After leaving Hawaii for a month in Washington State, I wanted to keep up this adventure mojo that I’d been sustaining very well with Rachel, what with all our brilliant Hawaii hikes, so I decided that I wanted to try this long, challenging, but completely beautiful trail in Washington. Rachel cordially invited me to contribute this off-island adventure to her blog, so here goes!
Summer is giving way to fall in Washington, shortening the days, cooling the air and turning the leaves. We (a couple of my mom’s friends and I) were ever so lucky to have a beautiful sunshiny day when we decided to hike through the Enchantments –the most wondrous fairy tale playground for mountain goats — situated high in the Cascade Mountains.
Now, this is a 19.8 mile hike (one-way) from Colchuck Lake trail head to the Snow Lakes trail head and there are numerous campsites along the way — so why do this whole thing in a day? I would choose the camping option if it were that easy, but it’s not. It’s terrifically difficult to get a camping permit in the Enchantments due to the popularity of this place. Hence, the rigorous single day hike-through.
I had been to the Enchantments before, and that’s why I was so driven to make the trek. I was fortunate enough to be on a Washington Trails Association week-long work party for which we camped at a Snow Lake campground, and during my day off from trail maintenance, I ventured up into the Enchantments and was totally blown away by what I saw there. I simply had to return. So two years later…
We spent the night in the charming town of Leavenworth, which is a short drive from our trailhead, and in the morning, indulged in Starbucks to fuel us for at least a few miles. Our hiking clock started a little past 7AM as we made our brisk 4 mile trek to Colchuck Lake. This little leg of the trip is quite pleasant, without too much elevation gain, and winding through lovely forest, then finally opening up to the lake which was a bright light blue upon our first glimpse of it. At the far end of the lake, we could see the intimidating Aasgard Pass looming before us.
This was the section of the hike that I’d heard most about because of its difficulty, and I could understand everything I’d heard once I saw it because it looked like just a steep mountain face with a jumble of loose rocks cascading down to the lake. My hiking partners, both of whom had hiked this part of the trail before, told me that there actually was a trail through the whole mess of rock, but I couldn’t quite make it out myself.
Picking my way up to the pass was definitely not a simple task, but with all my stopping to check out the scenery, namely to see if Colchuck Lake looked any smaller than when I last stopped, and locating the next cairns (stack of rocks indicating where the trail was going), I wasn’t totally winded when I reached the pass. I was sure happy to be finished with that climb though.
The first few steps over the threshold of the Aasgard Pass are heaven. Both for your legs and your eyes. It almost looks like you’ve stepped onto another barrenly beautiful planet with the stark granite surroundings and white boulders strewn everywhere. This is called the Upper Enchantments and as you walk away from the pass, you come across a couple lakes that are fed from the snow melt each year. We sat down by a stream running between a couple of the lakes and ate our lunches while dipping our hot feet in the cold stream. After about forty relaxing minutes of this, it was time to get a move on.
My absolute favorite part of the Enchantments from my previous visit was the Lower Enchantments, where there are about five gorgeous high alpine lakes all clustered nearby, connected by little streams that are shaded by fluffy larches. The lake names add to the enchanting aura of the place, for example Perfection Lake, Sprite Lake, Tranquil Lake and Leprechaun Lake. Definitely fairy land material.
We navigated through the Enchantments using our handy friends, the cairns, until we reached Lake Viviane, which signals the descent to Snow Lakes. I packed my camera away and buckled in for the last, long stretch of our hike. It took some time to pick our way down since its pretty steep and you have to be on the lookout for where the trail twists and turns, so we finally got down to and around the Upper Snow Lake by 6PM. Yikes.
Sunset was about 7:10PM and there was no way we could do the last 7 miles to the trailhead in an hour and a half, even if it was clearly marked trail and downhill. So we made sure our headlamps were easily accessible and made long, fast strides down past the Lower Snow Lake and Nada Lake. The trail the goes downhill quite consistently for the last 5 miles to the chagrin of my sore knees.
At around 7:30PM it was too dark to continue without headlamps, so we strapped them on. I desperately took a couple Ibuprofen for my knees, and we trekked on. It was a thrill to run into my mom who was acting as our transportation to and from the trailheads as she was making her way toward us to make sure we were making it out safely. She walked with us the rest of the way down to the trailhead, which we reached at 9:30PM. What a day!
I took off my shoes and went horizontal on the first picnic table I saw at the parking lot and just looked up at the stars (SO many stars and a very bright Milky Way are one of the delights of being far from the city lights), very glad to give my legs a rest. I was so glad to be done, but the Enchantments are one of those places that keeps calling you back for more. Maybe in another 20 years or so I’ll pay another visit.