Day Hiking the Enchantments in Washington State
Over the last decade of hiking and backpacking across the American West, I've learned that you can't always trust a name. For example, Lake Solitude in Grand Teton National Park is not as lonely as you might think. But the Enchantments of Washington State, that is no lie.
Shimmering alpine lakes punctuate the massive granite mountains in this alpine wonderland, where blazing larches and bands of mountain goats add to the fairytale-like surroundings. And enchanted you will be if you hike into this wilderness space because if the supreme scenery doesn't leave you slack-jawed, the uphill elevation surely will.
Zones and Permits for Hiking the Enchantments
"...the approximately 19-mile Enchantment Core thru-hike is the crème de la crème trail..."
The Enchantments offer some of the best hiking in Washington. They are a designated permit-use area within the Alpine Lakes Wilderness of Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest. Five zones comprise the Enchantments, accessible from three different trailheads off Icicle Road from Leavenworth and Highway 2. Every zone in the Enchantments requires permits to visit between May 15th and October 31st, coinciding with the relatively snow-free hiking season.
Day hiking permits are unlimited and self-issued at any trailhead. Overnight backpacking permits are capped and highly competitive, with approximately two-thirds of permits released during a pre-season lottery.
The Enchantments offer several hiking destinations, all considered challenging to reach. But the approximately 19-mile Enchantment Core thru-hike is the crème de la crème trail that sends the Enchantments into the stratosphere of bucket-list hiking destinations and the one that entices thousands of hikers each year.
The Enchantment Core hike is a point-to-point hike starting from the Stuart and Colchuck Lake Trailhead or Snow Lakes Trailhead. Either direction ascends well above the treeline into a surreal world of alpine beauty, serving as one of the most trodden backcountry trails in the country.
Backpacking Versus Day Hiking the Enchantment Core
Let's be honest; the best way to enjoy the Enchantment Core is with a lengthy backpacking trip. Bag a few miles in the morning and spend most of the day near the shores of an icy-cold lake counting mountain goats darting across the granite slopes. Backpacking in the U.S.A. doesn't get much better.
But, in 2022, according to the Enchantments Permit Lottery Statistics, interested visitors had approximately a 1 in 10 chance of securing an overnight permit, with worse odds during the peak summer season (late June through September). And 16 of the 24 daily permits are granted through a pre-season lottery. This system makes obtaining a backpacking permit into the Enchantment Core almost more challenging than the hike itself.
So, if you're like me and don't have the best luck with permit lotteries, an epic 19-mile day hike is the best way to experience the Enchantment Core. And we're not the only ones, as hundreds of abled-body hikers and trail runners make this high-alpine pilgrimage every week throughout the summer.
But make no mistake, the 19-mile route roughly climbs the equivalent of the Empire State Building three times, and it's a hearty hike not to be taken lightly. Don't become a rescue statistic by being unprepared for strenuous wilderness conditions. Every hiker needs to bring along some form of the 10 essentials in case this day hike accidentally turns into an overnight emergency.
Tips and Tricks for Day Hiking Enchantment Core
Start from the Stuart and Colchuck Lake Trailhead
You don't end the Enchantment Core hike where you start. And the decision between starting at Stuart and Colchuck Lake Trailhead or Snow Lakes Trailhead will affect your entire day. I began at either trailhead for my first two outings, and for my third, it was an obvious choice to start at the Stuart and Colchuck Lake Trailhead based on my experiences.
It's a steeper grade starting from Stuart and Colchuck Lake Trailhead, but it gets all the elevation gain out of the way early. This early climbing includes a daunting ascension of Aasgard Pass within the first five miles, but the rest of the route is almost entirely downhill after. The Stuart and Colchuck Lake Trailhead is also the best way to utilize the different trailhead shuttles.
Camp near the Enchantments for an Early Start
You'll find many answers when asking how long it takes to hike the Enchantment Core. But the honest answer is all day and then some. Between getting to the trailhead, hiking a strenuous 20 miles accounting for any side trips, and hobbling your way to wherever you'll sleep soundly, minus the leg spasms, the whole experience requires a dawn-to-dusk investment.
Several designated campgrounds line Icicle Road leading to the Enchantments, offering the best way to get going early in the morning. I'd recommend reserving a site at Eightmile Campground, the closest to Snow Lakes Trailhead. Check out my write-up on the Best Campgrounds near Leavenworth for other camping options.
Figure Out Your Shuttle Before You Go
My hiking partner and I relied on a hitchhike from the Stuart and Colchuck Lake Trailhead the second time I day-hiked the Enchantments. I would not recommend this approach. After finishing the trail just past sunset with heavy legs and tired eyes, it wasn't a victorious feeling trying to find rides from strangers. Although, we did eventually get back to our car.
I hiked the Enchantment Core solo the third time and was wise enough to utilize a shuttle service. I used the Enchantments Shuttle provided by Leavenworth Shuttle & Taxi, and I know Loop Connector Shuttle offers a similar ride. Both services pick up promptly in the morning at the Snow Lakes Trailhead and zip up the mountain.
Know the Enchantments are (over)Crowded
The Enchantments are going through a boom in popularity, with the public land experiencing the strain of overcrowding. It's forecasted that if current trends continue, day-use permits will also be limited someday to protect the rugged yet fragile environment. Good tips to reduce your impact include utilizing the shuttle system, staying on the trail, and practicing all elements of Leave No Trace – including proper human waste disposal.
To avoid the biggest crowds in the Enchantments, plan a weekday trip during the summer, or visit in the shoulder seasons, early June (if you're comfortable navigating some snow), and Late August into September. Although, the fall larch trees glowing across the mountainsides also tend to draw a crowd.
Shorter Day Hikes into the Enchantments
While the Enchantment Core certainly stands out, you don't have to do an all-day 20-mile hike to feel entranced by the landscape. A few other options stem from the Stuart and Colchuck Lake Trailhead for more accessible approaches. These destinations also tend to be easier to get backpacking permits for. All of these are moderate to strenuous day hikes.
- 8-mile roundtrip
- 2,280 feet elevation gain
This uphill hike is the first section of the Enchantment Core hike. It's all uphill until reaching Colchuck Lake, arguably the most popular place in the Enchantments. But the views justify the effort and the crowds, with Dragontail Peak protruding from the waters, the gateway to Aasgard Pass.
- 9-mile roundtrip
- 1,665 feet elevation gain
This trail veers away from the usual foot traffic of the Enchantments toward the vast, shallow waters beneath the imposing Mount Stuart Peak. It's a less demanding hike to this slightly less popular lake, although you can still expect some crowds on the weekends.
- 6.6-mile roundtrip
- 1,300 feet elevation gain
Eightmile Lake is one of the easier trails in the Enchantments, although it's still a moderate push to reach this tree-lined body of water. Because it's relatively easy, expect to see more families on the trail. Additional side trips to Lake Caroline and Windy Pass are also available, where you can really ditch some crowds.