This is one of our favorite hikes of all time and definitely belongs on the #goat list. While I totally wish I had backpacked it so that I could’ve stared longingly for hours at the gorgeous deep blue, teal, and turquoise alpine lakes, getting a permit for backpacking this hike is nearly impossible (although every year I do try). On the bright side, it’s totally possible to thru-hike it in a day. Here’s how…
The good thing is that while hiking all 19 miles in one day is very hard, it is totally doable for experienced hikers. This blog shares how long it took us and some tips to keep in mind to help you navigate your way and make the most of this epic adventure.
Day hiking the Enchantments is free and has become very popular because you can only backcountry camp in and around the Enchantments wilderness area by permit from May 15th-October 31st. (Note: you don’t need a permit to camp out here in the wintertime). Permits are given out by lottery. You can apply for a permit the last few weeks of February. There are more than 15,000 people that apply for this permit every summer so the odds aren’t favorable.
The Draw: Why is this a #GOAT hike?
It’s the alpine lakes and snow-capped, jagged mountains that make this one of the greatest of all times. They are mind-blowing! I’ve hiked to a lot of alpine lakes and these are some of the most gorgeous in the world, rivaling some of my all-time favorites, Goat Lake, Delta Lake, and Garibaldi Lake. If snow-capped mountains and alpine lakes aren’t your thing, then you may want to pass on this one because it is H-A-R-D.
Which direction is better to Thru-Hike?
While you can start the hike on either side, we followed other’s recommendation and started from Stuart Lake because then you climb up Aasgard Pass while you have fresh legs. The bad thing is that even though the trail down from the alpine lakes to a gradual decline, it lasts for what feels like FOREVER and is really hard on your feet. Seriously, it’s a 6 hour downhill.
So which direction is better? It’s doable either way and many people I talked to had said they’ve done it both ways. If I did it again, I’d probably do it in reverse and start from the Snow Lakes Trailhead in the dark so I could spend more time in the alpine area.
Descending down Aasgard Pass is harder on the knees, but if your knees can take it, the views this way are gorgeous. I’m not a fan of downhilling so by doing it from Snow Lakes you actually climb 2,600 feet more than if you do it the typical way from Stuart Lake which I’m going to detail below.
Why is this hike so hard?
Besides the fact that it’s almost 20 miles end to end, getting to these gorgeous alpine lakes requires going up or down the famous Aasgard Pass, which rises 1,900 feet in less than a mile. Yes, it’s hard. No, it’s not as bad as you may fear.
If you are in good shape, your legs and lungs are going to feel the burn, but it’s no harder than the climb to the summit of many Colorado 14ers. Be smart, pack layers, stay hydrated, and start early to give yourself plenty of time. We are strong, experienced hikers and this still took us 13 hours with minimal breaks.
Overview: Thru-Hiking the Enchantments From Stuart Lake Trailhead to Snow Lake Trailhead
- Total Miles: 19 miles
- Total Elevation Gain: 4500 ft
- Highest Point: 7800 ft
- Total Hiking Time: 13 hours (you might be faster if there’s no snow at the top)
- Start: Stuart Lake Trailhead
- End: Snow Lakes Trailhead
Directions To Stuart Lake Trailhead: Drive the US2 west out of Leavenworth. Turn left onto Icicle Creek Road. Drive 8.4 miles and turn left onto Forest Service Road 7601. This is a steep, bumpy, potholed dirt road (I take my RV down many dirt roads but I wouldn’t drive it on this). It’s rough road but most 2WD vehicles will be fine. Follow the forest service road 3.7 miles to the Stuart Lake trailhead. Forest Service Road 7601 is typically closed from November to May.
Drop a vehicle at Snow Lakes Trailhead: You will want to leave another vehicle at the Snow Lakes Trailhead, which you will pass on your way up to Stuart Lake Trailhead. Snow Lakes Trailhead parking is on Icicle Creek road, 4 miles up from the US2 and also requires a Northwest Parking Pass, which is $5 for the day or $30 for the year.
Parking at the Stuart Lake Trailhead: The parking isn’t very big so try to arrive early (unless you want to add a mile to your hike). Parking at the trailhead requires payment of $5 or a Northwest Parking Pass (which means you will have to pay for 2 passes total). There is a toilet at the trailhead. Remember to fill out a backcountry wilderness permit (1 per group), which are available at the start of the hike. There are rangers on the trail who will be checking to see that you filled one out.
Camping nearby: Note there is free camping on the road to Stuart Lake TH. This is great for tents or vans but like I said it’s hard to get RVs up here. If you have an RV, there is a designated free RV camping area about 3 more miles up Icicle Creek Road. There are also numerous low-cost, forest service campgrounds along Icicle Creek Road. Bridge Creek and Eightmile Campgrounds are the closest to the trailheads, but not within walking distance. You will still need a car to get to the actual trailheads.
Mountain goat warning: At the trailhead, there is a sign that says if the mountain goats won’t leave you alone you are permitted to throw rocks at them. (They’re accustomed to the taste of human urine so they’ll follow you.) You have been warned!
How to Thru-Hike the Enchantments in One Day, Part 1: Parking Lot to Colchuck Lake
Time: 2 to 2.5 hours
The first thirty minutes is very easy as it meanders through the forest, however, the next hour and a half to Colchuck lake is a thigh burner.
About 1 hour into the hike you’ll get to a sign that says Colchuck Lake on it. Follow it.
After two hours of mostly steady climbing, you’ll reach Colchuck Lake. This is a good place for a quick snack. If you can get there early, you’ll be able to capture gorgeous pictures of the turquoise lake and the climb up Aasgard won’t be as hard in cooler temperatures.
How to Thru-Hike the Enchantments in One Day, Part 2: Aasgard Pass
Time: 2 to 2.5 hours
You may have read in other blogs that this part is confusing and difficult, but don’t overthink it. All you need to remember is to walk to the back of the lake, hop and skip over boulders, and look for cairns to guide your way. Seriously, there are a ton of cairns along the boulder field making your path quite easy to follow. The cairns will also guide you to the best creek crossings.
Once you get through the boulder field, you’ll be at the bottom of Aasgard pass. This is a steep climb up large rocks and boulders with more than a mile of elevation gain. Think of doing a thousand step-ups mixed in with a little bit of scrambling over boulders and hiking on some scree (loose rocks). The views of the lake and the forests below are so amazing that hopefully, you’ll forget about the burn in your quads.
There are a few spots that are considered a Class 1-2 scramble that you may want to use your hands for. If you have a huge fear of heights, the steepness of this section can seem daunting, however, there is little exposure, meaning no chance of falling off cliffsides, so you really should be good. My son has a fear of heights and he was totally fine going up this. It would’ve been more unnerving for him if he had to descend it.
Remember to pace yourself, but don’t go too slow or you’ll run out of daylight (don’t forget to pack a headlamp just in case). Once you’ve finish hiking up Aasgard Pass you’ll summit the peak at 7,840 feet. Here you can stop to have a snack, enjoy the views, and then it’s all downhill from there, although the Enchantment area is a very gradual downhill compared to the final section.
Don’t sit too long here at the top, you’ve still got a long way to go and you will want to have a little time to sit by an alpine lake.
Related: Best Day Hikes In The World
How to Thru-Hike the Enchantments in One Day, Part 3: The Core Enchantments
Time: 3 hours
Depending on the time of year, you’ll be hiking through dirt and big patches of snow for this section. When we did it in July 2017 this section was fully covered in snow, making it hard to follow the trail at times. (When in doubt, just look for cairns and follow the other hikers as best you can.) Also, make sure you read the Google Maps blog below for some great tips on not getting lost on hikes.
Each lake is quite stunning and I loved how unique each one was with different shades of blues and greens. My personal favorite was Inspiration Lake, which took a little over 6 hours total to get to and since it’s a halfway point, it’s a good place to stop and each lunch.
How to Thru-Hike the Enchantments in One Day, Part 4: The Very, Very Long Descent through the Snow Zone
Time: 6 hours
Once you pass the Core Enchantment Area, you’ll start your official decent. The first 30 minutes of this is fairly steep and requires descending down some large boulders. While it’s not as steep as Aasgard, I do recommend hiking sticks if you have achy knees.
It will take about an hour to get to Upper Snow Lake. 30 minutes later you’ll have to take off your shoes to cross the dam. It’s only ankle deep but very cold, which will probably feel good on your sore feet.
Once you pass Nada Lake the trail will still have 3,600 feet of elevation to lose before you make it to the parking lot. This section goes through the forest (make sure you have insect repellent), another boulder field, and finally, a never-ending, narrow dirt path along overgrown shrubbery.
You’ll know you’re close when you hit the switchbacks indicating your last mile and the final 800-foot descent. Once the parking lot comes into view, you only have 24 switchbacks to go 🙂
I hated doing the hike and worrying if we were going to make it to the end before nightfall so here’s how long it took us to get to each marker along the way in order to help you know if you’re on pace to finish faster or slower. We tend to average 2 miles per hour. Compared to most people, we are relatively fast at uphill but slower at downhilling. Seriously, I think we pass everyone when we go up and then everyone passes us on the way down 🙂
Colchuck: 2 hours 10 minutes
Top of Aasgard Pass: 4 hours 30 minutes
Inspiration Lake: 6 hours 15 minutes
View of Snow Lake: 7 hours 40 minutes
Upper Snow Lake: 9 hours
Cross the Dam: 9 hours 30 minutes
Snow Lakes Trailhead: 13 hours (yep, we seriously descended for 3.5 hours after the lakes!)
Essential Pack List for the Enchantments:
Water Filtration System: One thing nice about this hike is that there is usually a lot of runoff from the snowmelt and you can fill your filtered water bottles from the running streams. It keeps your backpack lighter if you carry a lightweight water purifier like these Clear Flow water bottles that we carry on all our long hikes. We had originally started the hike carrying big, heavy gallon water bottle on our way up because we were worried about having enough for 19 miles but after about 2 hours we dumped it all when we realized we could just fill and filter water from the falls and streams.
Hiking Shoes: We hike everything, including our 100 mile Tour Du Mont Blanc backpacking adventure in LaSportiva Bushidos. They are our absolute favorite shoes for hiking and pretty much all our adventures.
Headlamp: I wish I had started this hike before first light so I could’ve spent more time in the Core Enchantment Area. The trail from both sides is well marked and you could easily hike the first hour with just a headlamp. Plus, it’s a good idea to carry a light just in case the hike takes you longer than expected. We’ve hiked in the past with our Black Diamond headlamps and our Luci inflatable light. The Luci lights are amazing because they have a USB port to charge your phone while you are hiking!
Packable Down Jacket: We never hike without our Patagonia Down Sweater Jackets or NanoPuffs. Weather in the mountains can change quickly and it’s no fun being cold on the trail.
Packable Rain Jacket: The weather is unpredictable in the mountains. Even if it’s “not supposed to rain” bring a rain jacket.
Beanie: While you will probably only need this for the first hour, it will be cold when you start and keeping your head warm will save energy for your long trek ahead.
Insect Repellant: If you’ve hiked the PNW, you know that mosquitos can be vicious here. If you don’t want to be eaten alive, carry some form of defense. We recently discovered these cool mosquito repellent stickers. They are made of pure essential oils and are 100% natural and non-toxic
- How To Use Google Maps To Not Get Lost on a Hike
- How To Train For a Strenuous Hike
- Backpacking Pack List
Looking for more epic hikes? Check these out:
- Epic Hikes on the East Coast USA
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- Pictures to Inspire you to Backpack the Tour Du Mont Blanc
- Favorite Day Hikes Around the World
- Favorite Hikes at Rocky Mountain NP
- Favorite Hikes in Whistler, BC
- Backpacking Abel Tasman, New Zealand
- Backpacking the Kalalau Trail, Kauai
- Backpacking Maroon Bells, Colorado