This is post 1 of 3 in "Places of the Pacific."
Throughout this series, we explore three special places that form the building blocks of our Pacific Wildway and safeguard important species and ecological processes. You'll learn about ecosystem management in the Enchantments, the wonders of Yosemite National Park, and the future of the Pasayten Wilderness. All posts in this series…
Before I hiked the Enchantments, I heard the hype about pristine lakes and tarns, jagged peaks, cirques and glaciers. But not until I visited the area was I able to witness a landscape that felt like it belonged to another time and place. Peg Stark, one of the pioneer climbers in the area, described the stunning scenery “as if the Ice Age had just gone off.”
The Enchantments are aptly named. The Upper Basin is an expansive hanging basin at 7,800 feet, blanketed by red lichen and turquoise lakes that give the landscape an otherworldly beauty. Atop Aasgard Pass, Little Annapurna and Dragontail peaks stand like sentinels over a barren moonscape of grey boulders and glaciers.
When I visited in October, the banks of each placid lake were dotted with olive green, gold, and ochre larches in fall turn, like earthy gemstones ringing a crown. In the Middle Basin, the sharp angles of Prusik Peak seem forged by a human hand, an impossibly thin edge gliding up to the sharp point of the summit, making the onlooker question what they thought they knew about physics. McClellan Peak is broad and silent, doubled over in the mirror of Leprechaun Lake.
Moving through this staggeringly beautiful environment is hypnotic, each of the many lakes more beautiful than the last. The captivating landscape stymies even the most determined of hikers, making visitors wander in awe, gaping at flora and fauna, skipping along the trail, lounging in the open meadow, taking off boots to feel the cold smooth rock. My partner and I were so absorbed by the expansive basin that we lost track of time, and reached Snow Lake trailhead by nightfall, our midday pace significantly slowed by our excitement at each new entrancing vista. Hiking through the Enchantment Lakes is an exercise in emotional overstimulation; the area overrides your brain with its spellbinding beauty.
Ecosystem Threats and Management
While most visitors don’t see it, the environments and component life that make the Enchantments so beloved are threatened. This rugged environment is actually quite delicate.
The Enchantment’s ecosystems are wet and dry subalpine and alpine meadows, and dry, rocky open terrain, ranging from 4,500 to 7,800 feet in elevation. The Enchantments are home to herds of mountain goats, which meander through the alpine valley, or skitter deftly across summit scree. Populations of pika, marmots, varied thrushes, wrens, and golden eagles inhabit the area. The Enchantments have diverse alpine adapted vegetation, such as low-lying sedge, moss, and lichen, western and subalpine larches, whitebark pine, and subalpine fir.
Alpine ecosystems are incredibly fragile, as baseline conditions are extreme, and fewer species can survive in the extreme and exposed landscape. Across Earth, and including the Pacific Northwest, high elevation environments are dramatically affected by climate change and human degradation. Disturbance at this elevation has a higher impact and longer lasting effects, as regeneration rate is low; essentially, these ecosystems are less resilient to change than lower elevation environments. Climatic patterns in recent years are among historical records for lower snowpack, early melt, and rapidly receding glaciers.
Hiking through the Enchantment Lakes is an exercise in emotional overstimulation; the area overrides your brain with its spellbinding beauty.
Because of such disturbances, the Enchantments are being transformed before our eyes. Beyond negatively impacting the alpine species, early snowmelt runoff is changing stream composition, and presents new environmental conditions for lower elevation riparian species, like fish and amphibians.
The heavy human traffic in the Enchantments also contributes to their degradation. The high volume of visitors to the region has negatively affected the character of the landscape. Through 1986, permits were not required to access and camp in the area. Human usage steadily increased, and reached a breaking point in 1987. According to Denny McMillin, resource assistant at the Leavenworth Ranger District, there are stories of “300 people on the Upper Basin” in pre-permit days. In 1987 the Forest Service implemented a permit law for camping, and imposed campfire and pet bans to “provide protection of fragile resources and preservation of wilderness character for generations to come.”
Getting Out There
Knowing how fragile the Enchantments ecosystem is will make you a more mindful hiker, and will allow you to make informed decisions about your presence in such a place. I highly recommend visiting the Enchantments for their abundant rewards. Ensuring you are staying on well-maintained trails, practicing Leave-No-Trace principles, avoiding disrupting plants and animals, and using the wilderness toilets scattered throughout the area are some ways you can be a steward of your environment and minimize your impact on a delicate ecosystem.
If you are interested in recreating in the Enchantments, first consider if you want to camp in the Enchantments, or thru-hike all 18 miles in a day (referred to as the Death March). Permit season is May 15-October 30 for campers. To acquire a permit, you must apply in advance. Permits operate as a lottery announced in February. You do not need a permit to camp from November 1- May 14. If you decide to day hike, you can easily acquire a permit the day of at any of the 4 trailheads.
There are 2 popular routes for travel through all 5 zones of the Enchantments. The first route goes clockwise from Snow Lake trailhead to Stuart Lake trailhead in the Colchuck Zone. This route begins with a slightly more gradual and sustained elevation gain than option 2 (though it is still considerably strenuous, with varied terrain). Instead of a strenuous hike up Aasgard Pass, you will be battling joint pain on the decline, ending at the trailhead past Colchuck Lake.
The second option is a counter-clockwise hike, beginning at the Stuart Lake trailhead and ending at the Snow Lake trailhead. This route is front-loaded with a steep climb up talus to Aasgard Pass. I would recommend this approach to thru-hikers. My partner and I took this route, and we were grateful we did not have to scramble down Aasgard’s steep talus as the night set in. However, not everyone endorses this route, including guidebook author Harvey Manning, who claims that reaching the Upper Basin so early in the hike is perverse; it is “to start with the ice cream and work through the meatballs and potatoes to the soup.”
Protecting Wilderness in the Pacific Wildway
The wilderness provides us with innumerable rewards, and we can show gratitude by preserving the environments we use.
For me, outdoor recreation provides a sense of wonder and solitude incomparable to anything else, and my experiences in nature continuously inspire me to protect and defend the wilderness through conservation. One of the best ways to explore the Pacific Northwest is to learn about its diverse species and ecosystems through experience. The wilderness provides us with innumerable rewards, and we can show gratitude by preserving the environments we use.
Our new Pacific Wildway aims to protect special places like the Enchantments in perpetuity, connecting them with other habitats and ecoystems to build a continental wildlife corridor from British Columbia to Baja California. Support the Enchantments and other wild places you love in the Pacific Northwest by donating to the Pacific Wildway.