Hiking the Enchantment Lakes of North Central Washington State

Photo Credit Scott Weigle

In October, I was in the Enchantment Lakes. This region, nestled within the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, is one of the most pristine and picturesque spots in Washington State. Despite a daunting mountain pass and a trail that traverses miles of granite boulders, the journey is well worth the effort to view a string of azure lakes surrounded by the splendor of fall foliage.

The area is only snow-free for three or four months each year, so white powder was already accumulating in mid-October at the higher elevations. This short growing season and topsoil that is just a thin layer over granite bedrock make the Enchantment Lakes susceptible to damage from overuse. Therefore, camping is strictly controlled via permits issued by lottery each spring.

Fortunately, those not lucky enough to win the lottery have other options; avid outdoors types can undertake a single-day 32-kilometer hike through the region to see all of its natural beauty without an overnight camping permit.

Washington is called the Evergreen State due to our abundance of pine and fir, but high mountain valleys also nurture larch. Unlike most conifers, larches turn color in the fall, so many hikers time their adventure to encounter this vibrant fall foliage.

Photo credit: Scott Weigle
Given the short season, larches grow sparsely and rarely exceed 25 feet in height.

Not that the trail is crowded! Snowy and windswept Aasgard Pass lies near the beginning of the route; a 610-meter elevation gain over 1.6 kilometers tends to separate the resolute adventurers from the merely curious. The agility required to clamber up and down granite boulders provides a full-body workout. Fortunately, the route up the pass and much of the rest of the trail is marked by helpful cairns of stone left by previous travelers.

Photo credit: Scott Weigle
Aasgard Pass lies to the left. Adventurous climbers have surmounted the central massif of the Witches Tower in the center.
Photo credit: Scott Weigle
The hundreds of stone cairns are essential for navigation but hard to spot in the barren landscape.

Once on the other side of the pass, the beauty of these enchanted lakes opens up and makes it well worth the effort.

Photo credit: Scott Weigle
The trail passes by ten of the most picturesque lakes in the area.
Photo credit: Scott Weigle
The landscape is defined by granite and water, with numerous small waterfalls interrupting the drainage streams between lakes.
Photo credit: Scott Weigle
Streams run with frigid water from melting snowpack that can exceed ten feet in depth during winter.

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Mountain goats are ubiquitous, although I was not fortunate enough to encounter any. Three years earlier, in the same area, my son could barely keep them away. Trailhead signs warn that their aggressive nature, sharp horns, and relentless pursuit of salt from any source – including sweat on clothing – make them dangerous. Trailhead signage even encourages throwing rocks to dissuade them from following. Most U.S. Forest Service signs strictly forbid disturbing wildlife, but these creatures are not to be trifled with.

Photo credit: Robert Weigle
Mountain goats can be fearless, a required trait when one traverses inches-wide cliff ledges searching for moss to eat.

After about twenty kilometers, the “enchanted” portion of the hike yields to the lushly forested mountainsides typical of the Cascade Mountain range. At that point, one becomes more focused on the destination than the journey, especially when hiking in the dark by headlamp. Soon enough, however, regrets over lingering too long at the lakes are forgotten as the ending trailhead comes into view.

Photo credit: Scott Weigle The full moon shining through clouds bids farewell at the ending trailhead, 16 hours after the 5:30 a.m.