The Enchantments in a Day | 20 Miles of Beauty and Pain

For so long, I dreamed of completing The Enchantments, a continuous stretch of waterfalls, lakes, peaks, and rivers nestled in the southwestern Cascades outside of Leavenworth, WA and often described as the “holy grail” of expert Washington hiking. Like many others, when I finished the 20 mile trail, I swore never again, while peering down at my blistering feet. My rash decision to go back and indeed, do it all over again, two weeks later indicates why this demanding stretch is named after its enchanting quality. Even still, “enchanting” does not justly describe the unreal sensation of walking from one version of Heaven to the next for miles on end. 

After testing positive for COVID-19 and being released from quarantine just a few days before my first time day-hiking The Enchantments, I deepened my vow to honor my body by never taking it for granted, and instead taking it to as many mountaintop wonderlands as I could- in this case, hiking 20 miles and 5,000 ft in elevation gain within the ticking clock of daylight. 

Backpackers need to win a permit through the Recreation.gov lottery system to stay overnight in The Enchantments, but are allowed to hike through in one day without one. The trail is in a horseshoe shape with separate trailheads at each end, and The Stuart Range bounds the Southern ridge of the loop. While you can start the hike on either side, I started from the Stuart Lake trailhead both times, climbing toward Colchuck Lake with a headlamp in the early hours of the morning, ending at the Snow Lakes Trailhead. Beginning in the dark almost tricks your brain into thinking youre actually starting once youre at Colchuck Lake, a new beginning. Starting before 4am may be dark, but it gives you enough time to get to the top of Asgard Pass before the direct sun raises over the East side of the ridge. 

This climb up the side of the intensive granite pass takes you up 2,000 feet in less than a seemingly perpendicular mile. It is much harder than it looks from the base of Colchuck Lake and includes following cairns through granite boulders and shambles. Because of this fierce incline, I recommend bringing the lightest daypack possible and packing only the essentials. 

For this day hike, I recommend the following…

A few other items I brought along…

  • Extra pair of socks- these were comforting to switch into after dipping my dogs in a cold alpine lake in the core. Don’t sport the same, sweaty socks from beginning to end. 
  • Hand warmers or gloves 
  • Some form of energy booster
  • Rain jacket
  • Pain reliever for soreness  

Once over the pass, the trail dips down into the world-renowned core area- surrounded by peaks and filled by trenchant, shallow lakes. This area is home to many wild species including mountain goats that share the trail with us worldly beings. One of the first lakes on the right that greets Asgard champions, is the most pulchritudinous I have ever laid my eyes on, Isolation Lake. This crystal clear water deepens to blue in the center and is split by a surreal rock bridge that can be walked across for a panoramic experience.

During your first hike through The Enchantments, It might be hard to gage your time in the core zone, so do your research and pay special attention to your pace per mile.As many advise, take your time and soak in the core area- experiencing its beauty stimulates a wave of adrenaline, wonder, and oneness in the mind, body and spirit. It is so tempting to relax and linger at these lakes, but take caution as it is only the beginning. After the core there is still about 12 miles of downhill hiking through less “attractive,” forested terrain that takes most experienced hikers about 6 hours to finish.

Inspiration Lake, Perfection Lake, and Sprite Lake are the last lakes you will experience that feel like another dimension, before dropping back to the more, dare I say, “normal” lakes, Snow Lakes and Nada lake. During my own Enchantments journey, once I reached Snow Lakes, my body was fatigued and my mind was overstimulated, so I regrettably didn’t stop to admire the beauty of these independently stunning water forms on the way down. I recommend bringing along a source of quick energy and a long-term attitude to power through this section, as you are still far in the wilderness and around 10 hours in at this point.

Even after filling my bladder bag with an energy multiplier hydration pack and chugging it to avoid passing out at Snow Lake, the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other march to the Snow Lakes TH parking lot still seemed to take years. There wasn’t much to see as the forest turned to shrubbery, and the sun that I had watched rise at Colchuck Lake started to drop like my body wanted to. I thought many times on this section that I couldn’t make it much longer, but then realized the only way out was to keep moving, or via a dramatic air-lift Search and Rescue mission… and I am a strong-willed bitch so I couldn’t do that.

Being honest about every element of my experience is the only way to somewhat prepare anyone else who chooses to take this trail on, and even then, each person’s experience is incomparable. The Enchantments is an exciting but excruciating, protracted day hike that takes a lot of preparation and training in advance. Without the proper equipment and physical endurance, this magical adventure could easily turn into a scary or just simply miserable scenario. 

Needless to say, it is easy to look back on my experience in The Enchantments with rose-tinted glasses. It’s natural to forget the fact that my legs were shaking uncontrollably when it was all said and done, and the feeling of hopelessness while scaling up Asgard Pass, feeling like the summit was moving closer in painfully slow motion- I hardly remember it. 

Instead, I reminisce about the sun warming my shoulders, closing my eyes and breathing in the freshest air my lungs have ever inhaled. Sensing God’s presence in such a strong way drowned out the doubt, fear, and tiredness in between. I remember exactly how raw it felt, more true than the “real world” that we hold so close in our everyday lives. 

And in the end, letting the glorious moments blur out everything that led up to them is fine by me.

Thanks for reading,
Madison Ford

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