Thursday, October 11, 2007


The Enchantment Lakes area, in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness near Leavenworth, is a backpacker’s paradise, quite possibly the most beautiful place in Washington. And people know it – you submit your application in March for a lottery to determine whether you’ll get a permit. We’d gone before and stayed for three days, so this time we applied for four, with all three nights in the Alpine Lakes area (versus one of the lower-elevation areas that serve as bases for exploring the lakes). We chose the end of September – the 27th through 30th – hoping to catch the area after the larch trees had changed to their beautiful fall gold but before snow and ice made the lakes unreachable. We won the lottery – we’d get to go!

As the date got nearer, we decided to quit our jobs to go traveling, and October 5 wound up being the day that we chose as our last work day. That meant that for our last weekend employed, we got a four-day weekend. Sweet! We got some surprised comments from co-workers about the timing, and had we known we’d be leaving our jobs the first weekend in October, we might have gone to the Enchantments a week or two earlier, but given how competitive the permit process is, we were just glad to get to go.

Wednesday, September 26, we drove to Leavenworth to pick up our permits and make camp at Eight Mile, just a few miles from the trailhead. Our first day hiking on Thursday could be a rough one – we were hiking up from the Snow Lakes trailhead into the Enchantments, 9.5 miles with 5500 feet of elevation gain with full packs (including a full four days worth of food … plus a bit more, since we had overpacked). We went to bed early and set the alarm for 6 a.m. with the plan to make maximal use of the daylight hours and hike at a relatively leisurely pace.

We got up the next morning, well rested and ready to see the Enchantments. After breakfast, camp teardown, and driving to the trailhead, we started hiking at 7:45. The first couple of miles are a steady switchbacking climb through a burn zone. We entered the wilderness area and then followed Snow Creek for a ways and after five miles and a lot of elevation gain, reached Nada Lake. We were feeling great at this point – we took off our packs, ate lunch, and Sarah napped for a few minutes. Then we threw our packs back on for the climb up to Snow Lakes. Looking back, we got a good view of Nada Lake:


Upper Snow Lake is drawn down over the course of the summer to provide water for a fish hatchery miles below – we knew this, but still, we were surprised at how low the water level was versus our previous summer trip here. After Upper Snow we were still feeling good, and then we hit the wall – a mile-long section of large rocks. All of it is rough footing, and some of it can’t even be hiked – in places, you have to pull yourself up. And there are quite a few places where there’s just nothing below you to stop a fall – one false step would be the end of you. Climbing this section, we could feel in our legs how far we had hiked already. Fortunately, we still had plenty of time, and with frequent breaks, we made it up to the outlet of Lake Vivianne, the first of the Enchantment Lakes.

At this point, it was getting late and we were exhausted. We’d have plenty of time to explore the lakes over the next two days – now, the next order of business was to find camp and make dinner. We didn’t see much right at the outlet of Lake Vivianne, so we continued to hike further along the “trail” – really, just cairns showing a less-dangerous way over the rocks. In most places, the rocks aren’t exceptionally steep, and they’re pretty rough, making a slip unlikely. But at one point on the trail above Lake Vivianne, the rocks are so slick and steep, with nothing to break a fall, that there’s a series of steel bars drilled into the rock, as a sort of staircase. Here’s Sarah, carefully watching her step:


Very shortly after this, we found a nice spot on the stream that connects Leprechaun Lake with Lake Vivianne, overlooking Lake Vivianne. It seemed reasonably sheltered, which was important because other backpackers had told us on the way up that the winds had been strong at night. We set up and made dinner. As it got later, a full moon rose over the lake. It started as a bright orange and then became paler as it rose in the sky:



After that amazing sight, it was time to head to bed.

At various points during the evening, we woke up to the wind howling across our tent. The tent, normally incredibly sturdy, was swaying to the point where we thought it would blow over. It never did, although the rain fly blew in a few times. Later in the night, we could hear sand and snow hitting the tent, and in the morning, there was a small pile on the ground around the edges of the rain fly, where it had slid off and collected:


It was cold, so we took a while to get out of the tent and make breakfast, but eventually around 11:00 we were ready for the day’s hike. We set out along the trail through the Lower Enchantments, up to Leprechaun Lake and then Rune Lake (later renamed Perfection Lake by cartographers, which is what you see on USGS maps). Little Annapurna rises over Rune Lake, making a pretty backdrop:


At the end of Rune Lake, a short side trail leads up to Prusik Pass, where we got some awesome views of our surroundings. Partway up that trail, the golden larches made a nice foreground for Rune Lake, with Talisman Lake in the background:


From the pass, you can look down over the other side at Shield Lake:


The wind was howling up there, so we admired the views for a few minutes and then headed back down. We continued walking along Rune Lake to a steep rocky stretch that leads to the Upper Enchantments. We’d explore that tomorrow – for now, we continued around the backside of Rune Lake. I tried to find a safe route over the rocks to circle the lake. Unfortunately, it was just steep smooth rocks with wide gaps between them leading to rocks far below that would hurt if you fell. From the end of the line, I took a picture looking back at the lake – that’s Sarah in the foreground and Prusik Peak in the background:


This is another shot that Sarah took from the same general location – we just couldn’t get over how brilliant the larch trees were:


That night was chilly – we’d hear from other backpackers the next day that it was 20 degrees at 9:30 pm. Fortunately, the wind wasn’t rocking the tent, though, and we stayed warm in our sleeping bags. We were all bundled up for breakfast the next morning, though – in fact, the whole weekend was an exercise in creative layering:


After breakfast, we started our day’s hike. The morning, like the night before, was cold but still – great for letting Leprechaun Lake reflect the larches:


Along the shore of the lake, we noticed some ice crystals. They only occurred in this one location, but they were all over the place – little impossibly delicate one- to two-inch blades of ice:


We passed Rune and Talisman Lakes and headed up the steep rocky stretch to the Upper Enchantments. On the way up, we set the camera on a rock and took a picture looking back at Talisman Lake and Prusik Peak:


The Upper Enchantments are another world entirely from the Lower Enchantments – rather than a lush-looking landscape of evergreens and larches, the Uppers are more a moonscape of bare rock, with glaciered peaks towering overhead. Not as beautiful, maybe, but fascinating in their own right. At the end of the trail is Aasgard Pass, with Colchuck Lake lying below. This is the other route to reach the Enchantments – most hikers who hike through will ascend Aasgard Pass and descend by the Snow Lakes route:


At Aasgard Pass, we turned back and very quickly were greeted by a pair of goats. Goats are common in the Enchantments, but these were only the third and fourth that we’d seen on this trip:



We soon noticed a mother and baby hanging out nearby, close to the box toilet. The goats love salt, and where better to find it!


On the way down we stopped to make use of the box toilet near Talisman Lake and met a ranger. After he checked our permit, we chatted about the weather. A storm was coming in that he classified as a “season-ending event,” meaning that enough snow could fall and stick that the rocky routes up into the Enchantments would be unpassable. He said that he had been planning on staying in the Enchantments that night but when he heard the weather, he decided he’d head back down to Colchuck Lake. An outdoors instructor had told him in the past that he would get into enough trouble when he didn’t intend to – there was no reason to seek out trouble, and that’s what he’d be doing if he stayed up in the Enchantments.

Without telling us what to do, he’d given us a strong enough warning that we decided we had no business sticking around. When we got back to camp, we made dinner, planning to pack up right after eating. We had saved a two-course meal for tonight, with soup first and then bulgur and beans, so it took a little longer than usual, and by the time we finished cooking the second course, the wind picked up and it started blizzarding. We wolfed down the rest of dinner and disassembled camp in record time, both because we were cold and wanted to get moving and because we didn’t know how long the rocky descent from the Enchantments would be safe. We made it safely over the steel-rod stairs pictured earlier back down to Lake Vivianne, and then for a minute or two we lost the trail, traveling too far along the shore of the lake, rather than climbing out. In fair weather the trail is easy to follow; in a blizzard, the routine becomes challenging.

We headed down from Lake Vivianne quickly. Descending most trails, you don’t work up a sweat, but this stretch was no normal trail – climbing down the rocks making each step very carefully is actually a good workout. So we stopped occasionally on the way down to shed clothes, and by the end, as the snow lightened up, I was just wearing a single long-sleeved shirt.

We gratefully reached Upper Snow Lake and continued speeding around, wanting to make as much distance as we could now, while the weather was decent, knowing it might not be as good tomorrow. We made it to the divide between Upper and Lower Snow Lakes right before nightfall and quickly set up camp and filtered water, then jumped into bed.

It rained most of the night and poured all day the next day, and we slogged down from Snow Lake. It didn’t matter, though – we’d had an amazing experience. We reflected afterwards on how hard the Enchantments are to reach, between the length and steepness of the hike, the treacherousness of the footing, and the capriciousness of the weather. But at the end of the day, we decided we’re grateful they’re so hard to reach – if they were at the side of the road, they’d be mobbed with tourists, and our peaceful, sublime experience would never have happened. And it was kind of neat to think that we were probably some of the last few people to see the Enchantments this summer before the snow closes them off until the next short, amazing hiking season.

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