Snow Lakes Trail is as equally challenging as it is breathtaking. Hikers brave enough to make the exhausting 8-mile trek uphill are rewarded with mesmerizing views of Upper Snow Lake.
We were fortunate enough to complete Snow Lakes Trail on day five of our backpacking trip through the Enchantments. Since we hiked Snow Lakes Trail as part of a thru-hike through the Enchantments we were able to dodge the grueling uphill climb to the lakes.
While Snow Lakes Trail is excruciatingly long with extreme elevation gain, the sight of McClellan Peak painted as the backdrop for Upper Snow Lake makes the challenging undertaking worth every step.
In this guide, I highlight everything you need to know about hiking Snow Lakes Trail, including permits, parking, trail conditions, as well as an alternative and more preferable route for reaching Snow Lakes.
A Complete Guide to Hiking Snow Lakes Trail
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Snow Lakes Trail Stats
Distance: 15.5 Miles
Elevation Gain: 4,560 Feet
Time: 9 – 10.5 Hours
Frequently Asked Questions
Do You Need a Permit to Hike Snow Lakes Trail?
Yes. In order to hike Snow Lakes Trail, all hikers must obtain a day-use Alpine Lake Wilderness Permit. These permits are free and self-issued at the trailhead.
Hikers must also have either a Northwest Forest Day Pass ($5) or a Northwest Forest Annual Pass ($30) to park at the Snow Lakes Trailhead. The $5 parking/day fee can be paid at the trailhead or passes can be purchased in advance online.
Visitors with an America the Beautiful National Park Pass do not need to purchase the Northwest Forest Pass.
Make sure your pass is visible and displayed in your vehicle before beginning the trail.
Can You Camp at Upper Snow Lake?
Camping at Upper Snow Lake is permissible but only with an Enchantment Area Wilderness overnight permit.
Permits are awarded annually via a lottery system. The permit lottery opens on February 15th at 7:00 a.m. PST and closes on March 1st at 11:59 p.m. PST.
Winners are randomly chosen on March 8th.
Unfortunately, the odds of securing an overnight permit are slim. The area is exceptionally sought after making the permit system extremely competitive.
You may apply for an Enchantment Area Wilderness Permit one time and get it, but you may also apply for years before securing one.
My advice is to start applying for an overnight permit immediately and don’t lose hope if you aren’t awarded one your first time around.
What to Expect Hiking Snow Lakes Trail
The Snow Lakes trailhead is located just five miles from the heart of the charming, Bavarian-themed town of Leavenworth. The trail is popular and sees a lot of foot traffic.
The trail begins just behind the trail information board down a series of steps. Once you cross the bridge, you know you’re on the right path.
Snow Lakes Trail wastes zero time before putting you to work. You only walk about .2 miles before arriving at the switchback portion of the trail.
This section of the trail consists of 20 switchbacks and lasts roughly .8 miles. During this portion of the trail, hikers climb nearly 700 feet of elevation.
While the elevation is challenging, much of the switchback section is spent under shade as the trail weaves through the forest.
I wish I could tell you that once you reach the top of the switchbacks the elevation mellows — but it does not. While there are momentary breaks for your legs, the stretches of flat terrain do not last long.
Take your time, be grateful for moments of shade, and keep daydreaming about how incredible a much-deserved, dip in Upper Snow Lake will feel.
The trail tests your physical and mental toughness from the beginning but, fortunately, the scenery only gets more beautiful the further you walk.
Around mile five, you come to the first lake along Snow Lakes Trail: Nada Lake. This is a great place to grab a snack or enjoy lunch. There’s plenty of shade in the area and lots of places to pull off the trail for a break.
Once you pass Nada Lake and begin the climb towards Lower and Upper Snow Lakes, the trail wraps right alongside a powerful waterfall.
The sight of this waterfall is incredible. The water is exiting from an outlet pipe, creating a huge amount of localized force behind the water. The result is a powerful and uniquely horizontal water show.
The section between Nada Lake and Upper Snow Lake was my favorite part of the trail. Between the lakes, mountain tops, waterfalls, and wildflowers it was hard to keep pace. I had to force myself not to stop and whip out my camera every couple of steps.
Luckily, the spellbinding scenery in every direction makes for a good distraction from the continuous quad burn.
What’s so incredible about Snow Lakes Trail is you truly haven’t seen anything until you’ve laid eyes on Upper Snow Lake. Not only does the trail get increasingly more beautiful as you go, but it truly saves the best view for last.
Just after passing Lower Snow Lake, your efforts are rewarded with unobstructed views of Upper Snow Lake. Upper Snow Lake is absolutely stunning and worth every exhausting step uphill it takes to witness it.
The water is an entrancing shade of blue and the reflection of the mountain range is the definition of picturesque.
We wasted no time in changing into our swimsuits and hopping in.
If your legs are up for it, I recommend walking all the way to the far end of the lake. The scenery is beautiful and the trail around the lake is flat.
If you snagged a camping permit, there are also great campsites near the far end that get you closer to the coveted Core Zone.
Hiking the Enchantments
An alternative option, and better one in my opinion, to hiking the 16 miles out-and-back Snow Lakes Trail is to thru-hike the entire Enchantments Trail. The Enchantments Trail is just under 20 miles and absolutely mesmerizing from start to finish.
For just four more miles, you can witness the teal blue waters of Colchuck Lake, conquer the infamous Aasgard Pass, trek through the captivating Core Enchantment zone, and then top off the day at Snow Lakes.
It’s a no-brainer in my book to add a few miles in order to not have to retrace your steps and witness the grandeur of the Enchantments.
Either way, you’re in for a treat. Washington truly outdid itself with this one.
If hiking the Enchantments is on your bucket list, check out my guide: Hiking the Enchantments: The Only Guide You’ll Need.
Are you planning to hike Snow Lakes Trail or considering thru-hiking the entire Enchantments Trail? If you have any questions about the trail or hiking the Enchantments, drop me a message in the comment section below!
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