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Well Worth it – Capturing the Color of the Mountains

Hiking the Enchantments, Alpine Lakes Wilderness

Story and Photographs by Andy Porter

The Enchantments are a part of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, (which is itself a part of the Wenatchee National Forest) located near the town of Leavenworth, along Highway 2, in Washington State.

The Enchantments area is actually very small, making upmaybe 10 square miles. Packed in to this wondrous world there are scads of small lakes and tarns of fantastic hues of blue and green surrounded by stark jagged peaks. Autumn brings fantastic colors. Because of the high elevation of the Enchantments Basin (between 6,000 and 8,000 feet) there are dense stands of larch. These trees have needles, and come fall they turn a bright orange color, and look like they are aglow from inside.

I spent some time reading about the trail and lakes, the approach and parking and all that. There are two routes in to -or rather up to- the Enchantments Basin. One is very long (12 miles) with a lot (more than 6,000 feet) of elevation gain. The other route is a little shorter, and has a little less elevation gain, but it includes a hike up Aasgard Pass (more than 2,000 feet up in less than one mile).

I recruited two of my friends to help me use the 5-day permit I’d won. I gave them fair (sort of) warning about the hike.

The first day’s short hike took us up to Colchuck Lake. We arrived late in the day and from the lake could see the gash of Aasgard Pass soaring above the lakes far edge. Late morning finds us clambering over the boulder fields along the lake at the base of the trail up. The morning light flares behind the larch atop the pass.

The hike up to the top of the pass was… arduous.  

Once you manage to crest the pass you arrive in a wonderland of rock and ice. Dragontail Peak’s serrated edge rips the sky asunder above Isolation Lake. Ice fields dot the lake’s edge. A cool wind and a long drink from the icy stream revive me. There are several inviting tent spots here and we quickly set up our portable North Face fortress and prepare food. There are a smattering of larches up here in the alpine zone, but mostly it’s rocks and water.

The light starts to fade and the colors glow along the lakes shore, the blues, greens and pinkish reds don’t look real at all. Late at night I manage to drag myself out of the tent and capture a few shots of the stars and the tent in this moon-ish looking landscape.

The next day as we start hiking I tell my two friends that this will probably be one of the best days hiking ever. We set out excited to see what the day has to offer.

Skirting a low ridge we drop into a new basin filled with countless ponds. We cross a small snow field as we make our way gently down the trail. Our goal for the day is to establish a new camp on a ledge above Crystal Lake and then hike down to Perfection Lake. From there the plan I have is to make our way up to tiny Gnome Tarn for some wonderful views of Prussik Peak reflected.

Each turn of the trail elicits a new sense of wonder. The larches thicken as we descend.

Overlooking Crystal Lake our new camp gloriously commands a wonderful view. Below us the ridges are crusted in orange larch, offset by the blue skies and green lakes. Once camp is set up we (now without heavy packs!) set out for Perfection.

This basin is on fire with orange. As a true color junky I am juiced to my eyeballs with sensory overload. I feel like I’ve been teleported to a new world, like Avatar, or a scene from Middle Earth. Finding the trail junction amid an orange forest, we branch off and start the easy climb up to Prussik Pass, in search of Gnome Tarn.

A little searching and gawking later were there. The place is as promised, nestled at the base of Prussik Peak, exquisitely framed by larch and water. I enter a photographic trance state.

It’s a perfect day, sunny and warm, a cool breeze refreshes us as we bask in the glory of nature. Lingering for lunch we now set off again. Ambling my way back up to camp I encounter a few hikers who report mountain goats ahead. I arrive back at camp and there is a Mom and her young kid, looking for grass and munching away. A new photo frenzy starts I circumnavigate the goats several times as they make their way about.

Finally tiring of goats and picture taking, I go fire up the stove and make some coffee. My friends return and we marvel at all around us. Dinner is served and eaten just in time for the sunset.

The small ponds make wonderful reflections of the sky. Early the next morning the skies are dark and we head back to to the Pass and start the slow descent to Colchuck Lake. Taking a break on a huge slab precariously perched above a stand of larch I capture one last image of larch and lake.

Andy is a nature photographer lured to Washington State by the glorious vistas. He lives along the North Cascades Highway, where he teaches photography and leads photo tours. You can see more of his work at: www.AndyPorterImages.com