Hiking the Enchantments is officially one of my favorite backpacking experiences of all time. We were among the lucky ones who scored a five-day, four-night Core Enchantment Zone permit to savor our time exploring the area.
While backpacking the Enchantments Trail is the ultimate dream, it’s not the only way to hike the Enchantments. Those in peak physical shape and bold enough for the undertaking have the option to thru-hike the trail in one day.
In this complete guide, I highlight everything you need to know for either backpacking or day-hiking the Enchantments. I cover how to apply for permits, parking, shuttle services, what to expect, what to pack, and how to find the best spots along the trail.
Continue reading to find out why hiking the Enchantments in one of the most memorable adventures in the PNW.
A Complete Guide to Hiking the Enchantments
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The Enchantments Trail Stats
Distance: 20 Miles
Type: Point to Point
Elevation Gain: 4,849 Feet
Time: 9 – 15 Hours (with an average time of 11.5 hours)
Permits and Passes
Regardless of whether you’re planning to thru-hiking the Enchantments in one day or preparing to spend a couple of nights in the mountains you need both a permit and a parking pass before beginning your adventure.
All hikers leaving a car at the trailhead must pay $5 for a Northwest Forest Day Pass. This pass can be purchased online, at a supplying retail store, or at the trailhead.
If you are planning to leave one car at the starting trailhead and another at the ending trailhead, you will need two passes. One for each car.
If you are already a holder of the Northwest Forest Annual Pass ($30) you do not need to pay an additional $5 for a day pass.
Likewise, If you have an America the Beautiful National Park Pass ($80) you do not need to purchase the day pass.
Make sure your pass is visible and displayed in your vehicle before beginning the trail.
There are also shuttle services available for those who aren’t able to park a car at both trailheads. There are two shuttle operators: Loop Connector ($24) and the Leavenworth Shuttle ($30).
We used Loop Connector but both are great options. Keep in mind that the Leavenworth shuttle requires reservations made at least 72 hours in advance, and a two-person booking minimum.
Free Day-Pass Permit
An Alpine Lake Wilderness Permit is required to day-hike the Enchantments. Day-use permits are free and self-issued at the trailhead.
Before beginning the Enchantments Trail, fill out the permit. Deposit the bottom half of the permit in the box near the trailhead (as directed) and keep the other half with you for the duration of the hike.
Once you exit the trail, drop the remaining permit in the designated box.
Those hoping to backpack the Enchantment Trail between May 15 and October 31 need to apply for an Enchantments Area Wilderness Permit.
Unfortunately, overnight permits are extremely hard to acquire — especially when gunning for the highly sought-after Core Enchantment Zone permit.
Overnight Permit Details
The annual lottery for overnight permits opens on February 15 and runs until March 1. Fortunately, when you actually apply during that time frame does not matter. Permit holders will be chosen at random regardless of their submission date during the window.
When applying, you are applying for a specific overnight zone. The Enchantments are divided into five zones:
- Eightmile/Caroline Zone
- Stuart Zone
- Colchuck Zone
- Core Enchantment Zone
- Snow Zone
The Core Enchantment Zone is the most coveted permit zone, as these permit holders are permitted to sleep in any zone. All areas are open for day use but your permit decides where you can camp — ultimately determining how many miles you are logging each day.
Applicants have less than a 2% chance of scoring a permit in the Core Enchantment zone. How in the world we lucked out and scored one of those, I have no idea.
Someone was looking out. I hope you can be so lucky too!
How to Apply
Every applicant must pay a $6 non-refundable application fee.
To apply, you need to know your desired entry date, group size, and permit zone.
Tip: Apply for numerous dates, permit zones, and group sizes (and have your group members do the same). If you can be flexible with these details you have a better chance of securing a permit.
On March 17, cross your fingers, say a prayer, do a jig, and then log back into your account to view the results of the lottery.
You can find more details about the permit lottery and apply here.
There are two starting points for hiking the Enchantments: The Stuart/Colchuck Lake Trailhead and the Snow Lakes Trailhead.
The most popular starting point is from the Stuart/Colchuck Lake Trailhead, and the one I recommend.
The Stuart/Colchuck Trailhead has a starting elevation 2000 feet higher than that of Snow Lakes. Not only do you save in overall elevation gain but you also get to face the infamous Aasgard Pass sooner rather than later.
You’re going to want fresh legs to get over the pass.
Best Time to Hike the Enchantments
As the permit window would suggest, the best time to hike the Enchantments is June – October.
While hiking in June still requires a permit, you run the risk of the trail being heavily covered in snow. Heavy snow coverage could make an already challenging Aagard Pass impassable. Not to mention, snow and ice could be covering the iconic alpine lakes.
Mid to Late Summer
We backpacked the trail the second week of August and could not have asked for better conditions. Mid to late summer is prime time to be on the trail. Just keep in mind that mosquitos are out for blood during peak summer (pun intended) and you will want to bring hoards of bug spray.
Lastly, hiking the Enchantments during October should be a bucket list item of its own. While temperatures begin to drop during this time and early snowfall can disrupt plans, the larch season is in full effect and the Enchantments are an incredible place to watch the colors change.
What to Expect Hiking the Enchantments
Plan to arrive bright and early to start the hike.
Starting before or right at sunrise ensures you have enough time to complete the trail if day-hiking, gives you more options for campsites if you’re backpacking, and increases your odds of snagging a parking spot if leaving a car at the trailhead.
Make sure to complete your day-hike registration if necessary before heading out on the trail.
Expect to begin the hike with others. The hike to Colchuck Lake begins from the same trailhead and is a very popular day hike.
The first mile is shaded and easygoing. It’s a great warm-up section for what’s to come. After the first mile, however, the elevation begins to increase as you initiate the climb to Colchuck Lake.
The route to Colchuck Lake is beautiful and involves river crossings, boulder fields, switchbacks, and even a waterfall just off the trail. The path is well-maintained and straightforward.
Around mile four you reach the breathtaking Colchuck Lake. The trail around the lake is relatively mellow and a great section to catch your breath before tackling Aasgard.
If you’re considering day-hiking to Colchuck Lake and back, check out my guide: Colchuck Lake Trail: A Complete Hiking Guide.
Camping at Colchuck Lake
If you scored either a Colchuck Zone or Core Enchantment Zone overnight permit, you get to set up camp around Colchuck and conquer the next section of the hike with rested legs in the morning.
We set up camp at a nice shaded spot right along the lake. If using the Alltrails map, we camped at the location pinned just before the toilet. There are also smaller campsites further around the lake that get you even closer to Aasgard.
We spent the evening swimming in the lake and planning our attack for the morning. It was wonderful.
We had heard the mosquitos were horrendous but, relatively speaking, we lucked out. You will still want to make sure you have your long sleeves and pants, as well as mosquito repellant on hand.
Aasgard’s reputation proceeds it, and for good reason. While the pass is only 1.5 miles, it requires hikers to climb nearly 2000 feet of elevation.
The pass is one giant boulder field and therefore entails a good amount of scrambling and climbing. Day hikers will hit the pass around mile five. Backpackers who slept at the base should aim to get over the pass before the sun.
Once the sun directly shines on the mountain things heat up quickly.
The pass is challenging but 100% doable. The research I had done prior to starting the hike made Aasgard seem incredibly daunting and miserable.
While I don’t want to down play the pass, I do want to add that if you are physically fit, an experienced hiker, and mentally up for the challenge, then I’m happy to report it looks worse than it is.
There is somewhat of a trail weaving around the boulders and the views get increasingly better as you climb.
With that being said, I did wish more than once that I had been more frugal with my packing and not brought a 35lb pack for the trip.
But hey, I made it to the top regardless, wearing a big smile at that.
Core Enchantment Zone
Once you step over the top of the pass the entire terrain changes. I was speechless.
Until that moment, I had never seen anything quite like the Core Enchantment Zone. The next mile after the pass truly feels like you’re on another planet.
There is granite stretching in all directions, multiple clear blue alpine pools, and jagged mountain tops in every direction you look. Do note that there is no shade during this section of the trail.
Crystal Lake Overlook
One of my favorite moments from the entire trail we actually stumbled upon accidentally.
Just before the trail begins to tail left towards Inspiration Lake, there is a social trail that leads straight to an overlook.
From the overlook, you can see Crystal Lake. This viewpoint is one of the best along the entire trail and absolutely worth a stop.
We grabbed lunch here before continuing on.
The section down to Inspiration Lake was slippery and steep. We half walked, half skid, half slid on our butts down to the lake. We had a good laugh watching others fumble down the snowy path as well.
Inspiration and Perfection Lakes
Inspiration Lake is stunning but I enjoyed Perfection Lake even more.
From Perfection Lake you can see the impressive Prusik Peak. If you’re backpacking and your legs are up for it you can day hike to Prusik. I wish we had jumped on the opportunity to trek to Prusik Peak but we opted to have a relaxing day at camp instead.
We wanted to soak up as much time in the area because we thought once you passed the Perfection lake/Crystal Lake Area the “wow” factor of hiking the Enchantments was over.
We were mistaken.
My absolute favorite part of the entire trail is the section after Perfection Lake before you hit Snow Lakes. For day hikers, this is incredible news. Just as you’re hitting the halfway point and wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into — the trail is going to blow your mind.
Camping in the Core Enchantment Zone
We found an awesome camp spot for night two up on a perch overlooking Perfection Lake. From Inspiration Lake the trail leads you left around Perfection Lake. However, we scrambled off to the right and set up camp.
We had an incredible view, several visits from a friendly mountain goat who liked to lay in the snow near our camp, and a blast swimming in the icy waters.
Per the recommendation of a friend, we detoured off to nearby Crystal Lake to sleep for our third night. Although the Enchantments Trail does not route you past Crystal Lake, it’s super close and easy to get to.
We didn’t see a single soul the whole time we were there. If you’re looking for solitude, Crystal Lake is the place to be.
The section of trail that leads down to Snow Lakes is extremely steep, rocky, and beautiful. Between the waterfalls, mountain goats, and wildflowers it was hard to know which direction to look.
The trekking poles came in clutch for the descent to Snow Lakes. You’re navigating over granite slabs, boulders, and gravel terrain before finally lowering into the timberline.
Altogether, the section is adventurous and fun but hard on the knees.
If you’re interested in day-hiking to the lakes, check out my guide: How to Hike Snow Lakes Trail near Leavenworth, Washington.
Upper Snow Lake
Once you finally lay eyes on Upper Snow Lake it’s hard to believe you’re still doing the same hike. The terrain and foliage change so drastically but one thing remains — everywhere you look is beautiful.
Upper Snow Lake is a beautiful shade of blue. We wasted no time in hopping in.
From here, I would say the final seven miles to the end of the trail is mediocre in comparison to what you’ve already witnessed.
By this point, you’ve either already walked nearly 14 miles and are ready to get off the trail, or you haven’t showered or eaten real food in five days and are therefore equally as ready to get off the trail.
Lots of downhill, dense forests, and switchbacks will lead you to the well-earned exit.
Camping at Snow Lakes
There are several campsites along Upper Snow Lake. Almost all of the campsites near the top of Upper Snow Lake were already occupied by Snow Zone permit holders trying to get as close to the Core Enchantment Zone as possible.
On our fourth and final night, we found a great, large, campsite about halfway down the length of the lake.
What to Pack
Day-Hike Packing List
I recommend bringing these items for your day hike in the Enchantments. Keep in mind this is not your ordinary day-hike it’s a grueling haul. Don’t skimp on what you pack.
Anything with an asterisk beside it I consider optional.
- Day pack
- 3L water reservoir
- Water filter
- Trekking poles
- Sun Hoody/Extra Layer
- First-Aid kit
- Required passes
- Offline trail map
- Energy snacks
- Hydration Tablets
- Bug spray
- Kula Cloth*
- Trowel + TP
Backpacking Packing List
This list is based on our 4-night, 5-day trip hiking in the Enchantments. Adjust accordingly depending on the time of year and the number of days you’re staying.
For more details on what to pack, check out my Backpacking Essentials gear guide.
Again, asterisked items are optional but recommended.
- 2 Athletic Shorts
- 2 Athletic Tops
- 2 Sports Bras
- 3 Pairs of Socks
- Top Layer
- Bottom Layer
- Down Coat
- Trekking Poles
- Kula Cloth*
- Bug Face Net*
- Camera (+ Extra Battery)
- Phone Charger
- Toothbrush + Toothpaste
- Trowel + TP
- Biodegradable Soap
- Bug Spray
- Breakfast Meal
- Snack #1
- Lunch Meal
- Snack #2
- Dinner Meal
- Snack #3*
- First-Aid Kit
- Offline Map
- Water Filter
- Portable Battery Pack
Final Thoughts on Hiking the Enchantments
Hiking the Enchantments is mesmerizing and truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
While backpacking the trail is the ultimate goal and I encourage everyone to keep applying, I do think it’s 100% worth the taxing day hike just to be able to witness it.
With that being said, doing a 20-mile day hike consisting of such extreme elevation gain and loss is an exhausting undertaking and one that needs to be taken seriously.
Before choosing to do so make sure you are physically, mentally, and logistically prepared.
Are you hoping for an overnight permit or preparing to day hike the Enchantments? If you have any questions about the trail, logistics, camping spots, or what to pack, drop me a message in the comment section below!