4th of July in the Enchantments / by Ray Phung

My prior experience in the Enchantments was several years ago, when me and Temo "tried" to climb Dragontail Peak via Serpentine Ridge.  Little did I know that Dragontail Peak was only the start of a whole chain of alpine lakes and towering granite peaks, known collectively as the Enchantments.  I have long desired to backpack up to the Enchantments to both climb some of the famous routes there and to photograph the beautiful scenery.  But for the longest time, the permit system in place to protect this fragile landscape kept this desire from becoming reality.   Early this winter, I circled on my calendar the day the lottery opened for permits, and signed up as soon I could.  I was miraculously awarded a pass for the 4th of July weekend to the Core Enchantment Zone, which is the most coveted permit as it allows camping in all of the other zones.  

Cloud Breaks Over Prusik Peak - The 4th of July was quite dreary when we finally found a camp spot.  But right before sunset, the clouds opened up and bathed Prusik Peak in a little golden sun.

I signed up for a 4 day permit, which is ample time to hike the entire trail.  I easily roped Temo into coming along, as he has both climbing and fishing aspirations in the Enchantments.  Climber friends Kevin and Tia also agreed to meet up with us there.  A month before departure, I hurt my foot in the climbing gym, which has kept me off most slabby and vertical climbing terrain, so climbing on this trip was not going to happen.  But I easily replaced all my climbing gear with equally heavy camera gear.  

Day 1

Temo and I began hiking a day earlier than the others.  We started at the Snow Lakes Trailhead at around noon and we planned to hike to the Upper Snow Lake, where we would camp and wait for Kevin and Tia to catch up to us in the morning.  From the parking lot the trail cuts steep switchbacks up the side of Icicle Canyon.  In the early 1990's, a forest fire ripped through Icicle Canyon, leaving a fairly barren landscape on the canyon sides.  With the high sun bearing down on us, we slowly trudged up the steep switchbacks, sweat dripping from our brows.  Once we reached the Snow Creek wall, the trail flattens out considerably, while turning out of the burn area and into shaded forest.  

The trail continues to gradually climb up to Nada Lake, the first Alpine Lake.  After a quick pit stop at Nada Lake, we continued up another short steep section before dropping down and crossing the dam that separates the Upper and Lower Snow Lakes.  Here is where we set camp at where I deem "Cess Pool Camp."  When we eventually reached this area, the prime camp spots were taken, and where we eventually set up camp was across from this large stagnant pool of water: ground zero for mosquito infestation.  As the sun began to set, both the mosquitoes and the fish came out in full force.  Temo assembled his dry fly rod and set out on a quest for an elusive Golden Trout.  After several failed attempts and multiple last flies, he eventually got a nice little fish on.  Despite the million mosquito bites, the lake side campsite in the wilderness gave us a beautiful sunset, marking the end to a long, tiring day of hiking.  

Cess Pool - Our first night, we camped at the Snow Lakes.  Across the trail from our spot was this enormous pool of stagnant water, home to millions of mosquitoes.

Sunset over Snow Lakes - The first night in the hike provided a beautiful sunset.  The sky above the Stuart Mountain range lit up in pink, and was reflected off the still waters of the lake.

Day 2

Temo and I got a slower start on day 2 to recover from the intense sun from the day before.  Temo attempted some early morning fishing, but to no avail.  We then waited on the trail for Tia and Kevin to catch up.  Departing the trailhead at around 6 am, Kevin and Tia made it to the dam at around 9.  I was impressed at the speed that they caught up, as the hot sun seemed to slow Temo and myself considerably.   After letting their legs rest and getting a quick bite of food, we started up another steep section to get up to the Core Enchantments. This section cuts switchbacks steeply up granite slabs and eventually takes you up to Viviane Lake.

As you get to the clear waters of Viviane Lake, Prusik Peak towers overhead and McClellan Peak looms behind you.  The trail eases up and makes short ascents of various ridges to the other lakes.  We eventually wander past most of the lower level lakes until we got to Perfection Lake, where we decided to set up camp for the night.  In order to avoid mosquitos, we picked a spot on a small granite dome between Perfection and Inspiration Lake that was more breezy and exposed, keeping the throngs of mosquitoes away for the most part. 

I very unwisely pitched my tent on a very exposed area of rock, "staked" down with heavy boulders.  At about 1 in the morning, the wind on this dome started picked up dramatically, hitting the broad side of my tent and funneling up my vestibule.  The rocks acting as stakes eventually gave way and my tent was being blown on its side, and attempting to blow off the dome.  After the third time my tent blew over, i finally put on pants, crammed everything in my bag, and dragged my tent to a more tree-covered area where i could stake it down.  This was all done virtually blind, as I did not put my contacts in.  An unwise decision, yes, but I did get to watch the sunset over Prusik Peak before I went to bed, which wasn't a terrible way to spend the 4th of July, and so totally worth it!

Prusik Peak - Prusik Peak hanging above perfection lake, with Larch Pines in the foreground.

Coexist - My MSR tent at the top of a granite dome with Mt. McClellan in the background.  As you can see, this was also home to a herd of mountain goats. This is where my tent tried to blow off the mountain. 

Day 3

On day 3, Temo and Kevin split off to climb the West Ridge of Prusik Peak, a fun little multipitch 5.7 route that takes you to the summit of Prusik.  Due to my gimp foot, I couldn't join them, so Tia and I hiked back out to Viviane Lake so I could take an obnoxious amount of photos.  We met back up with the guys for a late lunch, then planned to continue on the trail and get down all the way to Colchuck Lake.  Here are some of the obnoxious photos I took: 

After we left camp, the trail becomes snowy and steeply climbs up to the upper Enchantments.  When it flattened out again, it put us in a very different landscape.  The trees vanished, streams and lakes were covered in snow, and the the terrain became even more rocky and jagged.  The sun quickly disappeared as we ascended into a bowl of thick overcast skies, making this desolate landscape seem ever more stark and even alien.  We passed by the Witch's Tower, which seemed almost evil, and eventually saw other backpackers at Tranquil Lake, a blue pristine body of water in this otherwise desolate area.  This was my favorite part of the Enchantments - the foreignness, isolation, and beauty of this portion of the trail was very special and particularly memorable.  

As we passed this beautiful landscape, we found ourselves at the back side of Dragontail Peak staring down Asgard's Pass.  And so began an over two hour descent of knee-busting, rocky and loose switchbacks that seemingly lasted forever until we eventually reached Colchuck Lake.  On the shores of the beautiful blue-watered lake, we set up camp, ate food, and rubbed our broken knees.

Dragontail Peak at Sunset - As we approached our last camp site, the sun was fading fast on Dragontail Peak.  I rushed out to grab my camera stuff and caught the very last glimpse of sunlight at it's peak.

Day 4  

Temo got in an early session of fishing before we woke up.  I believe he caught another trout in Colchuck Lake.  I took the opportunity to snap a couple more pictures before we left this beautiful area.  After breakfast, we packed up camp one last time and descended the last few miles back to the Colchuck Trailhead.  We did not plan out the car shuttles very well, and had to hitchhike back to the other trailhead.  Luckily, we found a friendly guy with a rad pup and a huge truck to take us the rest of the way.  When we got back to town we went to the Muchen Haus to get the beer and brautwurst we were clamoring for the entire trip.  

It was a very beautiful backcountry excursion through the Enchantments, and I recommend it to anyone who hasn't been up there.  I would like to go back in the fall to catch the Larch Pine changing colors.  I believe they are the only deciduous conifer, and turn a beautiful yellow color.  But that's a whole other adventure.    So stay tuned.  I don't think I could have picked a better way to celebrate the 4th of July than being in America's beautiful wilderness.  

The 6x6 photos were taken on my Hasselblad with both Fuji Velvia 50 (landscapes) and Fuji Pro 400H (people).  35mm shots were taken with Nikon FM2, first on Fuji 100 ISO slide film and later photos on 160 NPS.  The later photos are so grainy because I accidentally underexposed the entire roll (shot at 400 ISO), then I tried to push-process them.  Oh well.