How to Thru-Hike the Enchantments Without an Overnight Permit

A bluebird day in the Enchantments backcountry.
A bluebird day in the Enchantments backcountry. laffertyryan
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“Can I see your permit?”

My husband turned so the ranger could see the day-use permit hanging off the back of his pack, and the alarm bells started going off. This was near the middle point in our trek, and we were just hitting our hiking groove in this landscape of alpine lakes, lichen, and larches perched on a plateau high above the boreal forests of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. But this was the Enchantments, arguably the most coveted, and highly regulated, backpacking destination in Washington State. Was the ranger going to send us back the way we came?

“Great! Do you all have layers, head lamps, water filtration, and food?”

I don’t normally run into backcountry rangers asking about headlamps during a dayhike, but this was no ordinary dayhike. We were at mile 7 of an 18-mile trip that most hikers take three, or even four, days to complete.

A land of towering peaks and impossibly emerald lakes.
    Laura Lancaster
A land of towering peaks and impossibly emerald lakes. Laura Lancaster

Starting at the Stuart Lake Trailhead our route gained 4,400 feet of elevation over six miles before hitting the high point, Aasgard Pass. From here, the trail passes by a dozen alpine lakes as the plateau drops along drainages and over sheer rock faces slanting down from the towering domes of the Stuart Range. These 5 miles above timberline are as challenging as they are gorgeous, and it can be a relief to finally reach the tree line again near the Snow Lakes. But don’t be fooled into thinking the hard part is over: you still have 8 miles down 4,000 feet of elevation to the Snow Lakes Trailhead.

I’m no stranger to long days in the backcountry, but I knew this hike would be a serious challenge, and that we would need to pay attention to our timing to ensure we made it to the trailhead before dark. I ended up planning this hike just as meticulously as if it had been an overnighter, complete with gear lists, checkpoint times, and a healthy supply of Ibuprofen. Oh, and of course a cooler of beer waiting for us at the car to celebrate.

The long mileage and logistical challenges are why many backpackers prefer to tackle this as an overnighter. To preserve the area from overuse, permits are limited, and highly sought after. Each year the forest service holds a lottery to allocate permits, and it gets highly competitive, with friends and family members collaborating on permit applications to maximize their chances of getting a slot. Even though a quarter of the permits are held in reserve for walk-ups the day of, stories of 20 groups or more all vying for a single permit make it hard to justify the effort.

Stepping stones, sweeping views.
Stepping stones, sweeping views. Jim Private

The thing is that Washington State is so full of beautiful places that it was hard believe this hike was worth this much hassle. But after the last spring, with social media abuzz with a few excited weekend warriors celebrating their lottery winnings (but most lamenting their bad luck) I had to know for myself if the hike lived up to the hype.

To that end, I made a plan with my husband and a couple of friends to push through the entire 18-mile trail in one day, an excursion that only requires a much more obtainable day-use permit. After dropping the car off at the Snow Lakes Trailhead, we spent the night at a nearby campground before starting out the next morning from the Stuart Lake Trailhead at 7 a.m.

The first leg of the hike starts out calm, with a densely wooded trail climbing 2,200 feet over 4.5 miles up to the first lake of the Enchantments, Colchuck.

Share the trail.
Share the trail. Trailspotter

Plenty of the hikers that morning had made this their destination for the day, and no wonder: this blue-green alpine lake, backdropped by the massive rock faces of the Stuart Range, makes for a spectacular destination. But our small group didn’t linger long at the lake’s shore: Aasgard Pass awaited.

There is no question that Aasgard Pass is the hardest section of trail in the Enchantments, featuring 2,200 feet of elevation gain in three quarters of a mile with no discernable trail—just occasional cairns to follow as you scramble up boulders, loose rocks, and scree. But don’t disregard the cairns, they mark the best crossing of the stream that runs straight down the middle of the pass.

It was a relief to still be in the shadow of the pass on the way up, but that certainly didn’t make it comfortable. The fast elevation gain meant that we needed frequent breaks to catch our breath. It also gave us time to see if we could glean any lessons in alpine travel from the numerous mountain goats heading down from the pass in the opposite direction.

It was nearly noon by the time we made it up Aasgard. We stopped near the high point of the trail to take a break for lunch, but knew that we wouldn’t be able to stop for long. There were 12 more miles and 6,500 feet of elevation loss in front of us. We were also excited for the core zone, where the majority of the alpine lakes are situated.

On the (what seems like constant) up and up.
    Laura Lancaster
On the (what seems like constant) up and up. Laura Lancaster

After a couple of miles we started dropping, fast, descending from one lake to the next down steep ridges and rock faces.

We were all ready for a long break when we reached Upper Snow Lake, giving our bodies a chance to recharge before the final push to the trailhead.

We picked up the pace for the last 8 miles of trail, getting back to the second trailhead at 7 pm—12 hours after we had begun our hike.

So, was it worth it? Mile for mile, this was one of the toughest days we had ever hiked. Steep climbs, long, long descents, and the rocky terrain all made for an epic adventure. Despite these challenges, this trail is extremely popular, with heavy crowds of weekend backpackers and dayhikers headed up Aasgard Pass. The crowd thinned some as we headed through the core zone, but there were enough backpackers and trail runners around at all times to negate any chance of a solitary wilderness experience. But despite this, the core zone has a wild, untouched feel to it that rivals many of the other gems in the state.

The Verdict? Next year we’ll try for an overnight permit. Both Colchuck and the Snow Lakes are easily accessible as day hikes, so we’ll concentrate our efforts on getting a permit for the core zone. But if we don’t get one (and we probably won’t) we’ll just dayhike it again.  

Planning your Enchantments Dayhike

"Mile for mile, this was one of the toughest days we had ever hiked."
"Mile for mile, this was one of the toughest days we had ever hiked." mountainamoeba

Carrying a headlamp is just one way in which thru-hiking the Enchantments is not your average dayhike. Below are a few other considerations to take into account:

When to go: The Enchantments overnighting permit season extends from May 15 to October 31st, but the trail is frequently covered by snow both early and late in the season. Plan your hike for mid-July to mid-September, and check both trip reports and weather forecasts before getting started.

Overnighting near the trailhead: Access to the Enchantments is located off of Icicle Creek, near Leavenworth Washington. Leavenworth offers multiple lodging options, but is extremely popular during the high summer, and is frequently booked weeks in advance. The campgrounds near the trailhead are likewise popular, with most of the first-come, first-served spots taken up before the weekend gets underway. If you can, make a reservation in advance of your trip. If you aren’t able to secure a spot, a last resort option might be to practice low-impact, dispersed camping along FS Road 7601, between Icicle Creek and the trailhead. Note that overnight camping is expressly prohibited at both the trailheads for the Enchantment zone and along the majority of Icicle Creek.  

Double car drop-off: Most groups planning an Enchantments thru-hike utilize a double car drop-off: drop off one car at the Snow Lakes Trailhead and use a second to drive to the Stuart Lake Trailhead. When you arrive at that first car at the end of your hike at the Snow Lakes Trailhead simply drive back to the Stuart Lake Trailhead to retrieve the second. Fortunately these two trailheads are close together. If you aren’t able to complete a double car drop-off, there is a shuttle service available from Leavenworth.

Food: Consider adopting a new snacking strategy if this is your first long hike. Many hikers find that the traditional lunch break at a mid-point simply doesn’t provide enough fuel for the journey. Consider snacking as you hike or giving yourself enough time to take multiple small breaks along the way.

Water: Water is plentiful along this route, but like with any backcountry destination, especially one this popular with other hikers, water filtration is a must.

Clothing: This is a no-brainer for most weekend warriors, but remember that anything can and does happen in the PNW. Bring sufficient layers to handle whatever Mother Nature might have in store. 

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