Backpacking the Enchantments

by GCI Ambassador Doris Wang

My first time backpacking the Enchantments was in 2016, the first year I moved to Seattle. At the time I had never heard of the trail before, but a friend invited me on their permit so I said yes. Since that first year, I have gone back two more times and have learned that the backpacking permits for this area are highly sought after. So here is a quick guide about the area and how to go about backpacking the Enchantments!

Location and Permits

Doris Wang Backpacking the Enchantments

The Enchantments are located on the outskirts of Leavenworth, WA, about 130 miles east of Seattle, in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness territory. The most popular trailheads to start the Enchantments hike are from either the Stuart Lake Trailhead or the Snow Lakes Trailhead. If you are day hiking the area, you can self-register for a day use permit at the trailheads. But if you are looking to backpack in and stay a night or more in the area, you will need to get an advanced permit from recreation.gov. You can apply for the lottery system ahead of time, usually at the beginning of each year, or try to snag a permit once the lottery permits have been divvied out. More info can be found at recreation.gov.

There are 5 zones for the Enchantments, and the most sought after permits seem to be in this order:
1) Core Enchantments Zone
2) Colchuck Zone
3) Snow Zone
4) Stuart Zone
5) Eightmile/Caroline Zone.

The Trail

Bridge to the Colchuck Zone

The main trail that is most often hiked starts at Stuart Lake Trailhead; then hikers take the trail junction to Colchuck Lake, hike through the Core Zone, and come out through Snow Lakes Trailhead. The trail stats are roughly 18 miles one way and 4,500 ft. elevation gain, with one of the hardest sections of the trail gaining almost 2,000 ft. of elevation in less than a mile (Aasgard Pass).

I have hiked this trail three times, twice going from Stuart to Snow and shuttling cars between the two trailheads, and once going up and down Aasgard Pass, entering and exiting from the Stuart Lake Trailhead. Neither of the options are easy, but if you are hiking this trail for the first time, I do highly recommend entering from Stuart Lake Trailhead and exiting Snow Lake side and shuttling cars, so you can see and experience the whole area. The views are unbelievable.

Colchuck Lake
Colchuck Lake

There is no ideal itinerary for this area. For our last trip we had Core permits, spent three nights/four days in the area, and our itinerary looked like this:

Colchuck Lake Campsite
Our Colchuck Lake campsite
  • Day 1: Camped at Colchuck Lake
  • Day 2: Camped at Sprite Lake in the Core Zone
  • Day 3: Camped at Nada Lake on the Snow Lakes side
  • Day 4: Hiked out six miles from Nada Lake

Some people head out here and day hike to Colchuck Lake, or even do the full 18 miles in one day if they cannot get their hands on overnight permits. Definitely a must see area of Washington state between June-October! (The road closes during the winter due to snow, and the area is not easily accessible until they reopen the road in late spring.)

After being out in the wilderness for three nights and finally returning to your car, don’t forget to have your GCI rocker handy in your trunk! It feels amazing to just be able to sit down in the rocker, kick off your hiking boots, and finally take a break off your feet!