On October fifth of this last year, I was all packed up and ready to head out in my new adventure van Gracie to hit the North Cascades to hunt for the golden larch (Tamaracks). The plan was to spend six glorious days hiking up high in the North Cascades and shoot evening light and sunset with golden larch, then night hike down and enjoy some fire time in camp, crash, and then move camp the next day and repeat. It was an excellent plan.
However, a dream for almost every northwest hiker is to see the Enchantments in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington during golden larch time. The only problem is getting that hard to come by and illusive backcountry permit. It’s the golden ticket needed to backpack into the core Enchantments, and they are very, very hard to get. I had two of my best hiking buddies with me on this trip, and we had all put in for a permit in the spring when they do the main lottery draw. We of course were all denied, as usual. But because of Covid, there was a second chance on-line lottery every Monday morning between 5-9am, to lottery off the walk up permits for the week that normally would have been held in person on the porch of the Ranger Station in Leavenworth.
So just for fun, we all were up early Monday Morning monitoring the computer and refreshing the permit page over and over again hoping to see these mysterious permits pop up. After almost four hours staring at the screen, there were no permits to be had. My buddies had given up and settled on the trip we already had planned, but I refused to give it. I got it in my mind that the rangers might be having a bit of fun, and they might release the permits at the very last minute. So, at 8:59:59 I hit the refresh button one more time…WHAT!! Sixteen permits popped up and I quickly put three of them in my shopping cart. A few seconds later they were all gone, and with shaking fingers I entered all the appropriate information along with my credit card and secured the permits. I texted my buddies and said…” I got one”! They did not believe me and thought I was pulling their legs. I texted again “No really I got a permit, and we are going to the Enchantments.”
I was thrilled and jumping around my office yelling to myself, I got a permit, I got a permit! I could not believe it! Finally, I called them both and convinced them I really had secured the almost impossible to get permit, and we were going to the Enchantments. It was like winning the Lottery. The Enchantment Lottery! Time to forget the other trip we had planned and get ourselves ready to make one of the most difficult, but one of the most rewarding wilderness backpacks you can possibly do in the United States.
Hours later, the backpacks were packed up, and we were in the rigs to drive over the Cascade Mountains through the town of Leavenworth, and up Icicle Creek Road for a night of car camping. This put us very close to the trailhead for an early departure the next morning.
Day one we were on the trail well before first light doing long and arduous switchbacks that start this incredible hike. My pack for this four-day adventure weighed in at 62 pounds and those first few switchbacks had me thinking I would never make it. It felt crushing, and we had 14 miles and over 6000 feet of elevation ahead of us. This is an extremely difficult and challenging hike. You have to be prepared mentally, Spiritually, as well as physically. Your mind and your spirit have to be in the right place to be up for this challenge. But after thirty minutes or so, my endorphins had kicked in and we had settled into a nice pace, making our way up. Now the dream of seeing Enchantments was in full swing, willing us along, pulling us up the mountain. Now nothing was going to stop me from getting there, nothing!
After six hours we had hiked seven miles with 4300 feet of elevation gain and arrived at Snow Lakes, which we had thought would be our first nights camp. But after a nice lunch break, we decided it was still early enough to press on and try to get into the Enchantments on the first night. After hiking around Snow lakes, we started the most challenging accent of the hike. With almost 2000 feet of elevation gain in under a mile and a half, this will push you to your extreme limit. You must use all fours at times while you hold on to trees, roots and rock as the climb gets almost straight up vertical. Then, just when you really cannot take anymore, you pop up in the Lower Enchantments and your Spirits are instantly renewed. The beauty of this place is just so hard to describe. It is overwhelming. We dropped the packs for some more rest and snacks while we took it all in. I could feel myself starting to tear up numerous times as I realized we were in the Enchantments, and we were going to make it.
We still had about 3 miles and plenty of elevation ups and downs left to get to our camp at Inspiration Lake in the middle Enchantments. As we rounded and climbed over Vivian Lake, the first of the Golden Larch came into view. They were peaking! We could not believe our good fortune. The Golden Larch were prime, and the forest glowed in bright yellow and orange tones. I was lost in my own mind hiking through paradise. As we rounded a corner and made our way along Perfection Lake, we hiked through what I have named The Enchanted Forest. I knew I would return to this place in the right light and spend many hours shooting this amazing area. But for now, one more climb up to Inspiration Lake. We found a perfect camp and had our first visitor, a beautiful mountain goat shinning his new winter coat.
Finally, we dropped those heavy packs. We were all exhausted. I could barely walk or stand up straight, but I needed to get camp set up, the sun was already close to setting. I cooked food while setting camp and getting water, then somehow, I was back on the trail in under 45 minutes. Heading to the spot I had dreamed of seeing in the fall for so many years. I passed by my buddies’ tents, it did not look like they were ready, so I started the last climb of the day on my own, talking to myself the entire way. “You can make it! Fight through the pain! You can’t fail! You must get there! Go faster, hike faster!” Climbing up, up, and up through the forest with every last once of energy I had left, I finally crested the hill and dropped down on Gnome Tarn with Prusik Peak Rising into the sky. The last light was already hitting the peak. I dropped my back, threw down the tripod and with shaky legs walked to the edge of the tarn just as Alpenglow was settling in….and click, I got the shot of a lifetime! After over 14 miles and over 6600 feet of elevation gain, using every last ounce of everything I had in me, I captured my dream shot of Prusik Peak reflected in Gnome Tarn surrounded by golden larch peaking in full fall glory. I tear dropped down my cheek. I was so happy. After more than 25 years as a professional photographer, I had finally gotten this shot. My Dream shot in the Enchantments.
One of my buddies made it up just at the tail end of Alpenglow, then he joined me in a 40-minute star exposure. After that we made our way down to camp for more food and straight into the tents for bed. It felt so nice, I stretched with a smile on my face and was instantly asleep
As I crawled out of the tent early the next morning, I realized everything was sore. I literally hurt everywhere, and it took a few minutes to loosen up. We climbed some cliffs above camp to get a view over Perfection Lake for sunrise. It was good but not what I was looking, we needed to explore up higher. But no time for that now, it was time to head back down to the Enchanted Forest and shoot it while it was in shadow. Oh my, what I time I had in this magical forest. I was immersed in the color and beauty and lost myself for over two and a half hours. First with reflection shots across the lake, and then into the forest itself. The image making was stupendous! I just shot and shot until finally the light came over the cliffs and the shoot was over, but I will never forget this time in this magical Enchanted Forest. I was starving, so back to camp for a late breakfast. Then we hiked and climbed ourselves into the Upper Enchantments. The Upper Enchantment’s go up above tree line into a stark beautiful world of connected streams and lakes that flow down though nothing but rock snow and Ice. This is one Washington State’s highest alpine areas and unlike anything you have ever seen. We circled around searching for a perfect spot to shoot sunset over Inspiration Lake out to Prusik Peak. Another shot I have been dreaming about. Finally, we settled on a spot and took a couple of test shots, and I marked my tripod feet with rocks so I could find it again. Then back to camp to refuel, rest and get repacked for the afternoon climb. Our Mountain Goat visitor came back into camp, and we enjoyed shooting him with the golden larch as background. Late Afternoon we were back up at the location we had selected earlier. We lucked out with amazing late light that turned right into a nice sunset, and I nailed another set of fantastic images.
We very carefully made our way back down from the Upper Enchantments in the dark with our headlamps on. Back at camp in was straight into the tent for sleep.
Up again on day three in the dark, we climbed back up to lasts night’s sunset spot and shot sunrise. The colors were good, but this angle was hard for me to shoot, and I was not happy with any of my shots. We had brought our breakfast up with us, so we continued into the Upper Enchantment’s passing all the beautiful lakes on the way to Assgard Pass. This is the very top of the Upper Enchantments. We backtracked a bit to Tranquil Lake and scored some morning light images with Dragontail Peak. You got to love all of the cool names for the lakes and peaks of the Enchantment’s. As we made our way back down through the Upper Enchantments, we came and epic scene with many layers of creeks and lakes, with the beautiful golden larch, we all dropped our packs without saying a word and captured it. POW! Nailed it! It’s in the Bank!
After our day hike, and a rest break for a late lunch, once again we had mountain goats in camp. After shooting then again, we dawned the daypacks and climbed back up to Gnome Tarn for magical evening light right into another fantastic Sunset. We had a few clouds this time, but the tarn never got glassy still like the first night. Once again, I was very pleased with my images. After another night hike back to camp, I stretched out in my tent for sleep, dreaming of the Enchantments.
On the fourth and final day we worked our way back up to Gnome Tarn and Prusik Peak for Sunrise. This time I shot out over Perfection Lake toward Little Anna Purna and scored a great shot with some golden Larch bushes in my foreground. It was a bit breezy, and I had a hard time getting the bushes to hold still, but the movement in the image showed reality. We finished up the sunrise with more amazing shots of Prusik Peak and Gnome Tarn with incredible morning light just touching the peak. What a Finish to an amazing shoot!
Back at camp, we quickly broke down our gear. We had heard a storm was moving in, snow was coming, so we quickly got on the trail. I tried really hard soak in that last walk through the Enchanted Forest ablaze in all that golden larch color. It took a little over the eight hours to hike the 12 miles out from camp. Even though I was sad to be leaving, I was also completely satisfied. I was thrilled with the amazing images I had captured, and I marveled at the adventure we had had. Something I will remember and cherish for the rest of my life. And now that first nights image hangs in both of my galleries, and also made the cover of my Images of the Northwest 2022 Calendar. It was the realization of a 25-year dream, and I finally checked it off of my bucket list. Time to plan the next adventure. Happy Hiking Everyone!
Randall’s Gear on this adventure: Canon 5DSR with Canon 24-105 Mark 2 lens. Gitzo Traveler Tripod with Gitzo Traveler Ball Head, Singh-Ray Thin Mount Light Bright Warming Polarizer, two sets of Singh-Ray graduated split neutral density filters including a 1, 2, 3 and 4 stops all in hard graduation, two plug in cable releases, 6 Batteries, lots of lens cloths and a Hoodman loop. For more information on Randall’s work, please visit his website at www.randalljhodges.com