailhead and drive back to the starting trailhead to begin hiking.

Mixed transportation: Hitchhike to your car at the end of your hike. Take just one car and park it at your starting trailhead. The reason this isn’t so popular is that there’s not a lot of traffic going up the potholed dirt road after dark, when a lot of thru hikers tend to finish hiking. All the more reason for an empathetic and hopefully friendly driver to swing you a ride.

See the next paragraph about parking passes. The hitching option is for those who are comfortable with the — let’s say, adventure? — of thumbing a ride on a lonely forest road in the dark.

Parking passes required at Snow Lakes trailhead and Stuart Lake/Colchuck Lake trailhead: Yes, even though you’re just day hiking, you need to display a pass to park a car at an Enchantments trailhead. Hang the pass in the window of each parked car.

Unlike overnight permits, the self-issued day-hiking permit does not include a parking pass.

So you’ll need a valid pass, such as an America the Beautiful, Northwest Forest Pass, NW Forest Day Pass, or equivalent. You can get these online, at a ranger station, at some merchants, or at the trailhead (bring cash). See the web sites for the deets. The WA Discover Pass is not valid there.

Pay attention to signage in the parking lots pertaining to (a) spaces reserved for overnight permit holders; and (b) parking along the shoulder if the lot is full.

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Photo: Okanogan-Wenatchee NF.

What should we carry in our packs on our day hike through the Enchantments?

Bottom line: Carry the ten essentials plus a few nice-to-have items. Be prepared to spend the night out in the wilderness in case of an emergency or if you simply don’t get out of the Core by dark.

Hikers through-hike the Enchantment Lakes with everything from full backpacks (as I’ve done a couple of times) to running vests holding only water and an InReach.

The right gear selection is ultimately up to you, but here are some suggestions.

First off, make sure you have the “Ten Essentials.” You’ll find various takes on what they are, but the lists are essentially the same. The Mountaineers has a good 2-page PDF illustrating the ten: Navigation, light, sun protection, first aid, a knife, matches, emergency shelter, food, water, and clothes.

You don’t need to carry a tent and sleeping bag unless you want to. But do make sure each person has something, like a Mylar bivy bag and a jacket, to keep from getting hypothermia in case you’re stuck in the basin until dawn. An emergency overnight needn’t be dramatic. You’re not camping, maybe not even sleeping; you’re just staying alive until daybreak so you can finish your hike.

Don’t underestimate the sun. High elevation sun is stronger than it feels because there’s less atmosphere to filter the UV rays. The snow and granite act as reflectors, doubling the strength of the sun’s effects on you — from heat to sunburn to dehydration. Even when it’s cloudy, protect yourself from the sun. Dark sunglasses, a shade hat and sunscreen are all important to use. Put sunscreen on, including under your clothes, in the morning before you leave for the trailhead.

Your first aid kit can be as large or small as your imagination. You can imagine the possible injuries on a hurried hike like this. One slip can make you stop to treat anything from abrasions to a broken ankle to head trauma. If you have old injuries or conditions that could flare up, be prepared to treat them. Reconsider carrying heavy medical supplies that no one in the group is trained to use.

Add to that list of ten essentials: insect repellent (I’d call picaridin an essential on this hike), water purification, a satellite communicator, toilet necessaries, prescriptions you may need en route, trekking poles, and a few bucks in cash.

If you plan to cross fords barefoot or switch from your hiking footwear into water shoes like Crocs, then add a small towel to your list. It’ll speed up your crossings. I use those blue backpacker’s towels for this. If you overheat, they double as a wet bandana to cool your neck.

Toss in anything else you think you might need on your adventure or in an emergency, but try to keep it light.

Finally, if you have young people in your group, be totally prepared to deal with their possible injuries, fatigue or disillusionment. There’s not really time for a meltdown.

Your pack weight will probably be somewhere between 6 and 16 pounds plus water.

Collage illustrations by Claire Giordano for the Mountaineers.

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How bad are the goats in the Enchantment Lakes?

Bottom line: Wild mountain goats live here in large numbers and they’re very accustomed to people. But they rarely threaten people unless threatened themselves.

The goats in the Enchantments are famous. Or infamous? You’ll probably come home from your Enchantments through hike with some great photos of goats and their kids that look like perfect stuffed animals. My photo here was taken in 2022 near the top of Aasgard Pass.

As fluffy and cute as goats can be, adults are solid muscle, weighing as much as 300 pounds. They have sharp pointy horns and they know how to use them. And they’re fast on their feet.

Remember: This is their home. They live here, you’re just visiting. Be respectful.

If you encounter a goat — or a whole family — first of all, give them space. Don’t make any threatening moves. Stay clear of the kids, lest you make the mom defensive.

Goats know how to share the terrain. Yes, on a narrow trail, you might have to backtrack some distance to let the goats pass you safely. You might even have to take a detour or wait them out.

In open terrain, you can easily negotiate a passing with goats. Make eye contact with the adults and face toward them as they or you calmly pass. Stand still if they’re walking by. Walk by them only if they’re standing still and when you can pass without getting close.

That doesn’t mean they’re harmless. Goats have killed hikers (although not in the Enchantments so far).

The story about Robert Boardman, a hiker who was gored to death, took place in 2010 in Olympic National Park, not in the Cascades. That particular goat was known for aggressive behavior. The Park Service relocated the goat to the Enchantments. (Just kidding, they killed it.)

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Will we need bear spray on our Enchantments thru hike?

Bottom line: Not likely. You’re much more likely to encounter goats than bears.

Bears are rarely noticed by hikers in the Enchantment Lakes. The most common mammal sightings are goats, of which there are plenty.

The bears that are spotted along the 18 mile trail are mostly seen in the lower elevations — below Snow Lakes or below Colchuck Lake. They can wander anywhere, of course, but it’s rare to see bear signs in the barren, high-elevation Core where food sources are scarce.

Black bears are the common ursid inhabitants in this region. There are no reports of grizzly bears (nor polar bears). Black bears are shy unless threatened. Give them space and they’ll generally move away.

Take the usual bear precautions. And do not feed the bears. As the saying goes, “a fed bear is a dead bear.”

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Do we need a Garmin InReach or Spot when we thru-hike the Enchantments ?

Bottom line: Yes, a satellite communicator or PLB of some kind is a great idea for your safety while day-hiking through the Enchantment Lakes, because there is virtually no cell service there.

You should expect to lose cell phone connection on your way out Icicle Road as you approach the Snow Lakes trailhead, and not find any connectivity again until you are headed back to Leavenworth at the end of your day hike through the Enchantments

Helicopter hovering over the Enchantment Lakes Basin. PC: Joshua C.

Except for a few lucky spots for certain mobile carriers, there will be no cell coverage in the Enchantments anywhere along the trail. Considering that fact, there is practically zero chance of getting cell reception at the place where you become injured.

That means, to be safe and self-reliant, you would need to have a satellite communicator, personal locator beacon (PLB) or other means of calling for help. 

The Garmin InReach and Spot devices are the most popular. There also are several alternatives to the InReach. Look through the options and consider device cost, sign up fees, and monthly or annual plan costs.

Also take some time to research how these devices work when you press the SOS button — so you’ll know what to do and what to expect in case of a real emergency. 

And “real emergency” is the key phrase here, as in, life threatening. (Do not test the SOS button!) The SOS button will trigger a resource-intensive and possibly risky rescue effort on your behalf. SAR volunteers, Sheriff’s Departments and even the military are called out for SOS’s. Don’t use the big red button just because you’re exhausted or it’s getting dark. Poor planning, by itself, isn’t an emergency.

Generally speaking, mountain rescues take several hours to overnight. Be prepared. 

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What time should we start our Enchantments through hike?

Bottom line: Be at the Snow Lakes trailhead at 4:00 am to drop a car and start up the Colchuck Lake trail by 5:00.

The most popular season of year to day hike through the Enchantments is in July and August. That means you’ll have daylight by around 5:00 a.m. and the sunset will linger until almost 9:00 p.m. That gives you enough daylight for the typical time it takes to day hike the Enchantments.

The beginning and ending 4 miles of the trail are not particularly exciting or spectacular. Or difficult. Lots of parties intend to start hiking at 4:00 am by headlamp.

Whether they get feet on the trail by 4:00 depends largely on how well they anticipated the time needed for car shuttles and parking. 

For low clearance vehicles, the drive from the Snow Lakes trailhead to the Stewart Lake trailhead takes about 30 minutes. 

If you’re starting your trip at the Snow Lakes trailhead and dropping a car at the Stewart Lake trailhead, you’ll have an hour of driving back and forth just to stash the second vehicle before you start hiking.

If you’re staying overnight in the town of Leavenworth before your hike, it’s fairly easy to get an early start. On the other hand, if you or some of your friends are driving over from the Puget Sound region that morning, they need to also allow for at least two hours of driving over Stevens Pass to the Icicle Road turnoff in Leavenworth.

If you’re using one of the local hiker shuttle services, your start time may be restricted by their schedules. If you’re having a local friend drop you off at the trailhead, be sure they’re a reliable early riser!

Should you start early or end late? Many parties do both. If you have your choice, do the section between Colchuck Lake and the Stuart Lake trailhead by daylight. It’s the prettier of the two ends.

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How long does it take to day hike through the Enchantments? 

Bottom line: About 14 hours. Typical hiking times range from 18 hours to as little as 4 hours.

Everyone hikes at their own pace. To finish this 18 mile trail by daylight requires at least very brisk walking with minimal stops. 

People who finish their Enchantments through hike in 4 or 5 hours do it by trail running — really running — almost the entire distance. Together with the 4400 foot elevation gain, that’s a real workout.

Determined hikers finish the trail in about 12 hours. For most of the summer months, that leaves plenty of daylight at each end of the hike. 

The time calculation also depends on what time of the season you hike through the Enchantment Basin. Don’t underestimate how snowpack and runoff will impact your speed early in the summer. And to beat the midsummer heat, start very early.

Allow time for stops. It’s a shame to hike through all of that beautiful country and not pause to appreciate it. You’ll need to stop to replenish your water supply, and take pictures, at least. And you might meet goats on the trail.

Try to avoid being on Aasgard Pass or the Snow Creek Wall routes in the dark. Snow Creek is the route between Lake Viviane and Upper Snow Lake, sometimes called the Sylvester High Route. These are routes, not trails, and are difficult (or even dangerous) by headlamp.

Speaking of headlamps, be sure you have one per person and spare batteries in your packs!

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Do we need a permit to hike through the Enchantment Lakes Basin in one day?

Bottom line: For a day hike in the Enchantments, you need a self-issued permit, which is available at the trailhead.

The whole answer is yes and no. You’ve probably heard of the hellacious process of trying to get an overnight camping permit in the Enchantments Core. Tens of thousands of people apply every year, and only a quota of few people per day are awarded the prized Core camping permits. 

For day hiking through the Enchantments, though, you need a different kind of permit. And it’s much easier to obtain. Day permits are self issued at the trailhead and free with no quotas.

At each trailhead – Snow Lakes and Stewart Lake – stop at the bulletin board and look for a box with blank permits in it. Take one permit form per party.

Fill out both parts of the permit, then tear along the perforation. Tie the upper part of the permit to your party leader’s pack or other exterior location where a ranger is able to see it. Place the bottom part of the permit in the collection box provided at the bulletin board before you start your hike. 

If you expect that your party will split up, go ahead and complete two permits now.

There is no need to do anything with your permit when you finish your hike. Keep your permit tag as a souvenir!

Note: Your day hiking permit does not include a trailhead parking pass.

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What’s the weather forecast for my Enchantments through hike?

Bottom line: This click-map point forecast from the NOAA web site is your best weather resource for a day hike in the Enchantments.

Everyone wants a bluebird day to do their thru hike in the Enchantment Lakes Basin. The mountain scenery is beautiful in Washington’s clear summer weather. 

After making all the plans, booking the shuttle, getting fit, and getting your friends psyched, do you really want to cancel your hike due to rain? Maybe. Here are some things to consider about Enchantments weather.

First, even with a clear forecast, the Cascade Mountains make their own weather. The forecast might predict sunshine, but you find yourself in a cloud at 7,000 feet unable to see 100 feet in front of you from under the hood of your rain shell.

The Enchantments are several thousand feet higher than the town of Leavenworth Washington. So the temperature in the Enchantments naturally will be cooler than the forecast for the nearest town.

How much cooler? About 3°C or 5°F per thousand feet, generally speaking. If it’s 80°F in Leavenworth (1200 feet), it’s likely to be closer to 67°F at Isolation Lake (7700 feet).

You can eliminate some of the guesswork by retrieving a weather forecast for the Enchantments Core. The NOAA website at weather.gov allows you to make a user defined area forecast. 

You can pinpoint a lake or trail and get an accurate forecast for that location. Here’s an example for the top of Aasgard Pass:

Click on the image to open the forecast

Another, more detailed forecast is from Mountain Weather.

Regardless of the forecast for your chosen day, be prepared for a sudden change in weather. It can get cooler and wetter. Or miserably hot. It can even snow unexpectedly.

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How should we train for our Enchantments through hike?

Bottom line: Hikes longer than 15 miles and/or more than 4000 feet of elevation gain are good training hikes for through-hiking the Enchantment Basin.

Training for an Enchantments thru hike is a great excuse to explore some of the region’s more challenging day hikes. Look for trails that will test your endurance and stamina. 

What regional hikes are good training hikes for an enchantment through hike ?

If you live in the Puget sound region, you have many great options to choose from close to home. Any of these is a good simulation of day hiking through the Enchantments:

Mount Si, of course, is a good training hike for any alpine adventure. It’s not long but it gains elevation similar to Aasgard Pass. Make it a loop and take in Mount Tenerife as well.

Mailbox Peak is a perennial favorite with local hikers. There’s actually a mailbox at the top, and it’s a serious workout to check the mail!

If you live in the South Sound region, head for Mount Rainier National Park. Camp Muir, Spray Park or Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground are beautiful hikes, and there are many other options once you are in the park. 

“We trained for it but nothing could really prepare you for the variety of climbing and hiking you do in this trek.” –Kate, thru hiker 2022.

It’s hard to find a training hike that will prepare you for ascending via the Snow Lakes route, which gains 6000 feet by the time you start down Aasgard Pass. When I went up that way in 2019, it felt like I’d never reach the high point. Look to Washington’s volcanoes for good training options.

Be sure you’re training muscles for the uphill and the downhill. Descending from Lake Viviane to Snow Lakes is arduous if you’re not fit for it.

How can you know trails are comparable? I use a “units” method of calculating equivalency between trails. Each mile is one unit, and each 1,000 feet of elevation gain is one unit. I add them together and I have the number of units for that trail. The Enchantments (starting at Stuart Lake trailhead) is about 18 miles and 4,400 feet of gain. That’s 22.4 units.

By comparison, Mailbox Peak is 8 miles and 4,000 feet, which is 12 units.

I don’t count downhill elevation as units, only the miles — but I add time for long steep descents.

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PCT Section H, Bridge of the Gods to White Pass

When I ask PCT hitch-hikers about the most scenic part of the PCT so far, they often say it was the Goat Rocks Wilderness of Washington in section H.

And the most memorable? The Knife Edge gets compared to lofty spectacles like Forester Pass in the Sierras.

Goat Rocks is indeed the highlight of section H. It comes just a day before exiting the section at White Pass.

If you’re not hiking the full section, you can enter via Walupt Lake and pick up the PCT at Sheep Lake. The best thing about Sheep Lake is the marketing. It does have some nice tent sites, good swimming and ample July wildflowers.

The PCT straddles a divide between the Goat Rocks Wilderness and the Yakama Indian Reservation, which features expansive vistas of untrammeled wilderness. It even dips into the Yakama Nation for a mile between Sheep Lake and Cispus Pass.

North of Cispus River are a couple of dry campsites with nice views. One thru hiker told me he stayed in one of them the previous night and it was the best tent spot of the entire trail for him.

It’s worth taking an extra day to explore west of the PCT in the Goat Rocks Wilderness. Snowgrass Flats is a lovely, easy stretch of trail through alpine meadows. Goat Lake sits in a rugged basin with numerous campsites (and even more numerous weekend campers).

Side trip opportunities begin with trail 97, which connects to Lily Basin trail 86. The scenery north along trail 86 becomes increasingly jaw-dropping as you approach Goat Lake with its tall waterfall spilling into alpine meadowland. The “no camping” imperative doesn’t restrict your options if you camp on trail and there are several sites around the 86-96-97 junctions.

Unfortunately there’s not an easy way to reconnect with the PCT once you detour to Goat Lake. The best way back to trail is to backtrack via trail 96.

You’ll be glad you didn’t miss this section of the PCT as it approaches the base of Old Snowy Mountain. A cluster of tent sites are on trail at 7000 feet just south of the mountain with beautiful views, gusty exposures, and water within 1/4 mile. Mount Adams is visible from half the sites, and Mt. Rainier is visible from the others. There might be a site hidden in the shrubs with views of both.

Ask SOBOs about the blue vs red trail alternatives. The glacier is very small these days, but persistent snow from year to year could influence your decision to cross it. If you’re scrambling Old Snowy, you need the alternate route anyway.

Old Snowy is worth scrambling on a clear day. See photo. Nuf said.

Old Snowy Mountain summit

There are a couple of airy tent sites on the trail to Old Snowy, including one just below the summit block.

The Knife Edge has quite a reputation. Whether or not you have issues with balance or vertigo, take your time and watch your step. The scenery from up here is amazing, and the last grand views of section H before you drop into trees and ski resort infrastructure toward highway 12, Kracker Barrel and the Packwood shuttle.

PCT Section J, Stevens Pass to Snoqualmie Pass

My hiking partner “Big Boots” and I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail about 65-70 miles from Stevens Pass on US 2 to Snoqualmie Pass on I-90 in Washington.

I had heard from PCT thru hikers that this was one of the best sections of the Mexico-Canada long trail. We were not at all disappointed.

The wildflower hike from Stevens Pass south on day 1 was our first treat, along with a nice campsite at Deception Lakes.

Cathedral Pass

As we ascended to our day 2 camp at Cathedral Pass, the views kept getting better.

Camping at Cathedral Pass offers 360 degree views including the peaks of the Enchantments

The “dangerous creek crossing” of the Cle Elum River was low enough at 11:00 am to rock-hop the first channels and wade the final one in knee-deep fast water. On the morning of day 3 we had excellent views of Mt. Daniel and Mt. Hinman from the trail near the turnoff for Peggy’s Pond.

It was a heat wave and this was the hottest day. We swam in the Waptus River and skipped Escondido Pass. Hikers were bailing out left and right because of the heat (and heat exhaustion). We heard of four in one day, two of whom had to be helped back to the road.

We found the campsite on Waptus Pass for night 3. We hiked on day 4 past Pete Lake, Lanham Meadows, Delate Creek falls and footbridge, to camp at Spectacle Lake.

Spectacle Lake

Spectacle Lake camp with a red sunset due to weather and wildfire haze moving in

Is it spectacular? Hiking uphill through the burn on a hot day certainly wasn’t. Delate Falls were nice. Spectacle Lake has a great marketing name that attracts crowds, who can be there in a day from the Pete Lake trailhead.

The lake is different, not the usual alpine lake ringed with trees and brush. It’s a big lake, bifurcated by a peninsula where most people camp.

Spectacle Lake is very popular, full on weekends, and nice to swim in. Our one night of rain happened there. We camped 2 nights on the tip of the peninsula, explored the lakeshore and relaxed.

Day 6 we hiked across Chikamin Peak to Ridge Lake and Gravel Lake. Ridge Lake is nice swimming.

Kendall Katwalk

Kendall Katwalk

Day 7 we hiked the horse-friendly, hiker-endless switchbacks from Kendall Katwalk to the PCT North trailhead at Snoqualmie Pass.

We met several nobo thrus on that day. We enjoyed conversations with most of them. Though we didn’t hike from Mexico to Canada ourselves, at least we can be cool by association.

Our rides weren’t there yet, so we walked over to Summit Inn for hot food and beer.

Overall we tried to keep our days to 10 miles plus 4,000 feet, or the equivalent thereof. For PCT trailhead transportation, our spouses dropped us off at Stevens Pass and met us at Snoqualmie Pass.

We carried a Spot X and left instructions for how to pick us up at various bail-out points (Hyas, Waptus, Pete), but that wasn’t necessary for us. We hiked the section, sweated the climbs in the heat, and had a terrific time!

Ancient Lakes from Quincy Lakes Trailhead

An east-central Washington hike where trail conditions allow very early season visits (and the heat discourages anything later).

March and April are a good time to visit Ancient Lake. The vegetation is green, flowers are in bloom and the air is cool. Plus the waterfalls are running strong, making for good photos. In very early spring, water also spills over the cliffs overlooking the lake. By April, they are dry.

Falls feeding Ancient Lake

Two main trailheads access Ancient Lake. The upper trailhead approaches from Quincy Lakes to the east. You’ll pass H Lake, Judith Pool, two waterfalls, and some other potholes. The potholes and Ancient Lake are collectively are known as Ancient Lakes. It’s a short, pretty walk, with a little ascending on the way back.

Reeds above Judith Pool

The other trailhead approaches from the west and reaches Ancient Lake by an even shorter, flatter trail.

We encountered no rattlesnakes, but they are known to live here.

Sage Hills & Horse Lake Mountain

This lowland wildflower garden is a Mecca for those seeking early season dry hikes!

Enchantment Wilderness peaks view from the trail, with balsam and lupine

There are multiple trailheads in Wenatchee, Washington, to access this preserve, but the highest and largest parking area is the Horse Lake Trailhead on Horselake Road. Trail conditions are superb.

An old barn and farm equipment are fun to explore and photograph

The trails are a mix of easy paths and old roads. Both are popular with hikers and mountain bikes. The paths tend to meander through the flowers and sagebrush. If your goal is the top of Horse Lake Mountain (“Twin Peaks” locally) the roads are actually a little steeper and more direct.

Balsam, phlox, lupine, all common here

These trails are closed through the winter and open around April 1. By that time the flowers are starting to bloom and continue to be showy through at least mid May. The days turn very warm by June.

I ran into trails maven and guidebook author Craig Romano at a trail junction!

The trail was busy for a weekday but it’s a big trail system and there’s plenty of room for everybody. Everyone I met was friendly, including the bikers.

There is no source of potable water along the trails. I encountered no rattlesnakes, but they are known to reside here.