I find it hard not to describe every hike I do as the “best one ever”. Every place is beautiful and every place has something different, new, and amazing. But the Enchantments in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness about 15 miles southwest of Leavenworth really IS something special. The high alpine basin is filled with dazzling greenish-blue lakes, stark granite, beautiful meadows and tons of mountain goats. Backpacking permits are limited nightly to 28 groups of up to 8 people each from May 15 – October 31*, doled out through a lottery system with about 50/50 odds. One way to guarantee your trip is to do the Death March: a one day thru-hike gaining over 6k in 18 tough, rocky, granite-filled miles. It requires no permit, just a trail head registration and a lot of sweat.
*As of 2016, the permit season for the Enchantments has been extended. Check the Forest Service website for the most up-to-date information.
There are two approaches to the Enchantments. One starts at the Stuart Lake trailhead off Icicle Road and ascends Aasgard Pass, a climb of 2,300′ in less than a mile straight up a talus field to the top of the basin. Then you have a 6,400′ descent over 13 miles to the Snow Lake trailhead terminus. Or you can reverse the trip, climbing up the long slog from Snow Lake and then descending steep Aasgard Pass to the Stuart Lake trailhead.
Back in 2009, my friend Dylan talked me and another friend Joya into doing the Death March. I wasn’t much of a hiker then. I was active but had never hiked over 8 miles. “Hey, how tough can it be? We’ll have like all day” I told myself. Ignorance is bliss.
We chose the Stuart Lake approach and had an incredible hike all the way up and over Aasgard. Once in the basin, my friends climbed Little Annapurna, a nearby 8,440′ peak, while I took a nap, worried about tacking on mileage to a hike I’d be lucky to survive. Hours later when we neared Snow Lake on the descent my friend Joya and I carelessly walked through a water crossing, convinced we had only a few miles back to the car. In reality we had near 10 miles left, our sloshing feet turning to prunes and blistering in no time. At one point we simply sat down and cried. We were absolutely broken. No matter how far we kept going, it seemed we still had hours left.
To this day I’ve never felt as spent, tired, anguished, and certain that I’d need rescue by a chopper than I did then. After starting on the trail at 5am we staggered to the car 16 hours later at 9pm, barely able to move, tears in our eyes from utter exhaustion. We stopped at a gas station on the corner to clean up and shuffled in like stiff-legged zombies. Joya’s heels looked like hamburger. The counter clerk looked up and said, “Ahhhh, the Death March huh?”
You don’t just roll off the couch and hike the Enchantments in a day. I said I’d never do the Death March again.
Well, one thing we hikers know is that we all have long-term memory loss!
In 2014, the Enchantments suddenly struck my fancy again. With all the hiking mileage and vertical gain I’d been doing it would have to be easier, right?! My dad and stepmom were planning a trip to Seattle end of July so I told them about the Death March. “We’re in!” they said instantly. They hike 40+ miles every weekend in the Sierras and were seasoned veterans. Even more exciting was easily convincing 5 other friends into taking a weekday off to join us. I have the best friends in the world!
On July 31, 2014, nearly 5 years to the day after my first soul sucking experience on the Death March, 8 of us excitedly departed the Stuart Lake trailhead at 6am. And this time I knew what to expect and had Little Annapurna to bag!
We were lucky to have a beautiful clear day given a lot of recent fire activity in the area. Most of the smoke from the nearby Chiwaukum, Duncan, and huge Carlton Complex fires was blowing away from us. Wanting to maximize our time in the basin, we all moved quickly through the first 5 miles from the Stuart Lake trailhead to near Colchuck Lake, stopping to finally take a break and look up at the imposing Aasgard Pass. From Colchuck Lake you can’t easily spot a trail up Aasgard and the climb looks daunting. But don’t worry, once you start making your way up with the aid of lots of cairns, it’s really just a stairclimb on talus.
About halfway up Aasgard there seems to be a split, where one path goes high to the left and the other goes right towards a waterfall and stream. Both times I’ve done this route I’ve stayed high to the left. We became split with both our groups eventually making it to the top of the Pass but the group that went right got stymied for a bit at the falls with slippery rocks and trickier navigation. I’d advocate for staying high left. We saw several goats on the climb up, one in particular almost guiding us to the top.
Once at the top of the basin we stopped for a long lunch to enjoy the views. The mountain studs in our group headed out to climb Dragontail while the rest of us lounged. We watched them make their way across the snow field below Dragontail, my friend Richard leading the way in Chacos. Seriously. The guy hiked the entire day in sandals! And then climbed Dragontail. I know some seriously amazing and seriously crazy people.
As they started their descent the rest of us packed up to climb Little Annapurna. There isn’t really a trail or a sign that directs you to Annapurna, so as you head out of the basin you just have to pick a line up the mountain and go with it. We did eventually see some cairns here and there, but not until we were a little ways up. The footing is solid and it’s a fun bit of a scramble in spots. But one that seems to keep going and going… and going.
I’ve heard Annapurna described as a quick side trip. Don’t be fooled, it takes some work. But it’s absolutely worth it when you finally do crest the top and are treated to some pretty fabulous views of Dragontail, Mt. Baker, Mt. Rainier, Prusik Peak, Mt. Stuart, and the incredible spires of the south face. We could also see the eerily huge billowing columns of smoke from nearby fires.
The way down from Annapurna was a bit easier to follow than the way up and once back in the basin we rejoined the rest of our party for another small break. We were passing the time, having way too much fun, when I had to break it to everyone that hey, it was nearly 2pm and we still had about 12-13 miles to go. It’s almost hard to believe.
We got back to hiking, marveling at the gorgeous icy blue lakes, Prusik Peak in the background, and the alpine meadows still with flowers. Once past Lake Viviane the true Death March begins. When you at last reach Upper Snow Lake, it’s a 1.5 mile hike to the dam separating the upper and lower lakes. My first year the water was high here. This year it was dry. From here it’s another 6.5 miles to the trailhead from the lower lake.
The descent is like a never-ending Escher puzzle. Descend to a lake, then another lake, then another. I remember at one point my dad checked his altimeter and told our friend Scott we had another 3,400′ to the trailhead. Scott exclaimed incredulously, “How is that even possible!?” It’s really quite something to realize just how far up you were. And how much more you have left. From the top of Little Annapurna at 8,440′ it’s a 7k descent to the Snow Lake trailhead. Mostly on granite. Amazing. And brutal.
The rocky terrain is tough to cover fast and when you do hit smooth dirt sections and start cruising they don’t last long. About a mile and a half from the trailhead you can finally see headlights from Icicle Road, but the trail switchbacks mercilessly, never taking you straight to the parking lot. You’re still a good 30-40 minutes away. All of us hiked quietly by headlamp, trying to move our sore knees as fast as they could go, ready to be done.
As a cruel joke, when you finally reach the bottom, you cross a bridge over a canal and then climb back up 50 feet to the parking lot. Yes, climb back up. It’s the nail in the coffin I tell you.
We started at 6am and finally hit the trailhead around 9:30pm to a flurry of hi-fives before hastily hitting the store for pizza and beer. We returned to Leavenworth to promptly stuff our faces, then pass out. The Death March still kicked my ass but this time I got my Annapurna summit and no tears were shed. I’d call it a win. My dad and stepmom do epic hikes all the time and said it was easily one of the hardest they’ve done. We were all beat.
At least for me, I don’t think there will be any “third time is a charm” with the Death March. Perhaps I’ll backpack there some day, but with permits getting tougher and the crowds getting bigger, I’ll probably stick to other areas of Washington.
The day hike is an amazing experience though and if you’re fit, a great challenge. With the abundance of water you can pack a filter and travel relatively lightly in good conditions. Don’t underestimate how rapidly weather can change here though and always be prepared. The downside of the day hike is that you have to keep moving all day and fight the urge to sit down for a few hours to really enjoy the views.
If you’re looking for the ultimate day hiking adventure this is one not to be missed! And make sure you have space for lots of pictures!
Round Trip: 20 miles (including Annapurna side trip) Elevation Gain: ~6,600′ High Point: 8,440′ Hiking Time: 12:00-14:00 hrs