Backcountry Camping in Washington's Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Exploring The Enchantments with friends and fly rod in tow, documented on 35mm film
Olympus OM-1n, Contax T2
Located in the heart of Washington State, Alpine Lakes Wilderness encompasses roughly 394,00 acres of wild and scenic mountain country. Accessible via 47 trailheads and 615 miles of trails, the remote area contains over 700 alpine lakes and glacial ponds, not to mention some of the finest hiking in the Pacific Northwest.
The crown jewel of this region is The Enchantments, just outside Leavenworth, WA. Due to its overwhelming popularity, the five designated zones within The Enchantments are only accessible via a lottery-based permit system. Over the last six years I’ve been fortunate to land a permit every year, and have been able to thru hike, or overnight, each of the five sections. The Core Zone, which accesses the highest, most scenic—and most crowded—section, gets most of the press. But I’ve discovered that each zone is a delight in its own right.
Recently I landed a permit to the Eightmile/Caroline zone, the only zone I had yet to set foot in. As is tradition, I doled out the party-limit of eight slots to friends and family, and we set off to see what lakes Eightmile and Caroline might hold in store for us.
The first leg of our hike took us up 1500 feet, over a moderate four-ish miles to Eightmile Lake where we set up camp for the night. Eightmile is known to harbor some fine cutthroat, brook trout, and even some lake trout, so we strung up our fly rods and quickly landed enough fish to feed the entire party. You really can’t beat fresh caught mountain trout. Rolled in pancake mix and fried up with a little butter, salt and pepper, the tender pink fish almost literally melts in your mouth. Our first night ended on a comedic note as we all did our best to hold in the belly laughs conjured by my dad’s enthusiastic reading of Patrick F. McManus’ classic, “A Fine and Pleasant Misery”.
On day two we broke camp early and hit the trail to our second stop, Lake Caroline, a tiny alpine jewel, another four-ish miles and 1700 feet above Eightmile. With another group of hikers hot on our heels, one half of our crew pushed hard through the pain in our burning thighs to reach Caroline first. Our effort was rewarded with the best camping spot in the area, set on an outcropping of rock at the head of the lake, with a fine view of the entire bowl. The fishing proved trickier here, though my dad and I each managed to hook a few small cutthroat as we worked through the various flies in our box.
Day three began with a combination sunrise/moonset that was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in the mountains. After breakfast we decided to day-hike through the alpine meadows an additional several miles to Windy Pass, elevation 6,507. The panoramic views were well worth the modest effort.
Day four and our inevitable departure came all too soon. Reluctantly, we all hoofed it back to the trailhead. But I’m sure we’ll be back again. This wilderness area is too incredible to just visit once.