Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is a vast expanse of wilderness in central and northern Washington. Headlining the region is, as you can guess, Mt Baker- a 10,000 foot glaciated volcanic peak.
We’d been up there last time we were in Seattle, and were itching to return. With a few days off, we loaded our gear and our Charley into Archie and rode I-5 northbound toward Bellingham, cutting northeast and into the Cascade range. We found a dispersed camp site near Artist Point, a jump off for several day hikes around Baker and the surrounding forest.
Getting acclimated, Jamie, Charley and I went on a walk up along Artist Point ridge, offering views of Mt Baker and its dramatic neighbor Mt Shuksan. The crowds weren’t too dense, and we were able to find some solitude along the trail as we strolled for a couple miles, peering down the numerous river valleys carved out by glacial flows.
That evening, back at camp, we mixed up some pasta with meat sauce in the camp kitchen and I cracked a beer. We were lucky enough to find a spot on the forest road with a framed view of Mt Shuksan, with waterfalls cascading down its sides from the glaciers higher up. It was quiet, and we seemed to be the only campers on the forest road for miles.
We’d planned a longer hike for the next day- Chain Lakes loop- that’d take us about 8 miles around alpine lakes with open vistas of Baker and Shuksan. We’d pass by numerous backcountry campsites near the lakes, kind of wishing we’d brought our backpacking gear on the trip.
Charley was only interested in her new discovery- wild blueberries. They lined the trail for what seemed like the entire 8 miles, and Charley was ravenous. She burrowed her face into the bushes and foraged as hard as she could, while we dragged her along.
We considered staying another night at our campsite and doing a half day trail the next day. But instead we hit the road again, towards home. Making our way west to Bellingham, we had an early dinner at Boundary Bay Brewery and rode the Chuckanut scenic drive down the rugged coastline for about 20 miles, before cutting in and back to I-5. A stop at a shoreside state park for about an hour broke up the drive home, and Charley always appreciates a trip to the beach.
We had a couple sporadic days off, and some of our travel nurse friends were getting together to go boating out on Lake Washington for the day. Temps looked like 50-60’s, and rain was in the forecast. Not an ideal day to hit the water, but the boat rental was booked and we were committed. Charley sat this adventure out, instead getting together with her pup friends at Seattle Dogs.
After loading up our snacks and beer, we climbed aboard and our friend Justice captained us around the massive lake. Some of the houses (more like compounds) on the lake are out of this world! Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos are pretty close neighbors on the lake, just across the water from Seattle on Evergreen Point. And Russell Wilson lives not too far south along the lake. But instead of celeb-seeking, we threw out the tube and Justice pulled those willing to brave the chilly waters for a bit. It was great to explore the lake by water, as we’ve been in the city all summer and had barely experienced it until then.
Now for the main event!
After several shifts at work, we (and by “we” I mean “Jamie”) had something up her sleeve. She’d been planning us to do a thru hike of the Enchantments wilderness- something that’d been on her bucket list for some time. The Enchantments (accurately named) require a backcountry camping permit in order to overnight, and we were unable to secure permits. BUT, if you can do it in one day, then a permit isn’t needed. It’s 20 miles of rugged terrain along a point to point trail, climbing 5500 feet and descending 7500 feet. We’d never done anything like it before. Even when we climbed Half Dome, it was 5200 feet of elevation gain and 17 miles in all. This one takes most folks anywhere from 11-14 hours, and at this time of year, daylight is about 12 hours. It’d be tough, but rewarding.
So we did it.
Our travel friend Matt joined us for the trek, and we parked his truck at the end of the trail the night before. We settled in at a campground 30 minutes from the start of the trail after some bratwursts in the nearby Bavarian town of Leavenworth. We got to sleep early.
Waking at 4AM Sunday morning, we packed out gear and drove out to the trailhead in the dark. The sun wouldn’t be up for a couple hours, so we started with our headlamps showing us the way.
So much water. The Enchantments are gushing all the time, even in late summer when a lot of mountain regions have creeks drying up. We listened to the rushing streams along the trail, unable to see them in the dark, but deafeningly loud. As we climbed to the first alpine lake, Colchuck, the muffled glow of dawn joined us. We killed the headlamps and carried on to the lake.
Colchuck lake is unofficially called “the back door” to the Enchantments. Its aqua glacial water is stunning, and the drama of the overhanging peaks adds to the experience. After arriving at the lake, we stopped to take some photos and eat a little snack, for the big climb was staring us in the face. As we continued around the lake to the opposite side, Aasgard Pass was increasingly daunting. Rising thousands of feet above the lake and between two craggy peaks, Aasgard Pass is the gate to the Upper Enchantments basin and the innumerable high alpine lakes that sit at the foot of the glaciers.
Climbing up to the pass, low clouds entered the lake basin behind us, occluding the view, only to dissolve minutes later and allow the sun to poke through. This dance would continue throughout our hike for all 20 miles, as weather seemed to materialize in an instant and disappear just as quickly.
Snow arrived as we made the trek up to Aasgard Pass, and the wind whipped it sideways in our faces. But we pushed on, climbing up the scree and boulders in a slow methodical fashion. Water poured down from wherever it could, making improvised waterfalls and streams. Larch trees were starting to pop, a lemon-lime color as they progress to sharp yellow. Fall had already arrived in the mountains.
When we reached the top of the Pass, it was cold. And windy. I’d guess the wind chill was in the mid 20’s, so we kept moving to stay warm. The upper enchantment basin was full of lakes, connected by streams in a chain. All running from the glaciers above. And the sparsely wooded upper alpine area was seeing more larch foliage conversion, making it impossible to take a bad photo.
“Come on! This is ridiculous!” Was the exclamation we said over and over again. We couldn’t believe the place was real. I’m not sure I can adequately describe it, or if the photos can do it justice (they never do), but we snapped a million photos anyway.
After we reached the Pass, it was essentially all downhill. 7000 feet back down. But it was full of incredible vistas, turquoise lakes and yellow-green larches and pines. And we spotted a little bear cub about 20 yards ahead along the trail on the way down.
I think Jamie, Matt, and I are in agreement that it was one of the more special experiences we’ve had. It would’ve been nice to secure permits to camp back there, as there are a lot of spur trails and routes up to the peaks from the top of the Pass, but we’re thrilled we got the opportunity to get into the Enchantments, and that we held it together for the long trek.
Stay tuned for the next post! As I’m writing this, we’re en route to Glacier National Park in Montana, about a 9 hour drive from Seattle. Happy Fall!