This trip report is made to be enjoyed from a variety of perspectives. If you just want to see more photos of the aptly-named Enchantment Lakes region, click on any picture. Each caption includes links to the first picture, the ones before and after, and to this article. You can cycle through all the pictures without reading all the boring stuff about me.
Or read the text below to learn about my trip through the area, and why I did it backwards, compared to saner folks. Clicking any photo will take you to its own page with additional info in its caption. Clicking the photo on its own page will bring up the full-size version. Most will fill your screen, if you want that much detail.
If you're considering a trip like this, I've tossed in some stuff at the end about what I carried and wore. It's a fairly strenuous hike, but very enjoyable if you travel light and the weather favors you. If you're planning your first trip into the Enchantments, you might want to follow the trail on Acme mapper. This link will open a separate window, starting you at the Snow Creek trailhead, where I started hiking. Follow the trail south from there.
Even by the standards of Washington State's Cascade Range, the Enchantments are spectacular. A traverse takes you through fragrant pine forest, past clear mountain lakes to an alpine plateau, well sprinkled with more lakes and surrounded by sharp granite peaks. You continue to an upper plateau – tundra, streams, more lakes and mountains, culminating in a barren landscape of rock and tarns, almost devoid of any green. Then the view down onto a perfect jade teardrop lake below and a descent past the lake to one more delightful valley and a fine forest trail out. This compact concentration of natural beauty is easily worth taking a week to explore, even if you don't pursue the technical climbs. Add in those peaks, and you could spend years in there.
The problem is that other people have figured that out, too. The Forest Service decided in the 1980's that they had to do something to keep the Enchantments from being loved to death. They established party limits, designated campsites, reservations, etc. to preserve the beauty that brought hikers and climbers from the four corners of the globe. Well, Seattle, anyway. Reservations are coveted. Even if you plan your trip a year in advance and apply the day the reservation system begins, you might be disappointed. Or you simply may not have the time for a backpacking trip. Yes, the area deserves days of exploration, but if the alternatives are a day trip or none at all, take the day trip.
Personally, I was already familiar with the Enchantments before this trip in '87. I'd hiked into and out of there from a variety of directions on weekend trips or week-long vacations. I'd climbed the most popular peaks multiple times and climbed other summits that many local climbers haven't heard of. I'd been spoiled by the freedom before quotas and reservations. My friends and I would have a weekend climb planned for the west side of the Cascades, and when the weather looked a little too cruddy on this side, we'd call each other up and say, “To heck with Soggy Peak! Let's go to the Enchantments.” You can still be that spontaneous now, but only between Oct. 15 and June 15, or if you're not camping.
I'd thought about a day trip; some of my friends did it yearly. The weekend after Labor Day looked promising: the weather forecast was perfect, the highways would be relatively empty after the holiday, and I'd been getting in enough weekend climbs to be optimistic about my ability to finish it. I called my usual climbing buddies, but nobody was available that weekend. I wasn't about to let a perfect Saturday in September pass on the off chance of getting another as Autumn closed in on me. I considered calling climbers I don't know as well, but what if they turned out to be unable to go the distance? What if I couldn't? What if I talked some sucker into hiking it with me, only to force a turnaround because I lacked the stamina to finish?
A solo trip added complications. The hike is 17 miles from one trailhead to the other, then there are several miles of road to complete the loop. I live 150 miles away, and there's no public transportation to or between the trailheads. I wasn't about to beg somebody to drive 300 miles so I could go hiking without them, and I've never been good at driving two cars at once. I had a bicycle, though. I could cram it in the back of the Subaru, leave it at one trailhead and start hiking from the other.
OK, but that introduced another problem. The Mountaineers Creek trailhead is about 2000 feet higher than the Snow Creek start. Obviously I'd like to start hiking high and finish low, but that would mean completing the loop by riding up steep, loose, washboard logging road after a full day's hike. I wasn't sure I could handle that first thing in the morning, let alone at the end of the day.
That's why I had to do the trek, why I had to solo it, and why I had to start at the low end, setting myself up for a 7,000-foot elevation gain. It wasn't the ordeal it sounds like, though. Read on.
I drove across the mountains after work Friday, and up to the Mountaineers Creek trailhead – the one that leads to Colchuck Lake. I parked in the dark and poked around by flashlight until I found a likely-looking bivy site on a mound W of the parking lot. I stuffed my sleeping bag into a bivy sack, laid it out, and slid in.
In the morning, I looked for a place to hide my bike for a day. The brush was too thin, so I simply locked it to a trailhead signpost in full view of the parking lot. Part of the bike's protection was its impracticality for the location. I didn't have a mountain bike; this was a classic 1970's 10-speed, with drop handlebars, a skinny, hard seat, and skinnier, harder tires. Only a damn fool would steal it to ride on those roads.
I drove down to the Snow Creek trailhead, donned my fanny pack, filled out a self-issue dayhike permit, and started down the trail at 7:00 a.m. Yeah, down. The first bit of trail drops to a bridge over Icicle Creek at 1280+ feet. That elevation is quickly regained as the trail switchbacks up the N end of the Stuart Range before contouring into the Snow Creek valley and leveling out for a while.
two miles and 2700 feet elevation you pass Snow Creek Wall, across
the valley and above you. By this point, less than an eighth of the
way through, I knew I was going strong enough to not only finish the
hike, but maybe even add a little extra. In all those earlier trips
in the Enchantments, I'd never made time to hike up Little
Annapurna. I'd keep that in mind today.
5.5 miles I arrived at Nada Lake, elev. 4880+ feet. It was about
9:15, and out on the bare rock beside the water I met a couple of
backpackers soaking up the first sun to hit the lake. They were
bundled in down and wrapped around their coffee mugs for maximum
thermal transfer. I'd been generating excess heat for a couple of
hours, so I breezed through in running shorts and a cotton shirt. I
felt smug. A little further up the lake I found a rock that projects
into deep water, so I dived off it. No, it wasn't warm – none
of the Enchantment Lakes ever are – but I like to swim in
mountain lakes, and those guys had looked so cold, I had to show off.
I can be a real jerk that way.
Nada Lake is almost split by a low peninsula on the W side. The trail stays near the water to that point, then diagonals and switchbacks talus above it. Off the end of a switchback a huge jet of water was spraying over the talus. It's part of the effort to keep all those famous Washington apples growing in dry summers. Upper Snow Lake, still above us, has a 10-inch pipe poking up into it's water and running through a tunnel in the granite to an opening above the talus slope over Nada lake. In late summer, when Snow Lakes stop providing sufficient water naturally, the valve is opened in this pipe, allowing tons of water to spray over the talus, drain into Nada Lake, and find its way down Snow Creek to the irrigation ditch that parallels Icicle Creek. The pipe outlet is about 400 feet below Snow Lake, so the water exits with tremendous force. I think the purpose of the pipe's bulbous end is to make the water spread, so it doesn't excavate a trench when it hits the hillside below.
Almost as soon as Nada Lake passes out of sight, Snow Lakes appear ahead. The trail meets them at 7 miles, 5420 feet, right at the dam that separates Upper from Lower Snow Lake. The dam is just a little rock wall – it's there to keep enough water in the upper lake for that pipe to do some good. In early season the water flows over the dam's top, and hikers have to wade it. In September the wall is dry, and Upper snow Lake has extensive sand beaches with some impressive sand canyons where small creeks come out of the woods.
trail crosses the dam, then stays in the woods around the E and S
sides of the lake. It crosses the main inlet (still called Snow
Creek), turns left, then starts some serious climbing toward the
Enchantments plateau. Parts of the trail here are pretty thin; you
have to watch for cairns and blasted steps at times. Most people
backpacking in arrive here already dehydrated, in the hottest part of
the afternoon. It's a whole different experience in a fanny pack and
There is no vague transition zone between the Enchantments and the valley below. You arrive to find Lake Viviane (10 miles, 6800 feet) right at the edge of the plateau, it's crystalline waters plunging immediately off the edge in a beautiful, cool waterfall. The trail crosses the outlet on little logs, but I detoured to the right first to dive off clean, white granite into deep water.
In the mile-and-a-half or so that the trail takes to cross the lower plateau, it passes five lakes and assorted meadows, copses, cliffs, streams and waterfalls. If you haven't been there before, it'll knock your socks off. If you have, you'll wonder why you took so long to come back.
upper plateau starts at 7400 feet. The trees thin out to occasional
larches dotting meadows laced with perfect little streams and ponds.
Farther up, it becomes just meadows among the rocks and lakes. Then
just lakes and rocks with bits of glacier thrown in. And mountains –
rounded humps and stark granite spires – mountains all around.
One of them I knew to be a walk-up that I hadn't climbed.
I found the turnoff to Little Annapurna and followed it. It was mostly good trail, with some scrambling on solid rock and glacial debris. I'll admit I was feeling the effort by now, but I wouldn't have missed the scenery. The top is broad and comfortable, with views from Mount Rainier to Mount Baker. It's also about 7140 feet (2175m) above the bridge I crossed back at the parking lot. The nearer views were the best: the upper plateau was almost more lake than land, and the towers on Little Annapurna's S side are about as rugged as rock gets without falling over, though I was disappointed that The Flagpole was hidden from there.
Time was getting to be an issue. As warm as the day had been, it wouldn't do to be stuck out overnight in sweat-drenched clothes. It looked like I could save some time by descending more directly toward Asgard Pass (Colchuck Pass on the map), rather than backtracking down the trail. Don't do that. My brilliant plan had me skirting glaciers and picking my way down steep rocky slopes, sometimes resorting to snow, but avoiding ice – mostly.
Eventually I found the trail and followed it up through country that's at once desolate and so beautiful it hurts. The map shows the trail through the Enchantments ending at Asgard/Colchuck Pass (7800 feet), but there's a steep trail that winds down the 2200 feet to jade-green Colchuck Lake. Dean, in his Enchantments Area page, recommends this trail as the short way into the area. My friends and I call it The Death March to Asgard Pass. It's steep and loose, with a touch of Class 3 tossed in. Lugging a multi-day backpack with rock hardware up it on a hot afternoon will challenge your stamina and your vocabulary. But lots of people do it every year, and hardly any of them die, so have at it. Even if you don't do the whole traverse, everyone who hikes in the Enchantments should stand at the pass to gaze down on Colchuck Lake. After all those diamond-clear lakes on the plateau, the view down to Colchuck is so... so...
Well, just go there.
The trail down switchbacks mostly to the right of center (going down). Arriving at the upper end of the lake, it skirts the S and W sides and goes almost to the N end before turning left and dropping toward Mountaineer Creek. The lake was low in September, leaving a natural dam across the N end and some nice sand beach at the S end. I did find a boulder over deep water at the S end. I dived off.
The 1000-foot descent from Colchuck Lake to Mountaineer Creek is steep in places, but it's good trail, popular with weekenders. Down at the creek (4600 feet), cross on an official footbridge, and connect with the Mountaineer Creek trail. From here on out, I was home free. A few miles of good valley trail separated me from my bike. Watching the time, it occurred to me that I might make the entire loop in 12 hours, if I hustled. I tried. I even jogged a few steps. I think the Forest Service had been out there with their trail-stretcher, because it was a lot farther to the parking lot than usual.
My bike was waiting. It hadn't been molested, and I even had remembered to carry my key. I've never had clip-in pedals, just toe straps, so I could wear my running shoes on the bike. It was tougher than I expected. My poor feet got hammered by the pedals on the rocky road. On the steep washboard, I had to dismount and walk it down to keep from getting tossed. (I was on a skinny-tire road bike, remember?) I reached the paved Icicle Creek road, and was surprised how fast that part went. I'd driven it often enough between the various bouldering areas, but on a bike you notice the hills, even the downhill ones. Now the problem was that I got too cold in the wind.
I made it to the Snow Creek parking lot and my car at 7:15, missing my 12-hour mark by 15 minutes. I could sit. I could drink. I had dry clothes and a plastic bag for the stinky ones. I invested in a shower and a spot on the ground at a private campground before driving home Sunday.
Friends and relatives asked me later about how much I missed, traveling through the area so fast. Granted, I didn't get to lie out under the stars, and I missed out on all those technical climbs. But even on week-long trips I didn't take many more photos than the 48 I shot that Saturday. (All 33 of the photos I included in this TR are from that day.) Little Annapurna was a first for me, and I'd never swam in three lakes on one trip there before. I don't think I missed out on much.
Not much. I limited myself to a cheap, wraparound fanny pack, a water bottle, and a camera. I wore nylon running shorts and a white cotton dress shirt. Those are amazingly versatile – you can button or unbutton as needed, roll up sleeves, whatever works. And if you've ever worn cotton under a black light – remember high school dances? - you'll remember how it glows a bright, electric blue. That means that cotton, while fluorescing, is converting harmful ultraviolet light to harmless blue light, so your shirt isn't multiplying your sunburn. I didn't wear a tie. The fanny pack had a polypropylene zip T-neck shirt and polypro bottoms to get me by in an emergency. My yellow GoreTex parka was rolled up and tucked under the compression straps outside.
In preparing, I tried to anticipate the worst likely accident that might occur to me. It's not hard to imagine being weak with fatigue and stumbling when a rock rolls the wrong way. Suppose I found myself at 7600 feet with a sprained or broken ankle? There would be frost on a clear night. Would I make it through the night and still be able to hobble or crawl the next morning? That was my criteria. The weather forecast was perfect, without a hint of rain or wind. All I needed was enough to survive a freezing night. If I packed enough to be comfortable overnight, the extra weight would make me slower, more fatigued, and clumsier, thus increasing the odds of that worst-case scenario occurring.
My swimsuit was the one I was born in.
My shoes were the same ones I jog in, but I didn't wear my usual cotton crew socks. Pick socks that match the activity, not the shoes. I wore heavy wool hiking socks and thin nylon liner socks. I used my swimming breaks as an opportunity to rinse my liner socks, then dried them on my pack while I hiked in a second pair of liners. I don't believe I carried spare heavy socks.
One reason for doing the traverse this late in the season is to avoid carrying an ice axe. I missed it when I took that shortcut down from Little Annapurna, but I shouldn't have been there at all; I needed the sense to stay on the known route.
Water is of paramount importance on this or any strenuous trip. Carry a hydration pack if you want, but I like my bicycle water bottle for convenience.
I tie or sew ½-inch webbing around the waist of a tall bottle, with another webbing loop tied or sewn through the first. Adjust the length of the loose loop to allow you to flip it over the top of the bottle. Normally I use a carabiner to clip it to my pack strap at my hip. (Wrap the webbing around the carabiner when you clip it, to hold the 'biner tight against the bottle. Otherwise the bottle swings around and bangs against you.) The bottle is always at hand, and I can unclip, drink, and clip it again without breaking stride. I can fill it without taking my pack off, and I can toss it in the dishwasher when I get home. When I don't wear a pack, as on this trip, the loop fits over my wrist, and the bottle rides against the outside of my hand as I walk. That might sound as if it would constrict my wrist, but it's very comfortable, even on a long day.
I had a gallon jug of tap water in the car, so I could start with a full bottle and return to water at the car. Once on the trail, I didn't purify my water. I carried iodine tablets, in case I had to resort to suspicious-looking water, but I didn't use them. In water this cold, the tablets take 10-20 minutes to dissolve, then you have to wait 20 minutes for the stuff to kill the bugs. That's 35 minutes without drinking, each time I refilled the bottle. I'd have been wasted. I didn't get sick.
Traveling with friends gives you the freedom to rotate water bottles, so iodine or other treatment is more reasonable.
My food was the usual granola bars, cheese, dried fruit, and trail mix. Make sure you're getting enough salt.
I carried a 35mm Olympus XA pocket camera. It has a hard, sliding cover and a 35mm lens. New digital cameras are much more portable and versatile. I carried mine in a homemade pouch of doubled Cordura Nylon, sewn to a loop of 1” webbing that I draped over my shoulder. When I'm climbing, it gets banged around with my rack, but holds up fine, and it's always handy for a shot.
If you climb mountains most weekends in Spring and Summer, and jog on the occasional weeknight, you can do this. I've never been an athlete. I'm in better shape than the average customer at the all-you-can-eat buffet, but in a crowd of real mountain climbers, I stand out as the slow, fat one.
I was able to travel so light (and traveling light made the trip possible), because I trusted a perfect weather forecast. If the forecast had called for overcast skies, I would have postponed the hike. If the forecast had been wrong, I had some extra clothes. If the forecast had been radically wrong, I would have been hurting. But it wasn't.