Running the Enchantment Lakes Traverse

Asgard pass and larches

“Go to the Enchantments!” said half the people I know. Words like “circle of mountains” and “endless alpine lakes” reinforced their exhortations. I didn’t need much convincing.

Where is this magical outdoor palace? A few miles outside Leavenworth, WA, nestled in the peaks of the North Cascades. The Enchantment Lakes traverse is a 19-mile trail, usually completed as a multi-day backpack. To do that requires scheduling ahead to get a permit (pffft, planning?).

That left us one alternative: run it in a day. So, as part of a fall finale roadtrip, my friends Paul, Ben and I did just that.

Larches, me, and a whole lotta beauty. Photo: Ben Groenhout

The trail is a point-to-point requiring either a shuttle or 11 miles running back to the car cursing people who don’t pick up hitchhikers. Luckily, some van life buddies hauled us up a bumpy, windy dirt road to the Stuart Lake trailhead on a frosty October morning.

Miles to go: 19. Elevation to ascend: 5,500′. Temperature: 31 degrees. Stoke level: 10.

The Run

The trail follows a creek up up up, gently at first, then so steep that “running” switches to speed hiking. The freezing temps keep us cool; steam sizzles off our backs. A few views peep through the trees, but we keep our heads down and motor toward Colchuck Lake, four miles in.

A frosty morning on the way up to Colchuck Lake!

Most day hikers turn around at Colchuck Lake, a jewel of water dropped at the base of imposing Asgard Pass and Instagrammed far too much. We pause at the lake to gobble some food and eye the pass.

My friend Jono’s Asgard summary: “I’d rather go up it twice than down it once.” Picture gaining 2,000’ in a mile on loose, chunky rock. For our ascent, a dusting of snow and ice adds the fun of slick stone and frozen creeks (aka dangerous slip’n’slides into boulder fields). Avoiding becoming a human pinball pinging off rocks keeps us focused, to say the least.

A backpacker heading down Asgard Pass the wrong way, knees aching for SURE.

Huffing and puffing, we hit the top of the pass. BOOM. Hellllo mountain views! Peaks, lakes, and boulders surround us. Bright yellow larches fire in their fall glory. Ah, this is why people all say “go to the Enchantments” like mindless zombies! (I am immediately infected with Enchantment’s Fever.)

Paul, master of food munitions, busts out leftover vegan pizza. “It’s a four-slice day,” he grins. The wind whips across the lakes and we shelter against a large boulder, refueling. Only 14 miles to go.

Only true friends share their pizza at the top of a pass! Photo: Ben Groenhout

Me running through the boulders at the top of Asgard Pass. Photo: Ben Groenhout

If you look at the elevation chart for the Enchantments run, it trends downhill for the last 2/3 of the trail. Asgard marks the start of the gradual descent toward Snowy Lakes trailhead. Time to run.

This isn’t buff, flowing singletrack. The running is rocky and technical, with route finding via cairns and sections of granite slabs with no trail. My GPS watch thinks I’m a stumbling drunk as I careen left and right, stop to take pictures, filter drinking water, and retrace my steps looking for the trail. (Here’s my meandering route on Strava.)

Down a steep granite section on the trail. Photo: Ben Groenhout

Enchantments boulder field

Me picking my way through a boulder field. Photo: Ben Groenhout

Even though hundreds of people a year enter the Enchantments, it’s still a remote, physically tough zone to reach. For me, perspiration to move through a landscape deepens my appreciation, be it bike touring or this run. I’m lucky to have the privilege to enter such a serene, untrammeled zone that most will only see in pictures, far away from cell signals and the tumult of modern life. The U.S. has its problems, but the sheer amount of wild, protected public land is simply fantastic.

What Goes Up, Gets to Run Down!

We spend the next few hours engaged in quintessential technical trail running. It’s slow and entertaining, with roots, rocks, steep slabs, scrambling. The best! We drop down an exposed “ladder” section with rebar sunk into the granite, waltzing by a backpacker who is freaking out at the potential fall on snowy rock.

Ben and Paul heading down the steep rebar staircase, Snowy Lake in the distance.

Paul heads past a cairn into the spectacular larches.

At Snowy Lake, 15 miles in, my energy levels are low. I haven’t run much in the past few months and my legs are talking to me. Annie’s Gummy Bears boost my spirits and we hit a consistent pace along the lake on smooth forest singletrack. All there is to focus on is the clicking of trekking poles and foot placements. Trail running as a meditation, switchback after switchback.

A mountain goat interrupts my flow. Grizzled, inquisitive, staring at me. He can run straight up this mountain side, trail be damned, but this is his home and he’s lounging on his rock armchair. Only crazy humans drive hours and invest in outdoor gear to spend fleeting hours in the mountains before returning to their safe, comfortable shelter. We’re a strange species. I bid him adieu and move on.

The end of the trail. Dozens of cars, a group of backpackers with stoke levels cresting. They’re heading in for a couple nights in the wild.

As a newly minted Enchantment’s Parrot, there’s only one thing to do. I squawk, “You’re going to love it!” Zombies run in packs, after all.

Heading to Colchuck Lake.

Til next time…

Basic Logistics

First off: for more of Ben’s excellent shots, go here!

Trail Run Project’s writeup has all the details you’ll need to make this run happen.

When to Go: I love fall and that is my vote for fall colors, no crowds, and the best temps. The mountains won’t be clear of snow until summer, so the window is small! To dodge 12 million day hikers, definitely hit the trail on a weekday if possible.

Gear We Carried: trekking/running poles, Katadyn BeFree water filter (my new favorite possession), medkit, vest, rain jacket, beanie. Nada mas except pizza!

Clearly I missed the memo on green and blue.

6 replies
  1. Jules
    Jules says:

    19 miles, 5,500 feet of climbing and the threat of plummeting to your death at every turn. The only way my stoke level would hit anything above 0.00005 is knowing there was vegan pizza.

    Nevertheless, this is AWESOME. Vicariously awesome, yes, but definitely awesome.

    P.S. – I didn’t realize Maurice was so judgy.

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      SO YOU’RE SAYING THERE’S A CHANCE?! Maurice approves of your open-minded approach to the outdoors.

      To be fair, most of the Enchantment Lakes is a reasonable hike with no chance of death unless an Instgrammer backs up and knocks you into Colchuck Lake. Otherwise, most anyone could do 98% of it. But since we’re talking so much about percentages, I suppose that 2% coooould kill you if you got creative! I say it’s worth it. Maurice agrees.

      Reply
  2. Loren D Newman
    Loren D Newman says:

    Dude, that second to last picture just looks fake — some lord of the rings meets labrynth nonsense.

    Stoke level reading this post: Solid 9.999

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Right?! The timing with the snow and larches contrasted with all the big, dark boulders was so cool. And my trusty 3-year-old iPhone captured it well…hahaha. Gotta get you up to the PNW so you can join me on some big mountain runs!

      Reply

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