The Enchantments. The storybook name says it all. As soon as I heard there was a destination bearing such an epithet, I knew I had to go there. Me and everyone else.
Because it’s so wildly popular, getting a permit to camp there in the summer—or even reading the Forest Service page about all the hoops you need to jump through and all the magical spells you need to cast to get one–is a gigantic headache. Truly, it’s the kind of outdoor-administration nightmare that tempts you to break the rules.
There’s a “pre-season lottery” held every February, which means planning months in advance for a mere chance at a permit; then, if you’re willing to try your luck a second time, a quarter of the remaining permits can be reserved online for a couple of days in April. A tiny number of walk-up permits are available day-of, too, but those are also released as a lottery, and “it’s not uncommon to have 50 people or more” get in line, says the Forest Service. Also, it costs money: There’s a $6 fee just to apply to the lottery, plus a $5 per-person, per-day fee to camp.
And sure, the cluster of craggy peaks near Leavenworth, scattered over with sapphire lakes and golden larches and snow-white mountain goats, is indisputably enchanting. I did go there on an overnight trip in October 2014, after the permit window had closed, and got a taste of what everyone is seeking. But due to what the Forest Service calls “overwhelming” popularity, that window was just extended six weeks: From now on, it’ll stretch from May 15 to October 31, making even autumn’s golden-larch season totally inaccessible to the unlucky.
With so many adventures to be had in the mountainous wonderland that is Washington, how are the Enchantments getting all the glory? Here are a few totally comparable options for the intrepid, spontaneous, and impatient wilderness enthusiast with no time for lotteries.
Entiat Valley It’s the same mountain range—within similar spitting distance of post-hike beer and brats in Leavenworth—but with an infinitely smaller amount of bureaucratic woe. Fern Lake, for example, is a gorgeous 15-miler that heads to a high-elevation bowl ringed by granite spires.
The Chiwaukums Lots of beauty here, but not lots of travelers, just west of Leavenworth. Lake Edna, on Icicle Ridge, is a healthy 12.5 miles of Douglas fir, Ponderosa pine, and stunning vistas. Keep going for the Chiwaukum Traverse, which takes you over several enchanting passes with less-than-enchanting names (“Dead Horse Pass,” anyone?).
The Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness Looking for larches? Star Lake and Star Peak, nestled in the jagged and jaw-dropping mountain range between Lake Chelan and the Methow Valley, are simply carpeted with them.
North Cascades National Park OK, it’s not exactly next door to the Enchantments, but it’s one of the least-visited national parks in the country, and I have no idea why. There are dozens of astonishingly beautiful backpacking loops in this lonely wilderness, and the only permits necessary are free and easy to pick up at the ranger station on your way in.
Right Outside the Permit Zone Hey, they’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Check out the Enchantment Permit Area map online and see if you can camp outside the boundaries and day-hike in. Lake Ingalls, for instance, is just as gorgeous a destination—and just south of the border.