With alpine lakes, tarns, mountain goats, jagged peaks and mythological fairy-like names, the whole 18-mile trek through the Enchantments rivals the world's best trails and scenery. If you can get one of the widely sought after backcountry permits, or are a strong hiker who can pack in the miles in a single day, this is a part of the country—and the world—you shouldn't miss.
The Enchantments are located in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and Alpine Lakes Wilderness area on the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountain Range in Washington state, near the town of Leavenworth. The area is broken up into five zones, with the Core Enchantment Zone being the most renowned (and most regulated). To get started, make sure you're up to date on all the required permits and rules to enter this highly protected area.
From the town of Leavenworth 2.5 hours from Seattle, the nearest access point to the Enchantments is only a short drive up Icicle Creek Road to the Snow Lakes Trailhead, and then a long hike in from the parking lot, which can get crowded in the summer. The other option is to head further up Icicle Creek Road and then along a winding dirt road to Colchuck Lake on the west, via the Stuart Lake Trailhead.
The Snow Lakes area is easier to get permits for, and if you plan for a few days, you'll have time to do day-trips into the Core Enchantments area even if you don't win the lottery to overnight there. The Snow Lakes Trail leaves from the Snow Lakes parking lot on the edge of Icicle Creek Road and only 5 miles outside of town, winding its way up 3,800 feet in elevation over 6.5 miles. Add in another 1.5 miles to reach the far end of the lakes, and another 1.5 miles and 1,400 feet elevation from Upper Snow Lake to Lake Viviane, inside the Core Enchantments area. If you have a permit, there's camping at Snow Lakes so you can break up the trip.
If you're heading up the 4.2 mile Colchuck Lake route via the Stuart Lake Trailhead, be prepared for a mighty climb up Aasgard Pass (also known as Colchuck Pass), with a very challenging nearly 2,000 feet of elevation gain in less than a mile to reach the Core Enchantments area (but well worth the hard work). Use extreme caution when snow is present, due to hidden hazards that have taken the lives of several unaware hikers.
Lake Stewart, Eightmile Lake and Lake Caroline
If you don't have the time, permits or energy to try and access Snow Lakes, Colchuck Lake or the Core Enchantments area, these three options are worthy of a visit, and you'll have much better chances of getting permits. Lake Stuart is approximately 4.6 miles one-way with 1,600 feet of elevation gain, Eightmile Lake is 3.3 miles and 1,300 feet of elevation gain, and Lake Caroline is 5.6 miles up the Eightmile Lake Trailhead with a fork at Little Eightmile Lake and 3,100 feet of elevation gain.
Hoping to do the whole Enchantments Trail? From Snow Lakes Trailhead to Stuart Lakes Trailhead, be prepared for 18 miles and nearly 6,500 feet of elevation gain. Worth the effort? Absolutely. This route gives a relatively easier but longer approach with a shorter, harder descent on the other side. Alternately, start from Stuart Lakes Trailhead with a steeper initial ascent and a more gradual decrease, and less overall elevation gain. Just plan to have two cars, a bicycle or a friend to pick you up, as there's virtually no thru-traffic at the Stuart Lake Trailhead, making getting back to civilization trickier. The Snow Lakes Trailhead parking lot gets a lot of traffic with local hikers and rock climbers, and offers closer access to the town of Leavenworth.
When to Go
The permit season for camping in the backcountry in the Enchantments area begins May 15th and ends October 31st for these areas, and permits are drawn in March of every year. Make sure to submit your permit application between February 15th and March 2nd. When you apply for a permit, you'll be asked to select your top three choices of the five different zones, with the Core Enchantments Zone permit being the most prized, as it allows you to camp in any of the other four zones. Check out the Enchantments permit lottery statistics, here, which offer some good insight into which parts of the Enchantments are in higher demand.
Luckily for those that don't mind long days on the trail, day hikers need only fill out a self-issued wilderness permit at the trailhead, and attach it to their daypacks. No entrance fees apply to the area, but you will need a Northwest Forest Pass to park in the parking lots, or purchase and print a one-day pass.
Though one daily “walk-in” backpacking permit is given out each day during the lottery season at the Wenatchee River Ranger District Office in Leavenworth (except Sundays), it's not uncommon for dozens of hikers to congregate outside in July through September, hoping for their chance to win. Give it a go if you're in the area, but you may have better luck in the shoulder season.
Though the permit season begins May 15th and ends October 31st, late July and August are your best chance of good weather and no snow. That said, later in the autumn is the perfect time to see the famous larch trees turn golden. If you head out during the shoulder season, be aware of snow and trail conditions.