The pressure was on. We are moving at the end of the month, the gorgeous weather was set to expire on Monday; this felt like the last chance for a fall hike and I wanted it to be spectacular. Colchuck Lake looked stunning in pictures with the snow and larches, but there were so many pictures popping up on Facebook and Instagram, I feared the hike would be a conga line. This would be Michael’s first trip to Colchuck Lake, and I had not been since my first mid-week backpacking trip several years ago. Would the crowds ruin the incredible experience that is Colchuck Lake?
Through-hiking the enchantments was tentatively on the bucket list for this summer, but when the shin splints flared, that goal had to be shelved. I worried returning to the base of Aasgard Pass only to turn around would be difficult and sour the rest of the hike. Would I be able to resist the Enchantments siren call? Would I stew in resentment at the base, looking wistfully to the false summit?
Luckily, my fears were unfounded. Colchuck Lake is beautiful in its own right, even without ascending Aasgard and entering the enchantments. We had a splendid time exploring the basin, looking at the last of the October larches, scrambling through icy boulders and enjoying the sunny day. Though the trail was busy, Colchuck is a large lake and we still found spots to enjoy the solitude. We also enjoyed the camaraderie of our fellow hikers who were also thrilled to be in such a beautiful place.
Immediately we entered a dark wooded forest. After the open forest road with views up the valley of vibrant red and oranges, walking into the forest was oddly disappointing. The trail was mostly flat, with a slight incline now and then. It was easy to move quickly and gain excitement for what was to come. Oregon grape, devils club, and bleached ferns lined the trail, and everything had that delicious fall smell, earthy and damp.
After wandering through the dark forest for a few miles, the rocks and roots on the trail increased. Mountaineer Creek babbled alongside the trail, and despite the very busy trailhead, we were able to steal moments of solitude. Granted, the other moments were punctuated with a group taking up the entire trail while trying to eat the Oregon grape berries only to discover they are not in fact blueberries, so it felt like one of two extremes.
The forest opened up and became rockier. Large boulders appeared now and then, and I started to regret not bringing the crashpad for a few easy climbs after the hike. After a few miles, we came across a bridge over a clear pool. The boulders framing the bridge made it feel a little more adventurous than your average bridge. I loved the muted blue/green of the water, moss, and trees and was reluctant to leave this little section of trail.
We passed the turn-off to Stuart Lake, currently closed due to fire damage, and began to climb the steeper section of the trail. Soon we crossed another bridge that led to a boulder field. We attempted to climb on the icy boulders to the left, when there was a perfectly tread trail to the right. Thank you to the helpful group on the bridge that pointed us in the right direction. I remember this bridge from backpacking in July and it provided sweet relief from the sweltering day. In October, however, the stream was much lower and the air cooler.
We started climbing up the switchbacks. I remarked that the trail wasn’t nearly as steep as I remembered it from my previous trip. Then we went a few more switchbacks and I had to take it back. The trail steepens significantly towards the end and gets rockier, nearly a staircase. I spent the night before the hike tossing and turning, worried about the elevation gain and hoping I didn’t repeat the shin pain from the Copper Ridge Loop. Luckily, the steep section is pretty short and easy to manage, so it didn’t trigger the shin splints.
We were rewarded with beautiful views through the valley and began to see the peaks lining Colchuck Lake. We took a little break on a large boulder to take in the view.
The trees began to thin and I could tell we were getting close to Colchuck Lake. We reached a junction and took the right side, the left apparently leads to the beach at the tip of the lake. The trail climbed away from the sliver of lake we glimpsed on our way in. It wove across boulder clusters until opening on a large slab above the lake. Despite the gorgeous view, we moved on, in search of a lunch spot with solitude.
The trail wound around a large tarn. Most of the snow around Colchuck Lake had melted, but you could see ice forming at the surface of the tarn. I have done so little fall hiking that I have never seen a freezing tarn ringed by larches before. Either the lake has been sunny and warm or frozen and under feet of snow. Once again, I am learning that fall hiking may perhaps be my favorite of all.
This little tarn was so stunning with the larches, Enchantment Peaks, and Dragontail Peak in the background, it was almost impossible to believe that this lake wasn’t the destination. I would have been perfectly happy to sit at the unnamed tarn, but Colchuck Lake beckoned and we continued on.
The route became a little more scrambley, over roots and rocks. We peeked through the forest hoping to find a rock along the shore that was not already occupied. Given the busy Saturday, we were almost to the opposite end of the lake before we found a little spot off of a social trail, near one of the campsites. It was perfect.
More than halfway down the lake, we got some spectacular views of the peaks, with the bright blue and green water in the foreground. If you climb part of the way up Aasgard, the water seems to be a bright, opaque turquoise, but at the water’s edge it was perfectly clear and you could see to the bottom. We ate our lunch and I had a lot of fun playing on the dramatic log. Michael enjoyed playing with the ice slabs. The rocks were cold but the sun was warm–the perfect combination.
I knew that climbing Aasgard was not going to be happening that day. Besides the shin splints, the amount of ice and late time of the day meant we wouldn’t get very far before needing to turn around. However, I was not going to come so close to all of those larches and stay on the other side of the lake. We decided to venture to the boulder field and see how far we got until 3:00, when we needed to turn around.
The larches filling the gully were beautiful as the sun streamed behind them. The established trail through the boulder field was covered in ice, so we took our sweet time crossing. Alternatively, on the way back we found other boulders that happened to be dry and full of excellent traction but had a much higher risk of running out or being unstable. There wasn’t quite enough ice to use microspikes, but too much that boots were slippery. If you are heading through the boulder field or up Aasgard, traction seems necessary at this point.
I spent most of our hour next to the easily accessible larches in the boulder field. I learned that the needles are soft! I expected them to be much spikier? One larch in particular really caught my eye. It seems like it maybe spends most of the winter buried under snow and grows laterally where it should have been vertical. It twisted and turned and had so much personality. I spent a lot of time sitting under its branches.
Sometimes, hiking leads to grand vistas, stunning peaks and all you can do is sit in awe at the splendor before you, which is mostly what we were doing while we ate lunch. I also love the hike when you can take the time to really get to know a place. When we did Boulder River this spring, and I had to sit at a waterfall while Michael finished the hike, I loved how sitting for an hour in one place changed my perception of the spot. I had a similar feeling while sitting next to this larch. I circled it, sat under it, looked at the individual needles, looked at how the sun looked behind it, turning it into a soft yellow glow, and how against the blue sky it seemed a vibrant orange-yellow. I love that learning to love a place means loving its details–a factor I probably would have missed if we were thru-hiking.
Eventually, we ran out of time and had to leave the basin. The trip down went quickly as we rapidly lost elevation. Even the long, flat part seemed to fly by, with perfect hiking weather.
We got back to the car, made our way down the forest road (while I hid my face in my hat), and went into Leavenworth to grab a sausage, sauer kraut, and so many mustards. Delicious!
The trail was pretty crowded, given that it was a sunny Sunday before the weather was about to turn. We saw many through-hikers, day hikers, and backpackers, in all combinations of capabilities. Both Colchuck and the Enchantments make for excellent backpacking trips, however, permits are awarded through a competitive lottery in the spring. This area is regularly policed for backpacking without a permit, or dogs on the trail, as they are not allowed. It is a fragile environment that sees a ton of usage throughout the year and the permit system aims to mitigate the impact of backpackers. Make sure to follow leave no trace ethics while visiting this incredible area to limit your impact.