The people of the Pacific Northwest are almost comically proud of their home turf. They refer to much of the U.S., with just a hint of scorn, as "back East," and what they say about California can't be printed here. They often engage in conversations about how lucky they are to live in a land of wild oceans, high mountains, vast deserts, tall trees, splashing waterfalls, nice people, and a seemingly endless array of outdoor recreation options.
So it makes an impression when the hikers and climbers of the Northwest get a little misty-eyed about one place in particular — a relatively small, lake-filled basin between soaring granite peaks on the east side of Washington's Cascade Range. Even the name given the place, the Enchantment Lakes Basin, suggests a reverence that makes it stand out among the countless other lakes, valleys, and peaks.
A trip to "the Enchantments" might lead anyone to scatter words like "fairy tale" and "magic" and, yes, "enchanting." One might also throw in "challenging," not only for the physical hurdles — it's a climb of well over 3,000 feet — but also for the government bureaucracy one must negotiate to even get permission to go.
Just a few miles up Icicle Creek, flowing out of the Wenatchee National Forest, lie two trailheads. Between them, way up there, is the Enchantments, and one only has to choose which approach one prefers: the long slog up past the Snow Lakes (10 miles, 6,000 feet of gain, few views) or the express version up 2,200 feet in five miles to spectacular Colchuck Lake (and a possible night in camp) followed by a wickedly steep "trail" up Aasgard Pass. Just imagine a pile of rocks more than 2,000 feet high; that's Aasgard. Yet most hikers prefer this route, just to get the climb over with.
The mountain goats are generally waiting at the top of Aasgard. And I don't mean that in a trite way: They literally stand near the trail, watching hikers come up. They are waiting for food handouts (highly illegal) or the salt of our urine (highly awkward). Rangers actually tell hikers to pee on rocks so the goats won't chow down all the vegetation.
Arriving atop Aasgard, you're 7,800 feet above sea level and at the top of a rocky ramp, about a mile and a half long and dotted with lakes and pockets of trees. The lakes have names like Perfection, Isolation, Tranquil, and Inspiration. At the upper end, they sit among rugged, alpine scenery with glaciers and granite walls above them. Further down, they are laced with trees, including the gold-in-autumn larch, which brings a whole new horde of (frigid) hikers in September.
On both sides are immense rocky crags, many of which lure climbers from all over the country. But even if you aren't of the rope-and-piton crowd, there are a couple of peaks (like Little Annapurna) that are classified as "walk-ups," which you can knock out in an easy day from a camp in the basin.
About that "camp in the basin," though. It's much-sought-after, so much so that the Forest Service limits access to the whole area. It's all done by a mail-in lottery around the end of February each year — five months before the snow melts — and there are three permits available.
One of them, the one everybody wants, lets you spend the night up in the basin; the other two let you camp at lower lakes like Colchuck or Snow and day-hike up to the basin. In 2008, 1,000 applications came in. A third of them got a basin permit, a third got a backup date or location, and a third got nothing.
And here's the thing with those permits: You have to pay in advance, and if you don't get one, they keep the money. So list backup options when you apply. (Get all the info you need at: fs.fed.us/r6/wenatchee/passes/enchantments/).
It's kind of a shame to have to deal with all of this. It's also a blessing, though, because without some system in place, hikers would overrun the place and, ironically, ruin it as a hiking destination.
But that level of interest, indeed demand, should tell you something. If folks in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho — many of whom moved from "back East" to be closer to all the natural beauty — are that excited about a place, you can bet it's something special. If you doubt it, plug "Enchantment Lakes Washington" into Google Images sometime, and I bet you'll be reading up on permits pretty soon.