Much has been written about the wild and rugged wilderness area known as the Enchantments west of Leavenworth, but words have a hard time capturing the beauty and magic of a place that is so truly enchanting.
The geologic features found in the Enchantments have inspired fantasy and whimsy from the beginning of their exploration and are captured in the official and unofficial names of the features in this wilderness. Names like Gnome Tarn, Troll Sink and Aasgard Pass (officially Colchuck Pass) give the area a J.R.R. Tolkien Middle-earth kind of feel. Hikers can almost see Leprechauns snoozing under the Dr. Seuss like Larch trees.
Feeling pretty certain that giants, fairies and gnomes weren’t responsible for the dramatic features found in the Enchantments, I contacted my old geology professor from the University of Puget Sound, Dr. Barry Goldstein (a man who once convinced a naive college freshman that he could determine what minerals were in a rock by taste), and asked him about how the Enchantments came to be the amazing place it is.
Goldstein confirmed my suspicion that giants were not responsible for the Enchantments, but rather that something called the Mount Stuart batholith created the dramatic rock features hikers see in the area. The magma batholith (think big pool of molten rock) cooled slowly around 83 to 93 million years ago, three to six miles below the surface of the earth. Goldstein explained that, at such depth, heat escapes slowly, creating the large interconnected crystals that are so popular with climbers in the area.
Once the rock cooled, Goldstein says, the region was uplifted several times, exposing the rock to the forces of erosion and revealing the batholith. Goldstein highlights that the batholith runs from I-90 to U.S. Highway 2, with Mount Stuart being “the highest remnant of the long-exposed and much eroded rock.”
“So, was the rock eroded by giants?” I asked, thinking I may have a scoop worthy of a Pulitzer. Goldstein’s answer was yes… but not the kind I was thinking of. It seems that multiple episodes of (giant) glacial erosion in the last 1.5 to 2.0 million years, along with river erosion, have been responsible for most of the erosion found in the area. Goldstein says even many of the lakes found in the Enchantments were caused by glacial erosion. Besides the forces of giant slow moving sheets of ice, seasonal freezing and thawing also contributed to the rock fall and talus found at the bottom of cliffs.
Fun Geological Fact
Goldstein reminds us that just as erosion is not caused by giants, it is also not caused by the ice of a glacier either. Instead, bedrock particles freeze to the base of the glacier as it is dragged like sandpaper across a bedrock surface or as segments of bedrock freeze onto the base of the glacier and then get dragged away as the ice flows down slope.
The Enchantments are full of wildlife of the two and four legged variety. But the dominate creatures of the wilderness area are the Mountain Goats; they are beautiful, bold and curious. The Forest Service offers great advice on how to cohabitate with the majestic goats in a video called Hiking Safely with Mountain Goats. When I was there this summer, three pairs of mama and adolescent goats patrolled the area around our campsite, they were curious but cautious.
Good Things to Know
Permits: The Enchantments Wilderness is a controlled access area with passes issued by the Forest Service either through an annual lottery process beginning in February or through daily walk-in permitting during the permit season. More information about the pass process can be found here.
Parking: The Enchantments are a popular hiking, climbing and through-running recreational area. The permit process controls the crowds fairly well and the trailheads’ do have large parking lots, but it wise to arrive early on the day you plan to hike. Some road-side parking is available, but not recommended for extended hikes.
Weather: We have all heard that weather in the mountains can and will change quickly, and hikers need to be prepared for all types of weather in the Enchantments. Warm weather— like this summer’s extra hot days— can lull hikers into a false sense of security… “do I really need that extra layer?” I was thinking as I slogged up Aasgard Pass under temperatures in the mid-90s. Two days later a wind and rain storm moved in as my party worked to set-up our tents. The near gale force winds threatened to make kites out of our tents and rain whipped through the lining of the tents. It was a long, wet, cold, miserable night— I was glad I had lugged that extra layer up the mountain. Don’t let the serene views of the Enchantments fool you, the weather will change and you can get dangerously cold even in the summer— be ready to move if you need to, and watch for rising river/creek levels if the rain persists. Think about the weather and water levels and how they can change when establishing a camp. Stay safe and happy in this magnificent wilderness.
Author’s Note: I would like to thank Dr. Barry Goldstein and the University of Puget Sound for making this article possible and for the education of a lifetime.