The Enchantments: How I Completely Forgot That I Was in Grad School
By columnist Nate Peters
Awakening to the soft glow of the rising sun through the thin fabric walls of my tent, I take a deep breath of cold air and reluctantly wriggle out of my very warm, lofty down sleeping bag. I am anxious to get my body moving so I throw on some clothes, lace up my boots, and unzip the door of my tent to get my first view of the outside world. Thick mist hangs over the dark, still surface of the lake by which I made my camp the night before. Beyond the water the forms of steep granite peaks blanketed in golden larch trees and spotted with snowdrifts are just becoming visible. The view is like something out of my dreams, something ethereal. All thought of the cold vanishes, my eyes open wide, and I am overwhelmed by a feeling I can only describe as enchantment. I guess this is why they call this place the Enchantment Lakes….
The Enchantment Lakes are a group of alpine lakes nestled in a high mountain basin in the mountains southwest of Leavenworth, WA, and are one of the most beautiful and unique wilderness areas that I have ever visited. The lakes are only accessible from two trailheads, nearly twenty miles apart, and neither trail makes it easy on a hiker whose goal is reaching the Enchantments. The Snow Lakes trail is a long and grueling uphill climb through wildfire-scarred slopes, lush spruce forests, and open granite slabs to reach the base of the lower Enchantments, Lake Vivianne. The Colchuck/Stuart trail starts a bit higher than the Snow Lakes trail and ascends steeply to Colchuck Lake, but that is only half the journey. From Colchuck Lake, which is gorgeous in and of itself and worth an independent visit, to reach the upper Enchantments one has to climb a steep rocky slope over Asgard Pass to reach Tranquility and Isolation Lakes. The trail up the pass may only be 0.9 miles long, but it ascends over 2000 feet over boulder fields and scree slopes and is truly a beast of a climb. Overall, despite the steepness, the Colchuck trail is half as long as the Snow Lakes trail and is my personal recommendation for entering the Enchantments. Besides, that way you get to go downhill the rest of the way.
Once you reach the Enchantments, you will realize what a special and unique place you have reached. The upper Enchantments zone is above the treeline, has standing snow year-round, and almost feels like another planet save for the occasional ground squirrel or lark reminding you that you are still on Earth. As you descend to the middle lakes of the Enchantment Lakes, Inspiration and Perfection, trees will begin to appear along with small alpine meadows and the occasional family of mountain goats. Remember that the animals will leave you alone for the most part, but their diet is lacking in salt and they will jump at any chance to glean excess salt from human urine when it is deposited on the ground. It is also important to remember that the ecosystem at this elevation is very fragile and takes a very long time to recover even from human footsteps, so stay to the trails when possible to avoid trampling the vegetation. Side trails lead off in several directions to more isolated alpine lakes that I have not yet visited, and many of the peaks surrounding the Enchantment Lakes are climbable, some requiring equipment and more experience. In the lower Enchantments you will find yourself at the base of an amazing rock formation known at The Temple, and the lakes in that area, such as Leprechaun and Sprite Lake, are some of my favorite places in the Enchantments. Fishing for trout is possible in many of these lakes as is the occasional swim for the bold, cold-water enthusiasts.
I could spend hours talking about the Enchantments and my adventures there, but that would only leave less for you to discover and experience on your own when you visit (honestly, you have to visit this place at least once in your life if you love being in the outdoors). For a very thorough and informative description of the trail and the lakes as well as the most recent updates from hikers on trail conditions, check out the Washington Trails Association page on the Enchantments (http://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/enchantment-lakes). I have never experienced a more peaceful and serene place as the Enchantments, and whether you are staying there for one night or ten, the Enchantments will change the way you look at the world. I guarantee it!
If you do decide to plan a trip to the Enchantments, remember that these lakes are very isolated and the terrain can be very difficult. The area is accessible from only two trailheads, it is snowed in for much of the year, and access is permit-regulated during the summer and fall months when the snow recedes. If you decide to visit earlier in the summer through August, there will be more people generally and the mosquitoes will be worse, but the weather will be warmer and more regular (though it could theoretically snow any day of the year). If you visit in later September or early October, the larch trees will begin to turn gold and there will be fewer mosquitoes present, however the weather will be more unpredictable and you have to be prepared for the worst. The permit regulation for the “open months” can be discouraging and inconvenient because it only allows 15 campers to enter the Enchantments per day, but it helps to maintain this fragile wilderness in its natural state and eliminates many over-crowding issues that would certainly be present otherwise. During the off-season, backcountry skiers and ice climbers can access the Enchantments unhindered by permits, but this should not be attempted by anyone lacking ice and snow traversing experience. Starting in late June and lasting through mid-October, if one wishes to camp in the Enchantments or one of the adjacent zones, one has to obtain a permit through a lottery system. To enter this lottery and have a chance at a permit, one must apply during a 2-week window in February (see website for specific dates: http://www.wta.org/trail-news/signpost/enchantments-permits) and specify number of people, intended entry location, intended duration of stay, etc. There is a fee of X dollars per person per day for the permit and you have to begin your trip on the day for which you apply in the permit. After all the submissions are in, a random lottery assigns permits until 10 spots are filled for a given date, and then 5 more permits are issued each day during the open season to people that show up at the ranger station when it opens. Basically they say you have about a 50/50 chance of getting a permit if you apply. If planning a trip to the Enchantments sounds appealing, be sure to do your research so you don’t miss the application window in February and be sure you know what you are doing in the wilderness.
There is so much more that I could say about the Enchantments, so if you would like an earful I would be glad to regale you with stories from my solo trip or my most recent group trip to the Enchantments this last September. Also, if anyone is interested, I am always up for an Enchantments traverse, or “death march”, where one hikes he whole trail from Colchuck trailhead to Snow Lakes trailhead in one day (20+ miles). Anyway, here’s hoping you all get out there and see one of the most amazing places on earth, just two hours away from where you happen to be attending graduate school.
Until next time….