Friday, October 3, 2008

World Class Scenery at the Enchantments

It was back in 2006 as I was surfing through the regional wilderness programs that I stumbled onto the web page of the Wenatchee National Forest. It told of a wilderness area that was so sensitive that it was limited to permit entry only. Initially put off by the formality, I wrote off the Enchantment Lakes area of the Alpine Lake Wilderness area as a place I wasn’t really interested in.

Fall colors collide with scars of a forest fire nearly a decade old in Snow Creek Canyon.

This year, inundated by magazine articles and web posts of experiences in the basin, I finally decided that I would have to see it for myself. I went through the permit process which was a mere formality and the cost at $3 per day which includes parking at the trailhead is less than buying a daily Northwest Forest Pass.

The photographer and writer on the trail home on Thursday, October 2nd, 2008.

The catch is this, 60 people are allowed to camp in the greater Enchantments area. Only a small number of those actually get to camp in the highest basin, an area of serene alpine, granite shrouded creeks, ponds and lakes between 6,700 and 7700 feet in elevation. Permits are accepted beginning February 20th and most days of the summer are filled early. When I applied for my permit in early summer, I had two advantages. One, I was going to come after the high visitation season and two, I was going in the middle of the week rather than the weekend. Event then, camping in the upper most basin was not available; That is until I arrived at the Levenworth Ranger District Office to pick up my permit.

Granite Islands protrude above the waters of Lower Snow Lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area.

My strategies were carefully thought out to maximize what little amount of time I had. Most recommendations include a minimum of four days. I had three and a partner whose fitness level might be a challenge. The plan was to hike in, 6.5 miles to Snow Lake and set up base camp. On day two, we would hike up to the Enchantments and wander.

The upper end of Nada Lake quietly wakes up before sunrise.

My mind raced as the information specialist at the ranger district office offered us and “Enchantment permit”, the crown jewel of overnight wilderness experiences in Washington. I knew even my fitness level would be extremely challenged by such a one day endeavor. I was too locked in to my own planning to change entry points that might allow for such flexibility.

Prusik Peak and the Enchantment Peaks (also known as "The Temple") tower over the lake basin of the same name.

As it was, my partner and I slogged to Nada lake, a mile short of our original goal. The trail begins four miles out of Levenworth on Icicle Creek Road at 1800 feet. Five and a half miles and three major switch-backing, elevation gaining, grinding miles later, we arrived at Nada Lake with just enough time to set up camp before dark. This was short of our goal and during high season, this kind of accommodating choice would be frowned upon. Every camp site is spoken for by permit, but on this late September night, we were alone at both lakes.

The long end of Leprechaun Lake in the Enchanted Lakes Basin resides in fall color uner McClellan Peak.

A pile of rocks mark the trail route.

I have to say right up front that fitness levels need to be high for this hike. After traversing the lower portion to Nada Lake, my partner decided he didn’t have the physical capabilities needed for the days hike into the upper most basin, (as it turns out, a very good choice) so I set out at first light. I Passed the Snow Lakes and then to the final 1,200 foot granite face, I hiked and climbed. Some times, granite cliffs with hand and foot-holds were as high as 30 to 40 feet had to be ascended with hand over hand “bouldering”, challenging, but not technical rock climbing. As I approached the rim, the trail became all granite and no soil. It was marked by the strategic piles of rocks.

You have to love the 70-plus percent of silica that is in granite. That makes the rock essentially 70%, rough cut glass, so gripping the rocky trail is much easier than it sounds. Anyone that has done any hiking in the Sierra-Nevada (Lake Tahoe, Yosemite and Sequoia) can probably relate.

I had two goals for the day. One (very child-like I admit) to see mountain goats at close proximity (not ½ mile away like in the Goat Rocks Wilderness) and two, to catch some glowing gold Western Larch and add them to the photo possibilities of my late season visit.

The trail went between thick stands of golden larch.

The first goal was met the moment I crested the top of the rim when two Mountain goats were right in the middle of the trail picking lichen off of the rocky surface. There was no getting around them so I waited and moved slowly. Eventually, I followed them on the trail to a place where there was space to safely get around with minimal disturbance.

These Mountain Goats were on the trail as I approached Lake Vivian in the Enchantment Lakes.

The second goal was right in front of me as I wandered the Enchantments; A series of ponds and lakes that were inter-connected by a small stream that ran from the Upper basin near Isolation Lake to tarns and small water boddies to the lowest at Lake Viviane. At that point, the water dropped in dramatic fashion clear down to Snow Lake on its way to the Wenatchee River via Icicle Creek at Levenworth some 7,000 feet and 10 miles down stream. There were so many angles, so much art to compose that it was with near sadness that I had to consider how little time I had to spend there. Sometimes I was driven to near tears by the awesome beauty and at least one time I thought how my camera will seem worthless after this trip, because it captured the pinnacle of beauty on this one trip.

The fall color of Western Larch contrast the pure waters of Lake Vivian in the Enchantment Lakes.

Now I consider the lessons learned. The first of which is respect the time needed to truly experience this place. Planning and obtaining the needed permits is essential. I would suggest entering the Enchantment Basin via the Stuart Lake Trail after staying the night at Colchuck Lake . The next morning ascend Asgard Pass and drop into the Upper Basin of the Enchantment Lakes. Spend at least one night among the Enchantments and then drop to Snow or Nada Lake for your last night in the area. Depart via the Snow Lakes trail. Of course this requires a shuffle of vehicles or a full-blown beg for a ride to the Lake Stuart Trailhead, but those are logistical problems that will pale to the overall experience.

Little Annapurma towers above an island in Perfection Lake. Western larch give the scene color.

As I wandered among the pure waters and granite spires, I met and talked with people who had come to see this world class scenery from all over the globe. Three were from England and one camped next to Lake Viviane that hailed from Virginia. In a hushed conversation he told me he was already planning his return trip to this place that cast a very pleasurable spell on him.

A scenic shot of Prusik Peak and Lake Viviane in the Enchantment Lake Basin.


Slippery Amoeba said...

Hey, great trip report. I was curious what things looked like in the fall. The larches are striking against that backdrop.

Gregg P said...

I was a little early for full effect...anyone coming after we did is going to be rare. Regardless, I had to corner little pockets of color with the camera to make some of these shots work fairly well.

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