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The Enchantment Lakes are very different from the type of lake most people envision when thinking of lakefront vacations. There are no boats, no swimming beaches, and no sunbathers. In fact, there are very few people. That's because the delicate ecology of these alpine lakes in North Central Washington's Cascade Region requires the US Forest Service to limit visitors to permit only, with only 60 permits allowed at a time. Only the most physically fit of hikers can reach these spectacular lakes clustered above 7000 feet; even then, the majority of permits for camping are selected months ahead of the season by lottery. The hike is arduous, crossing several snow fields and loose rock, with major elevation changes. After the May to October permit season, only those experienced in ice climbing and avalanche survival dare attempt the ascent. But everyone who visits here claims they want to go back!
The Enchantment Lakes are a series of small glacially-fed lakes within two basins surrounded by some of the most rugged peaks in the North Cascades. Located within the Stuart Range, the entire area is within the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. The lakes in the lower basin are at an elevation of over 4400 feet, while those in the upper basin are closer to 7000 feet. Thus, the lakes in the two basins are in different climate and altitude zones, with very different vegetation.
The lower lakes, those within the Snow Lakes Basin, are in a forested area, with autumn being the favored time to visit due to the display of golden color produced by the larch trees surrounding them. The three largest lakes within the Snow Lake Zone are Upper Snow Lake, Lower Snow Lake, and Nada Lake. Upper and Lower Snow Lakes are divided by a dam placed by the Forest Service to control water levels to out-flowing Snow Creek which flows into Icicle Creek and in turn, the Leavenworth Fish Hatchery and nearby orchard irrigation.
Several campsites are located near the shores of the lakes; no campfires are allowed, so stoves must be backpacked in. This is one trek where dogs are not allowed, as the local mountain goats tend to be afraid of them. Wildlife officials are concerned that the mountain goats are losing their fear of humans and strongly recommend campers not try to approach them.
Moving higher in elevation, hikers enter the Core Enchantment Zone which holds what is usually referred to as the Enchantment Lakes. Surrounded by the majestic peaks of Little Annapurna, McClellan and Prusik Peak, the 10 lakes and several small tarns are known by at least two competing names, one bestowed by early hikers and the official later named by the US Forest Service. The names they are generally known by are a combination of the two lists: Sprite Lake, Leprechaun Lake, Lake Viviane, Isolation Lake, Talisman Lake (called Inspiration Lake on US Forest Service maps), Brisengamen Lakelets, Lake Brynhild, Lake Freya and Lake Rune. Crystal Lake is seen in the same basin to the south, while to the north, a day hike through Prusik Pass will lead the energetic hiker to Shield, Mesa and Earle Lakes. The Enchantment Zone is high enough in altitude that the treeline is left behind. Hikers are faced with a alien but beautiful landscape, barren and devoid of most vegetation. The Snow Creek Glacier can be seen off to the southwest between Little Annapurna and Dragontail Peaks. Snow in this area can fall at any time, with both June and late September noted for hikers encountering snow and freezing temperatures. In good weather, however, the scenery is fantastic, with clear still lakes reflecting the craggy peaks that surround them.
A number of informal spots are used as campsites, and a few pit toilets are located along the trails. There is no drinking water provided, and it is suggested hikers bring their own water in, although many find filtered lake water entirely suitable. No surveys have been done, so lake sizes and depths are not recorded. Most information is that reported by hikers, who are invariably long on praise but a bit short on scientific observations.
Heading yet higher toward the west, hikers are likely to encounter snow fields even during the summer months that can be treacherous to cross for inexperienced hikers. The Aasgard Pass leading toward Colchuck Lake can be especially strenuous and the trail poorly marked. The area around Colchuck Lake and neighboring Lake Stuart is well-supplied with small glaciers. Most visiting hikers wouldn't dream of leaving the Enchantment Lakes area without a side trip to marvel at these local ice fields. Visitors can access the Enchantment Lakes from either end of the trail, with the Snow Lakes Zone more level and easily accessible.
Many experienced hikers in these mountains bring fishing gear secured to their backpacks. The lakes hold cutthroat trout, brook trout and rainbow trout. Although called 'native' trout, the fish are not found naturally in the lakes; the local trout have not had time to ascend the steep creeks and many waterfalls in the relatively short period of time since the lakes became ice-free. Instead, the Civilian Conservation Corps began stocking alpine lakes in the 1930s under the Depression-era jobs program. Later a Seattle-area volunteer group called Trailblazers began backpacking stocking fry in to the lakes in cooperation with the US Forest Service. So the original trout stock arrived the same way that today's visitors do: hiking up the trail. Now, improvements in fish research allows stocking to be completed by helicopter.
There are no forms of lodging in the near vicinity of Enchantment Lakes; only primitive camping is allowed. The situation is much the same in the entire Alpine Wilderness Area. The small town of Leavenworth is only abut 15 miles from the Snow Lakes end of the trail and holds everything that visitors need. A number of farm-stays, golf course condos, hotels, retreats, chalets, cottages, inns and RV parks are located very near the Enchanted Lakes area. Leavenworth also holds several venues dedicated to the Arts including a theater, music center, town band and handbell ringer group. The town maintains a Bavarian atmosphere and possesses many specialty shops offering metalworking crafts and unique gifts.
In winter, cross country and downhill skiing are nearby. As home base for an Enchantment Lakes adventure, Leavenworth possesses everything a visitor will need except the skill and physical fortitude to make the trek itself. Real estate can be found for purchase near Leavenworth, but is in high demand in this growing recreation destination. So, pack up the hiking boots, gather up a permit and Forest Service map and come see the Enchantment Lakes. It's a trip that will leave you with memories for a lifetime.
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