Perched high above a small, Bavarian-looking village and surrounded by jagged peaks lies an adventuresome backpacker’s dream: a glacier-carved granite valley filled with pristine blue lakes, sparse colorful trees, and abundant wildlife. For those of us fortunate enough to live in Pacific Northwest this magical valley is neither far away nor expensive to reach. We need drive no further than five hours from Portland, to the Enchantments of Washington state.
Early in the 20th Century the first European American visitor, US Geological Survey topographer A.H. Sylvester, named the area Enchantment Lakes. Sylvester wrote of his discovery:
"I found 5 or 6 most beautiful small lakes grouped in a wonderful glacial valley all ringed with alpine larch. From the highest lake over an entrancing fall tumbled the water it received from a small glacier. It was an entrancing scene."
Today a part of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area, the Enchantments is about 15 miles southwest of Leavenworth, Washington, a wonderful town where it always feels a bit like Oktoberfest. Rare among Cascade basins, the lakes of the Enchantments rest above 7,000 feet in glacially carved granite. This makes the basin strikingly different. Here a hiker will not tread muddy forest trails to reach brushy lakeshores. Instead granite trails connect jewel-like lakes set against the rugged, panoramic backdrop of the Stuart Range. Scattered throughout the valley are mountain goats, waterfalls, and stands of Tamarack trees waiting to turn golden in the fall.
Like all great things, this scenic splendor does not come without sacrifice. There is no easy way into or out of the Enchantments. Each of the two main routes to reach the basin presents challenges. The more commonly recommended Snow Lake trail enters the Enchantments’ lower basin from the east and climbs 6,000 feet over a very long ten miles to get there. The shorter but more grueling route climbs Aasgard Pass above Colchuck Lake to reach the Enchantments’ upper basin from the west. While the Colchuck route is just under 6 miles long and gains less than 4,500 feet, more than half of that elevation is gained in the final mile ascending Aasgard Pass. Because ice, snow or sudden storms can make the steeps of Aasgard Pass highly treacherous, only experienced mountaineers with adequate equipment should consider this approach.
Once inside the basin memories of the rigorous ascent quickly fade. Find a campsite by one of the many pristine lakes and explore to your heart’s content. Fish, swim, hike, scramble up one of the surrounding peaks like Little Annapurna, or rope up and follow Fred Beckey’s route to the top of Prusik Peak. Commune with the mountain goats, but be careful to keep a safe distance. Photographers will be overwhelmed by the endless scenic possibilities. Here are a couple of inside tips: the larch trees are magnificent in the fall and the views afforded by a side trip up Prusik Pass are well worth the effort.