When autumn weaves it’s magical tapestry of yellow, crimson and orange, certain places become holy sites. Shrines to the whimsical palette of Mother Nature. The hardwood forests of New England are, of course, famous. The aspen-covered mountains of Colorado. The brilliant magenta tundra slopes of the arctic.
Closer to home, larch forests adorn the eastern slopes of the Cascades, offering an autumnal extravaganza of color that equals any of these, a brilliant flaring of luminous gold before an inevitable blanket of white ushers in the monochrome of winter.
It begins to rain, changes to hail, then snow, then back to rain—autumn in the Enchantments!
During this season, the Enchantments cry out to me with a siren’s call that cannot be ignored. The sweet larches; cold, still tarns; and wild granite spires as sharp as knives combine to create an atmosphere of mystery and power, a place for epic dreams and sagas. Valhalla.
I’d been up there before – and in Autumn too. I can’t get enough. I’m like that.
But an audience with these autumnal Mountain Gods carries a certain risk because the height of the color display often occurs at the turning point when the cool, clear days of Autumn yield to the fury of winter. Sometimes overnight.
Energized by anticipation, my companions and I shoulder our absurdly heavy backpacks, cross Icicle Creek, and head up beneath Snow Creek Wall through an old burn. Up. And up some more. We drop our packs at Nada Lake, pitch our tents in the shadows of the forest, and cook our dinner on smooth rocks beside the cold, clear water. The clouds part and we get a tantalizing glimpse of the moon rising above black ramparts of stone in the darkening sky.
In the morning, we follow the lakeshore to the base of a rockfall, which is surmounted on an ingenious trail, cut through the boulders. The boulders give way to stunted trees and soon we’re eating wasabi almonds beside the shore of Upper Snow Lake. So far, so good.
We cross the dam—a strange reminder of the reach of our engineers—six feet above the dry outlet of the lake and hike beside the sparkling water to the base of Trauma Rib. As you might surmise from its name, Trauma Rib can be, well, traumatic. The cairned route leads up gullies, over roots, and polished rock towards the sky. In places, there are steps chipped into the stone. Occasionally it is necessary to use hands as well as feet. With our grotesquely heavy packs—burdened with provisions for eight days—it’s a workout. As we labor upward into granite country, the clouds gather, swallowing the tops of the highest peaks.
We top a rocky parapet, and Lake Vivienne suddenly comes into view, surrounded by smoothly chiseled cliffs rising to ragged pinnacles, half-seen in the clouds. Excalibur, a pyramid-shaped rock, rises from the surface of the lake: a scene out of the Lord of the Rings. Scattered larches cling to the walls of the cirque, a luminous gold in the muted light. A welcoming committee consisting of five mountain goats passes across the headwall in single file.
It begins to rain, changes to hail, then snow, then back to rain—autumn in the Enchantments! We huddle beneath a tiny tarp, scant shelter for the four of us. The wind blows down from the lonely heights, its voice rising to a banshee howl as night falls.
In the morning, it’s raining sideways. We pass the stormy day exploring the rock gardens above the lake, discovering small wonders. In places, the fallen larch needles have collected in patterns among the rocks like amber arabesques. At regular intervals, goats visit.
As darkness descends, it begins to snow in earnest.
In the morning, we wake to a white world, silent and still. A few inches of snow have fallen overnight. We load our backpacks and boulder-hop across the outlet of the lake. Climbing the granite face that rises above its surface is made easier by rebar footholds cemented into the rock. Thankfully, the sun peaks through the clouds, and the snow melts off the rocks. It would be seriously dicey to cross these granite pitches otherwise.
Leprechaun Lake is a scene from a dream, surrounded by glowing larches and fresh snow. We drop our packs on a peninsula that protrudes into the lake and pitch our tents. Sunlight teases the peaks. Our loads lightened, we head up the trail through a wonderland of rock and snow, passing elegant waterfalls and delicate gardens of red and orange. Overhead the ridges are serrated with sharp teeth and black shards.
Sprite Lake, nestled in a rocky bowl, is a sweet, cold little tarn. We climb up and down granite slabs and through a miniature larch forest, each golden bough decorated with a filigree of new snow. More climbing to Perfection Lake, its waters crystal clear. Dark towers loom, their summits lost in roiling clouds.
As the light fades, we return to camp, and snow begins to fall. By midnight it’s coming down in earnest, blowing sideways. At some point in the middle of the night, we have to get out and dig out the tent.
By morning, there’s nearly a foot on the ground, and it’s still snowing. We huddle beneath our diminutive tarp, drink coffee and consider our options. There’s no way we can hike out in these conditions, considering the semi-exposed sections of smooth granite we would need to down-climb. Obviously, the rebar would be impossible to find beneath the snow. We have no ropes. Even finding the trail across the convoluted rockscape would be a dubious proposition.
We have a second cup of coffee and decide that there’s nothing for it but to sit and watch the snow fall. In early afternoon we venture out into the white and explore our immediate surroundings. Finally, in the afternoon, the snow lets up and then stops altogether, and a few patches of blue appear overhead, a most welcome sight.
On our hike in from the trailhead, we had passed numerous groups of spandex-clad trail runners running the route from Colchuck to Snow Creek. We haven’t seen any spandex for a few days. In fact, we haven’t seen anybody except for a pair of hikers hunkered down at Vivienne, who venture out to the impassible granite cliffs that separate our camp from theirs. A conversation shouted across the rocks reveals that they had tried to hike out but gave up after being unable to locate the route in the snow.
Back at camp, goats loiter around our camp, eyeing us with what looks like a mixture of larceny and disdain. These goats are famous for their craving for salt.
As evening falls, the wind comes up, and a half-moon rises through temptestuous clouds. Then, the temperature drops, and it begins to snow again.
Late at night, I am rudely awakened by the need to pee, which means leaving my warm sleeping bag, getting into my frozen boots, and going out into the storm. A family of goats is nearby, revealed in the beam of my headlamp through the swirling snow. As I answer nature’s call, they move in, attracted by the salt in my urine. To be out in a snowstorm at night in my long underwear and having goats lunging at my privates is more than a little unnerving.
In the morning, frozen zippers complicate egress from the tent. We gather for coffee beneath the scant sanctuary of our little tarp among the larches. It is clear that we are pretty much stuck here until it warms up enough to melt the snow. Someone mentions that this might not happen until next spring. We inventory our food and fuel – we’ll be fine for at least a couple of days.
As we discuss the situation, the snow tapers off, and the clouds part their leaden skirts, revealing blue skies and—lo and behold—the sun. A mama mountain goat and her kid come to pay us a visit, wondering if we might have some extra salt. Barb and Rich head off to the granite cliff to try to clear a passage across the snow with my plastic hand-trowel. Brett and I head off in different directions with cameras and tripods, savoring the wild beauty of fresh snow and soaring peaks.
I climb a slippery ridge and gain a view of Sprite Lake, sparkling in the sunshine.—a waterfall curves down a grooved granite face. Shafts of sunlight illuminate snow-plastered Prusik Peak with an ethereal golden light and the orange of the larches is vibrant against the white mantle of snow. White fluffy clouds whip past overhead, but they don’t look threatening. And the snow is melting. Things are looking up.
It’s the coldest night yet, and the wind howls with renewed vigor. With the snow melt that occurred over the course of the day, we had decided that unless it snowed again overnight, we would make a run for it in the morning. It is blissful to remove my frozen boots and slip into the soft embrace of my sleeping bag.
At first light, we emerge from the tents—no new snow—and commence breaking camp beneath leaden skies that seem to suggest more snow on the way. Shouldering our packs, we begin the descent and find the going quite manageable across the wind-swept cliffs and down the rebar section past Vivienne. As we drop over the lip of Trauma Rib, the sun emerges from behind the roiling clouds, and we strip off the layers of polypro and Gore-Tex that we’ve been wearing more-or-less continuously for days. We down-climb in high spirits.
The ground is mostly bare when we reach Upper Snow Lake, thanks to the lower elevation. We descend to the lower lake, establish a camp on a rocky peninsula that reaches out into the wind-ruffled water and relax contentedly, soaking up the warmth of the late-afternoon sun, watching green reeds dance in the shallows.
It’s interesting how much one can enjoy the simple pleasures of being warm and dry. One by one, my companions drift off to bed, and I sit quietly, watching the moon’s reflection slowly make its way across the lake’s surface.
The morning dawns calm and crystal-clear. We load our packs and start down, past a tiny pond laced with the geometry of overnight ice, reflecting the mountains, the sky, and my happy heart . Birdsong, melancholy and sweet, fills the woods.
As so often happens, our hike was nothing like we’d planned. However, the days in the storm had raised some interesting questions and provided lots of time to think. The sense of vulnerability, of being entirely at the mercy of the elements, was powerful—and humbling.
One by one, we make our way down through the sun-dappled forest towards home, each nursing our thoughts and savoring autumn’s last hurrah.
Visiting the Enchantments
Long-recognized as a scenic zenith of the northern mountains, a journey into the Enchantment Lakes demands a steep price, paid in sweat and grunting, to reveal their charms. The formidable approach—long and with copious elevation gain—is only part of it.
Part of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, the area has been on a strict permit system for years, and securing one of those precious permits requires entering an online lottery. The odds are not good if you’re looking for ingress at high-demand times, such as fall, when the larches are aglow in autumn fire. If you’re not lucky with the lottery, you can take your chances with the smattering of “walk-in permits” distributed each morning at the Wenatchee River ranger station in Leavenworth.
Worth it? Without question.
Unique in the Cascades, the peaks here are composed of granite, knife-edged and dramatic. The various lakes, each more delightful than the last, occupy lonely basins between the spires. It’s rugged country—a landscape hewn of rock and winters immemorial. Summer is a fleeting dream, and the snow never retreats completely.
Realistically, you’ll have to devote at least four days to the undertaking and probably (hopefully) more. There are two points of ingress—one grueling (the Snow Creek route), the other grueling, and daunting (Aasgard Pass). Either way, the glory of the high country will reward your efforts a hundred-fold.
If you come in on the Snow Lakes trail, you’ll have ample time to prepare yourself for what waits above, climbing gradually but steadily five miles to Nada Lake and reaching the Snow Lakes at six and a half. You’ll have gained about 4,000 vertical feet with another 2,000 to go before the lower Enchantment Basin. These lakes offer fine places to drop your pack and take a well-deserved rest. Many hikers choose to camp here and tackle the rest of the ascent to the lower Enchantment Basin the following day. Either way, you’ll want to gather your strength for the climb up Trauma Rib, a section of trail so steep that you’ll find yourself grateful for the rebar steps hammered into the rock.
But when you reach the top of the Rib and feast your eyes on the drama of Prusik Peak and Lake Vivienne, the toil is forgotten. And when its surface reflects the sparkling stars, you’ll find answers to questions you didn’t even know you had.
It’s that good.
Where to go from here? It’s an embarrassment of riches. First, the lower basin offers excursions to Perfection Lake, Leprechaun Lake, and Prusik Pass. Then, continue upward on the rough and tumble trail past Isolation Lake and into the upper basin, likely to contain snow no matter when you go. From here, rambles to Tranquil Lake, Aasgard Pass, and an easy ascent of Little Annapurna could occupy you for many full and happy days.