Thru-hiking the Enchantments, Washington
A step-by-step guide to preparing for, and doing the hike.
I hiked the 18-mile one-way trail across the Enchantments in July 2022. In this article, I’ll talk about what the Enchantments are, how I prepared for the hike, the logistics of the hike, and share my experience of the hike itself.
What are the Enchantments?
The Enchantments is an area near Leavenworth in Central Washington. It consists of alpine lakes and tundra set within incredible landscapes.
The 18-mile trail through the Enchantments is considered one of the best day hikes in the world, but it will be a very long day! To give you an idea of the difficulty, the elevation and distance are comparable to hiking the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim.
Although you can camp in the Enchantments to break up the hike into multiple days, it is hard to get permits. Also, the permits that you will get will be for areas adjacent to the Core Enchantments, making each of the hike sections more difficult because you have to double back on each of them. Plus, you will have to carry all your camping gear. Given all this, I recommend the thru-hiking option.
On the 18-mile trail, if you do in the direction I suggest, you will climb 4500 feet in 6 miles and drop 6400 feet in the remaining 12 miles. I did it in 13.5 hours (with multiple stops, plus a swim) and I’m a 50-year old moderate hiker who slows down on challenging terrain (see all the blues on the map). So, it is totally doable. But you have to prepare so that you are not walking in the dark .
The way I prepared for the Enchantments was to hike twice a week for about two months. I started out building the ability to walk 5–7 miles without flagging, then practiced climbing up steep hills. These are the hikes I did (if you don’t live in Seattle, pick hikes of similar length and elevation gain):
- Margaret Way. 6.5 miles. 1500'. 2.5 hours.
- Poo Poo Point. 7.2 miles. 1750'. 3 hours.
- West Tiger. 5 miles. 2100'. 2.5 hours.
- Cable Line Trail. 3 miles. 2000'. 2 hours.
- Mt. Washington. 8.5 miles. 3250' in 6 hours.
- Mailbox Peak (old trail up; new trail down). 11 miles. 4000'. 7 hours.
Obviously, Enchantments is twice the length of Mailbox but Mailbox is good practice in that it’s similar elevation gain and loss. Mailbox is easier, though, because it is forested. Cable Line is more similar to the conditions up Asgard. If you can’t do Mailbox or Cable Line, don’t attempt the Enchantments.
Do these hikes with the daypack, hiking poles, and shoes you plan to use. Carry about 2 liters of water so that you get used to the weight.
The Enchantments is a one-way trail. You have to start at Colchuck Trailhead and end on Snow Lakes Trailhead. Here are your options from worst to best:
- Drive to Colchuck, park your car, start the hike. Then, when you get to Snow Lakes Trailhead, look for a ride or taxi to pick up your car. This could work, but there has to be someone going that way, ending the hike the same time as you, and willing to give you a ride. Getting a taxi depends on having a cell signal at the lot (we had cell coverage on the last part of the trail, but not at the parking lot).
- Take two cars. Park one car at Snow Lakes Trailhead. Drive the other to Colchuck. After the hike, go pick up the other car. This is bad because you’d rather have dinner than go drive on a bumpy forest road after the hike.
- Drive to Snow Lakes. Take the Enchantments shuttle to Colchuck and start your hike. When you finish, the car will be there and you can simply drive away. Plus, you don’t have to drive on the Forest Road to Colchuck. The booking website asks you to contact them if you want to hike on a weekday but the shuttle service was unresponsive when I reached out. But we saw people on the trail who said they caught the shuttle at 5am. So maybe it was just me that didn’t get a reply to their email.
- Have a friend who lives near Leavenworth. Have them wake up at 4am to pick you up at Snow Lakes Trailhead and drop you at Colchuck. Then, they can go home.
Incredibly enough, we were blessed with having Option #4 available to us. Derek drove us to Colchuck Trailhead, hiked with us to the point where the trail starts to hike up to Asgard and then turned back.
The second thing to think about is start time. On the day we hiked the Enchantments, Leavenworth was supposed to hit 110F. Yup. You read that right. However, we could escape the sun if we timed it just right. Sunrise was at 5.30. If we hit the trail at 5:30, we could reach Colchuck Lake by 8:30, and then climb up Asgard by 10:30. That’s before sun hits the rocks. The Upper Enchantments are nice and cool. In the 60s and 70s in the morning. The trail from the Enchantments to Nada, and most of the hike from Nada down to the trailhead is on the side of the mountain that does not get sun. In the shade, the temperature was never uncomfortable. Don’t get scared by the reported temperature at Leavenworth — you won’t have to suffer those temperatures as long as you get up Asgard before mid-morning.
Three of us — Evan, John and I — were going to do the thru-hike and decided to meet up in Leavenworth. Evan and I drove in from Seattle. John flew his plane to the small airfield in Cashmere and we picked him up there.
But hey, here’s a plane! It can hold 3 people. Why not check out the route we were going to hike the next day? You are not supposed to fly drones over the area. But manned flights are okay.
It was cool to take off over the apple orchards and terraced gardens of Cashmere, follow the river into Leavenworth, and then find the valley that Mountaineer Creek runs through.
Checking out the route
Colchuck Lake is pretty. It’s also huge!
The mountain you see in the left part of the photograph is Asgard. We are going to climb that tomorrow? Gulp.
John caught a thermal and used it to gain elevation so that we could go over Asgard pass. This gives you a flavor of the experience:
Once you cross Asgard pass, you are in the Upper Enchantments. The lakes seemed to be still iced up, and we were going to be walking across these snowfields (gulp!):
Then, climb down to the Snow Lakes. Is the only lake in the Enchantments that doesn’t have snow … Snow Lakes? Huh.
Okay! We got this! Stoked for tomorrow.
Dinner before the hike
What’s for dinner? Leavenworth is a Bavarian-themed town, but none of us were in the mood for overpriced sausages. What else?
Eastern Washington has excellent Mexican food, thanks to fresh ingredients and immigrant agricultural workers. The highest rated restaurant in Google Maps was La Tortuga Loca. It’s not a chain restaurant. Let’s go!
I had a Chorizo Torta (basically a sandwich). John had cactus tacos. Evan had a pork chop. We had “real” coke and Negra Modelo on tap served in a frosted mug. Everything was excellent. Strongly recommend this restaurant!
“You will die”
We drove into Leavenworth, checked into our hotel, and decided to stroll into the main strip in Leavenworth. This was Evan’s first time here, and the fake Bavaria vibe was too good to not experience.
After passing by enough places with “Haus” and “Olde” in their names, we finally gave in and went into a pub. Maybe they’d have some German beers?
“What are you guys in town for,” the barkeep asked us. We said we were going to thru-hike the Enchantments the next day.
“Yeah, man”, chimed a drunk guy at the bar, “that was our plan too. But we got to Colchuck Lake too late and so we decided to turn back. Didn’t want to be wandering in the dark. You know what I mean?”
“There is a party going on here tomorrow evening,” said the barkeep hopefully, “you guys should come. There will be live music and all.”
“That sounds awesome but we are pretty committed,” Evan said, “we have told too many people that we are going on this hike.”
“The best time to thru-hike is October. You know it’s going to be like 110 tomorrow, right?” the barkeep asked as she filled our orders. “You guys are going to die. Literally die. Come 4 o’clock tomorrow, you’ll wish you could be here at __ having a slushie instead.”
Who says such things?
4 am wake up
The hotel we were staying at had this massive statue of a knight in armor. We met there at 4.25am and headed out to Snow Lakes Trailhead.
Incidentally, why does everyone who thinks of medieval Europe imagine that they are going to be a noble, priest, or knight? A lady or a princess? Do they not know that the odds are much higher that they’d be a serf doing backbreaking labor and wearing itchy, flea-infested clothes?
Derek met us at Snow Lakes Trailhead at 4.45am and we all drove over to Colchuck Trailhead on a par-for-the-course, bumpy Forest Service road. Good thing Derek has a four-wheel drive. By the time we arrived at the trailhead, it was 5.25am and bright out.
We didn’t need our headlamps after all. But it’s good that we brought them, just in case we were going to be wandering in the dark as those drunk guys had theorized the previous night.
Which brings up an important topic. What do you pack?
This is what I carried/wore:
- Lightweight day pack with 20 liter capacity.
- First aid/safety: bandaid, antispectic, aspirin, bear bell, whistle, signal mirror, etc. [everyone has a different paranoia level, so you be you]
- UV-protective long-sleeved shirt
- Quick-drying, windproof hiking pants
- Waterproof hiking shoes
- Hiking poles
- Headlamp [didn’t need]
- Water bladder with 3 liter capacity, but filled to 1.5 liters of water and with electrolyte added.
- Water filter (Sawyer is great)
- 10 servings of electrolytes (Nuun works great; I used 5)
- 2 nut bars [ate only one]
- 2 protein bars [didn’t eat]
- 2 PB&J sandwiches
- Swim trunks
- Cell phone camera. All the photos in his post were taken with a Pixel 6 (me, Derek), Pixel 4 (Evan), or iPhone 5 (John). Seriously, don’t haul anything bigger.
- Spare battery pack and wire. (I didn’t need it — I put the phone on airplane mode at the start of the hike and was at 60% when I finished).
- Northwest Forest Pass or equivalent [one for each car; leave in the car]
John and/or Evan also had these which they found helpful:
- Face cover for flies
- Bug spray
- Extra pair of socks
- Electrolyte powder
- Empty water bottle for more convenient drinking
Let’s talk water. I found myself drinking 1.5 liters of water on my preparation hikes. So, that’s what I carried up Asgard. There are enough mountain streams to refill the water bladder that you can keep refilling to 1.5 liters. Of course, you are sweating all along and losing salt. So, each time you refill the bladder, add a pack of electrolyte. Helps avoid cramping.
However, the last 7 miles from Nada Lake to Snow Lakes Trailhead will be fast-paced and warm. And there is no water to refill. That’s why you need 3 liters of water on that last leg.
I have a America The Beautiful pass — this is the best deal going in the US Government. For $80, you can enter pretty much any national park, monument, forest, or BLM site. The alternative is to buy and print out a digital Northwest Forest Pass.
The pen is because you need to fill out a “Wilderness Permit” at the trailhead. We filled out two permits— one for the three of us who were thru-hiking and the other for Derek who was going to turn back. Keep one half with you and deposit it when you exit the Enchantments.
The hike to Colchuck Lake (5.30 am)
This is the easiest part of the Enchantments hike. For those of us lucky enough to live in the Pacific Northwest, it’s nothing special either. Just another stroll through a forest alongside a gushing mountain stream. All the water crossings have nice bridges over them. A few rocks and roots here and there keep it real, but the trail might as well be paved. It’s pretty easy.
The sun is starting to come out, so watch the peaks catch the light.
And then you hit Colchuck Lake. There it is. The view that enticed you to visit the Enchantments in the first place. Colchuck is glassy in the early morning air. Dragontail is dark and forbidding. Asgard pass to its left looks like a snow chute. And Colchuck peak to its right is catching the light.
Take lots of photos here. Make sure at least one of them is good. This is going to be the photo you’ll show everyone.
The hike around Colchuck Lake (8 am)
Keeping the lake to your left, walk around the lake to the bottom of Asgard Pass. Towards the end, you will find yourself boulder hopping a bit. Turn around, and Colchuck Lake stretches languidly behind you.
This is where we said bye to Derek and started our climb.
Climbing Asgard Pass (8.45 am)
One of the cool things about Derek turning back here was that he got to take pictures of us climbing up Asgard Pass. Gives you an idea of how steep it is even near the bottom.
If you notice carefully, you’ll see that it’s me and Evan in the picture. Where is John?
We started climbing at 8.45am. John reached the top of Asgard at 9.50am, stretched out on a sunny rock and killed mosquitos for the next hour and 10 minutes. That’s right, he did it in less than half the time it took us. Turns out that years of paragliding gives you the ability to climb really, really fast.
It only gets steeper as you go up. This is about a third of the way up:
By the time you are 2/3 of the way up Asgard, the big rocks have given way to smaller stones that function pretty much like roller skates. It helps to be surefooted, and to have shoes that have great grip.
Soon enough, we came to a grove of trees, and a stream where I could refill my water.
One last burst and we caught up with John the Mosquito Killer.
Upper Enchantments (11 am)
We have climbed Asgard, and are in the Upper Enchantments now. It’s all downhill from here. Time for a celebratory shot.
In the Upper Enchantments, you are mostly crossing snowfields. Microspikes would probably have helped, but aren’t really necessary. Poles are enough.
The landscape is unlike anything I’ve seen before. I felt as if I were on the roof of the world.
Throughout, there are cairns that mark the way. It’s a subtle way to mark the trail without using paint or wooden signs. But you have to be aware to look for them whenever you are in doubt.
This is where we saw a baby mountain goat with its mom.
We stopped here for lunch just as the ice started to give way to tundra.
Lower Enchantments (12.45 am)
Inspiration Lake and Perfection Lake form the “turn” in the trail where the Upper Enchantments stop and the Lower Enchantments start. This is the first lake without snow — Inspiration Lake.
Maybe we should have waited to get to warmer waters, but we decided to jump in.
Since I’m a data guy, here are two cool charts. First is the temperature from Evan’s GPS. See the rapid drop in temperature when he jumps into the lake?
If you didn’t know that he’d jumped in the lake, you’d think the reading was an outlier.
The temperature also confirms my observation from the beginning of the post — don’t get scared by the temperature forecast for Leavenworth. Leavenworth hit 110F the day we hiked, but we only experienced 99F. As long as you are off the exposed surface of Asgard Pass before the sun comes up, you’ll be fine. The average temperature we experienced was 86 degrees, and except for the very end, all of the high temperature was in the shade, near water. It was quite pleasant.
Next, the heart rate reading from my Fitbit. See the rapid drop in heart rate when I slide into the lake?
That’s because I’m not wearing it :) This time, it is an outlier — the Fitbit “imputes” my resting heart rate to fill in the gap when it doesn’t get a heartbeat.
There really is no substitute for knowing what’s being measured, and the conditions under which the measurement is being made.
And now, you are in the Lower Enchantments. This is the prettiest part of the hike. Slow down, and savor the scenery.
We were discussing what made this the best part of the hike. I thought it reminded me of Wonderland and the Paradise region of Rainier. But the water features here are much more subtle. Rainier is in your face awesome. This landscape has nuance.
It was John who put his finger on it. This area is like a Japanese garden. It looks curated. Dwarf trees. Everything from streams to waterfalls to lakes all look as if they have been designed to just fit. It’s all very zen.
Snow Lake (3.30 pm)
After taking your time through the Lower Enchantments, you will descend rapidly alongside a gushing waterfall and find yourself on Upper Snow Lake.
Snow Lake is pretty, but the dam that connects Upper and Lower Snow Lakes is a bit of a letdown (why is there a dam?). But you’ll get over it.
Nada Lake (4.30 pm)
Soon after the turn around Lower Snow Lake, you will glimpse Nada Lake from the top — it’s a beaut.
Just push on. You are now about 7 miles from the trailhead. It’s a pleasant downward grade along a mostly shaded mountain side and dinner’s waiting! Remember, though, that there is no water on this stretch unless you go off trail to Snow Creek. Make sure you have 3 liters of water at Nada Lake.
Dinner on the mind (6.30 pm)
Around 6.30pm or about 2 miles from the parking lot, I took my phone off airplane mode. I got a text from Derek around 6.45pm.
Derek: “Are you in cell phone range?”
Lak: “7.10am ETA at trailhead. Let’s meet for dinner!”
Derek: “You want me to pick a Mexican restaurant, or do you want to go to the same one you went yesterday?”
Lak: “You pick. Send us directions.”
Finish (7.15 pm)
We finished at 7.15 pm and followed Derek’s link to … La Tortuga Loca — the same restaurant we’d gone to yesterday. Classic.
A wash and change in the restaurant’s bathroom and you’d never know we’d been up since 4am.
We dropped John off at the Cashmere airport, and drove back to Seattle, reaching around midnight.
The Enchantments has been on my wish list for a long time. It is the hardest hike I’ve ever done, but was worth every minute of it, from the weeks of preparatory hikes to the 14 hours on the actual trail. Super grateful that I had three friends to do it with.