One of the most beautiful areas in Washington’s Cascade mountain range is the Enchantment Lakes region in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. This area is so far removed and hidden that it wasn’t even discovered (by European Americans) until the early 1900’s by A. H. Sylvester, and mountaineers didn’t start climbing and naming the peaks until the 1940’s and 1950’s. For comparison, the first ascent of Mount Rainier was in 1870, and it was established as a national park in 1899. Of course, you can see Mount Rainier from almost any high point in the entire state, so that should not come as a surprise!

One of the reasons the Enchantments are so, well, enchanting, is because of the abundance of larches (combined with the spectacular alpine scenery). The larch is the only deciduous conifer (I believe that is true, correct me if you know otherwise). In the summer they almost look like typical pine trees, though with softer needles and a more lime green color. Come fall, the needles turn to a brilliant golden color, which truly shines when illuminated by the sun. In the Cascades, larches are some of the hardiest trees, growing at much higher elevations than most other conifers.

Prusik Peak, Winter Snow, and Fall Larches in the Enchantments

"Winter Enchantment" ~ Prusik Peak, Enchantments
The Tech: Canon 5D2, Nikon 14-24mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 200, f/16, 1/50th

This legendary scenery has made the Enchantments one of the most popular alpine destinations, particularly during ‘larch season’, which typically occurs in the second week of October. Occasionally, winter snows blown in right when the larches are peaking, adding yet another level of enchantment to this wilderness paradise. Such was the case this year – exactly conditions I had been wanting to have for visiting the area since I moved to Seattle!

Prusik Peak, Winter Snow, and Alpine Larches in the Enchantments

"Alpine Gold" ~ Prusik Peak, Enchantments
The Tech: Canon 5D2, Nikon 14-24mm, handheld
Exposure: iso 100, f/14, 1/100th

In 1981 a permit system was implemented to prevent over-use of this incredible area, and the competition is fierce. Most of the permits are decided by lottery for the entire year by February 1st. The remaining 25% of the permits (which amounts to 1 permit for the core enchantments!) are handed out on the day of, also by lottery if necessary. As a photographer, I couldn’t just let my trip be determined by luck many months in advance, so I decided I would gamble on a walk-in permit. After reading reports of near peak larches and a foot of snow, and more snow and sculpting winds on the way, I decided it was now or never. So, last week I headed out to Leavenworth in hopes of getting that precious permit. Four other groups were hoping for the same, and of course, I did not get the permit. However, the two guys, Ryan and Grant, who were the lucky winners were kind enough to ‘adopt’ me into their party. Their destination was to climb Prusik Peak, which was fortunately my destination as well (at least, to camp at the base, not to climb it). In exchange, I was coincidentally able to offer Grant a pair of foot pads for his alpine climbing boots that I had left in my truck. That would have made the long hike rather uncomfortable otherwise!

From my days spent backpacking in the Sierra I came to consider 3-4,000 feet of elevation gain a ‘big day’. Well, it turns out that in the Cascades that’s just about the lowest bar for entry into the high country. The approach to the Enchantments is a little on the high end at 6,000 feet of climbing, spread out over 11 miles or so (from the Snow Lakes trailhead, there is an alternative route in via Aasgard Pass, which is shorter but not recommended in snowy conditions). After a big push, I made it to my snowy and spectacular camp in just about 7 hours. It was truly an enchanting place. Since the larches show their color best when illuminated by direct sunlight, I focused my photography more around the middle of the day – a pleasant rarity in the realm of mountain nature photography.

Enchantments in Winter Snow with Fall Larches

"Flames of Enchantment" ~ Crystal Lake, Enchantments
The Tech: Canon 5D2, Canon 24-105mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/11, 1/250th
Notes: two-image panorama

It’s worth noting that this was my 5th trip into the Cascades this summer, and the only trip where I actually took images worth sharing! This was in part due to the strange weather the northwest experienced this year – summer started around mid-August – and I suppose my still getting used to these new mountains. I hope you enjoy the views!

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17 Comments to “Enchantment : Winter Snows and Flaming Larches”

  1. Niccolรฒ Bonfadini says:

    spectacular images as usual!

  2. Richard Wong says:

    Amazing scenery Floris. Unique to see such vibrant color on the trees contrasted with such a cold looking landscape. Glad to see you enjoying your new environment up in the PNW.

  3. Kent Mearig says:

    Wow, it looks like you must have had a great time. The snow: what a treat with the larches going off!

  4. Wow, Floris, I’ve seen some amazing shots from that area, but the snow really puts these on another plane! They look like they could be illustrating a fantasy novel or something. I think the high perspective, beautiful lake and sense of size in the mountains make the third my favorite; but #1 is an amazing comp too!

  5. Matt Curtis says:

    Beautiful shots! I have never been to Washington in the winter- I make an annual trip there in the spring or fall… I guess a place like the Enchantments are impressive at any time of year. Will have to add that to my list of places to visit.

  6. You really got lucky with the snow up there. That is very unusual and beautiful.

  7. Ariel says:

    Awesome work Floris! I’m so glad you had such wonderful weather line up for you, and you made it in anyways. ๐Ÿ™‚ That second shot is amazing…..

  8. Tim Gallivan says:

    These are incredible, Floris. We were here at the same time — except I didn’t make it into the core zone. I spent a few nights at Colchuck Lake and decided against a solo ascent of the snowy Aasgard Pass. I almost regret the decision after seeing these. Although I can’t imagine the route you took was easy for the last mile. I’ve done that approach, and a few parts freaked me out a little. I’m glad you made it in and out with some amazing shots to show for it.

  9. John Wall says:

    Enchanting indeed, and certainly a different beat from the Sierras.

  10. Dene Miles says:

    What a brilliant collection. Look like you timed your trip perfectly for prime larch season. The snow adds an entirely different element the scenes. Happy to see you came away with so many outstanding images. For what it’s worth Alpine Gold is my favorite ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. Thanks everyone for the kind words!! And I appreciate the feedback regarding your personal favorites of the bunch, it’s always interesting to hear the opinions.

    Tim – I’m sorry you didn’t make it up and over that pass. Better to err on the side of caution, however. I was worried about the snow on that side myself, which is why I opted for the longer approach via Snow Lakes. There were some tricky parts on that approach too (which I had read about), but fortunately they weren’t so bad (for me) when I went in and out. I had some micro spikes, which definitely helped with traction. I think the next few days after I visited would have been more treacherous, as the snow started melting, and presumably refreezing at night, which would make it very dangerous indeed!

  12. Daniel says:

    That was a great write-up, Floris. Sounds wonderful!

  13. Jeroen van Weert says:


    I enjoy visiting your blog, not only for the beautiful pictures, but for the very informative and pleasurable reading as well! I will not comment on all postings, but for this one, I do have to comment. Very, very nice pictures of which Flames of enchantment is my favourite image.You really publish the best photoblog about nature photography I have ever seen!

    Kind regards,

    Jeroen van Weert

  14. Thanks Jeroen, that means a lot to me! The Flames of Enchantment image is also my favorite from the trip (and I plan to have it on my wall soon!).

    Bedankt ๐Ÿ˜‰

    – Floris

  15. Bo Mackison says:

    I think one of the most interesting contrasts in nature is snow cover and larches in yellow. Each of your photos really stirred my longing for the Cascades. The last photo, Flames,– oh my, how did you tear your eyes away from the scene in order to get such a great photo. Sometimes I just stand and stare in awe, and almost forget to take the photos!

  16. Lovely work Floris! love the colors and the clarity of the images!

  17. Mike Putnam says:

    Beautiful images from a grand adventure. Consider me jealous! The textures and colors from this beautiful location must have made you giddy with excitement. Wonderful work!