Outdoors: Adventuring in the Enchantments
Goats, Lakes and Asgaard: A Through-Hike in One of Washington’s Most Popular Destinations
By Aaron VanTuyl
The best trick the Enchantments pulls is frontloading the work.
The string of lakes in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, in the Wenatchee National Forest, is known for clear blue water, an abundance of mountain goats, and Asgaard Pass. It’s a wildly popular spot for campers lucky enough to win the permit lottery and for one-day gunners (like me, on Tuesday) just hoping the climb isn’t as punishing as it’s cracked up to be.
What makes it special? It’s like any out-and-back destination hike, except the payoff lasts 6 miles. Rather than a steep climb to a lake, it’s a steep climb to a stretch of lakes and scenery and goats and campsites and side hikes.
And, if you take the most popular through-hike route, the hard work’s all in the first few hours.
That’s where Asgaard Pass comes in. It’s a monster; the pass climbs about 1,900 feet in under a mile, and it feels like it.
Starting from the Stuart Lake trailhead, the hike to Colchuck Lake is a relatively quick 4 miles. Once you arrive, Asgaard looms in the background, below a blue patch of sky between Dragontail Peak (to the right) and an unnamed peak to the left.
Heading around the south end of Colchuck the trail pops through a boulder field, ducks quickly through a grove, and then winds up in a larger, mostly granite, boulder field. This is where the climbing starts, and it’s mostly a rock-hopping uphill battle with a few patches of loose dirt. There’s plenty of cairns to follow, but I managed to miss a few and wound up too far left; it was fairly easy to scratch back to the semi-trail.
And then it kept going up, beyond the landmark larch grove, finally reaching a mid-pass meadow (and the first goat of the day) before another patch of snow covered one route of the trail that led to the right side of the pass. (The oft-repeated advice about going up Asgaard is simply to stay to the left of the grove until you’re past it.)
There’s a brief bit of climbing, then more uphill scrambling as the trail comes close to the runoff creek from the lakes. And, then, after still more climbing, the pass levels off, and the end is in sight. A few high rocks offer a respite from climbing and a spot to look back on Colchuck and the sheer drop down to its shore, while the first of a few dozen snowcapped tarns sits below the massive (and snowy) Dragontail Peak. It’s a nice spot to reflect on the climb, have a snack, and either dread the trip back down or pat yourself on the back for making it a one-way journey.
Then? Well, that’s where most trail guides end, and with good reason.
The upper Enchantments start with a few barren perch rocks, a handful of still-mostly-snowed-over tarns, and lots of mountain goats. The trail’s easy to follow, and the routes through the remaining patches of snow are well-trodden, with a handful of side trails heading up to lookouts and campsites.
After the first meadow, the grass dries up and there’s patches of worn rock, dotted with cairns and bordered by clear lakes on either side. The beauty of the trail is that there’s no real need to check a map or wonder where you’re at; once you start heading down, you know you’re leaving one area and heading to another. There’s enough traffic and cairns to know where you should be going.
Instead of a full walk-through, here’s the points of interest.
• The lakes are all blue and picturesque. After Asgaard, Isolation Lake pops up on the right, then a handful of blue tarns border the trail. There’s a popular viewpoint to the right with a view of Crystal Lake far below, and then the trail drops down to Inspiration Lake, following Inspiration’s east end and then rounding the northernmost point of Perfection Lake. It runs along Perfection Lake, then along the much smaller Sprite Lake, crosses a creek and hops down a series of wide-open rock slabs before hitting Leprechaun Lake and Lake Vivian. Each of these are picturesque enough to stand alone as destination hikes in a different setting.
• The most treacherous patch of snow is on the downhill slope to Inspiration Lake. It’s easy to slide (or glissade) down toward the rocky beach, and several adventurers braver than I did; I mostly slipped my way down.
• At the south end of Lake Vivian the ‘trail’ drops through a few sheer cliffs, with one slab of rock equipped with rebar grips to make the climb easier. It then crosses Snow Creek again, and it’s a great spot to look out over a narrow waterfall’s head with Snow Lakes in the background, like an infinity pool but in the wilderness.
• It’s a draining hike down to Snow Lakes, dropping over rocks and through trees. The waterfall at the end of Lake Vivian is at about 6,900 feet elevation, while Snow Lakes are around 5,300 feet, so your knees take a beating and it feels like a longer stretch than it really is.
• Snow Lakes are big, clear, manmade and dotted with campsites. The trail runs all along the south side, with a few spots to stop and grab a snack. One couple popped up from their camp chairs as I passed through, asking if I was through-hiking and offering encouragement. That’s a recurring theme in the Enchantments; most of the hikers are friendly and thrilled to be there.
• At the end of the upper Snow Lake the trail passes through a campsite and leads to a spillway, some 40 feet across, that sits atop a stone wall separating the two lakes. The runoff from the lake, however, was flowing over the top, requiring hikers to wade across. It’s a refreshing barefoot walk.
• I like mountain goats. They’re quiet, peaceful, and utterly unconcerned with humans, hanging around mountain peaks and alpine lakes and generally minding their own business. The first one I saw was hanging out on the brief grass patch on Asgaard, and then I counted at least 16 in the first big meadow in the upper section of trail. Two were hanging around an occupied campsite while the campers ate breakfast, and in their natural habitat (mountain goats are native to the Cascades, but not the Olympics) they clearly have no fear of humans. Even for a goat fan like myself, though, the novelty had worn off by the last stretch of hike; about halfway between Snow Lakes and the trailhead I turned a switchback and found a goat blocking my path. By that point I’d been on the trail for 10 hours and waited for the animal to move slightly off the trail, then passed it on the opposite side with maybe 4 feet between us. It didn’t bat an eye, even with me suggestively coughing a few feet away.
• The last stretch of the hike takes forever and drops another few thousand feet. From Snow Lakes, it’s about 7 miles to the end, with some 3600 feet of elevation drop. Even worse, the last mile or so has a view of the parking lot on the other side of Icicle Creek, but it’s so far away you know there’s still lots of trail in store.
• There’s a half-dozen or so signs marking toilets. The ‘toilets’ are boxes with a wooden lid set up a short distance from the trail. Use at your own risk.
• The total distance is listed, conservatively, at 18 miles, but that’s up for debate. I didn’t track it, but some reports list the trek at 22 miles. Once you’re in the Enchantments it’s easy to lose track of time and space.
• You can do a through-hike either direction. The most popular starting point is the Stuart Lake Trailhead (where I started), which opens at a higher elevation (4,400 feet) than the Snow Lakes Trailhead and essentially means that, after Asgaard, it’s all downhill. Follow the Stuart Lake trail and take a left at the Colchuck Lake turn; Colchuck is about 4 miles from the trailhead, and once you hit Colchuck it’s easy to see where you’re going.
• A through-hike requires either two cars or a ride from one parking lot to the other. I parked at Snow Lakes Trailhead and took a ride from Loop Connector (www.loopconnectorshuttle.com). It’s a reasonable $15 and Jordan, the driver, has done the through-hike a dozen times and has all sorts of last-minute advice. (“Oh you’ll be fine,” he told me. “A pregnant woman did it yesterday.”)
IF YOU GO
What: The Enchantments
Where: Wenatchee National Forest, Alpine Lakes Wilderness, just outside Leavenworth
Directions: From downtown Leavenworth, take a left on Icicle Creek Road; the Snow Lakes Trailhead is on the left after 5 miles.
The Hike: From Stuart Lake Trailhead, it’s an 18-mile hike with 4,400 feet of elevation gain (1,900 up Asgaard Pass).
What to Pack: Lots of water or a filter; lots of snacks; bug spray; sunscreen; extra socks.
Is It Cool?: There’s snow, alpine lakes, waterfalls, creek crossings, mountain peaks and goats. It’s the coolest.