It’s that time of the year – autumn. The leaves are turning color, there is a chill in the air and those dramatic clouds are back – a beautiful season in Pacific NW. In NorthWest, we don’t have fall colors like New England or Colorado, but when you go up in the mountains, deep into the heart of Cascades, it’s a whole different story. Enchantment Lakes in Alpine Lake Wilderness is such a legendary location. It’s a place that is stunning during any time of the year – granite mountains, sharp peaks, pristine lakes and waterfalls with sweeping and jaw-dropping vistas. But every year in autumn (first two weeks of October to be more specific) the larches (a tree that grows in abundance in Enchantments) turn golden with the season – and the effect is just surreal amidst the already-majestic landscape. You may call it “over-the-top” – but you have to see it to believe it.
It’s not easy to visit Enchantments though (and I am glad it’s not!). Not only you will need a long, strenuous hike into the remote wilderness to visit this area – but also you will need to be backpacking with gears (spend a few days in the backcountry) to truly enjoy the place and let the beauty seep in. On top of that – because of its legendary status, it’s very popular with backpackers and hence, you need to win a lottery in February to be able to backpack it in October. After several years of futile attempts, I finally got a permit last year (2016). Still – I didn’t win, but one of my friends did. Thanks to his good luck, I was able to visit it during the peak autumn with a small team of friends.
Based on my experience, I thought that I would write a post as a Photography Guide of Enchantments in autumn. I did not find many “guides” per se – though there are a lot of pretty pictures out there. So – with that background, here we go..
1. What photo equipments to carry?
Let’s tackle the hardest question first. It’s a long and tough hike in with several days’ food and tent. So being at the top of your shape will help you to carry the necessary camera equipments to do the justice to this place (and satisfy your photography passion). I carried sufficient gears – two mirrorless cameras (one full frame and one cropped sensor for back-up and use with long lenses), several lenses (24-105, 14 wide and a couple more of long primes including a 105mm), tripod, filters (polarizer and grad-ND). I had one camera in a carry bag that hung from my backpack and the rest inside my pack. That way, I can make images as I am on the move. When we rested or pitched tent for the night, I took out the rest of my gears to explore and photograph more.
So – my advice is carry as much as you can – there are all kinds possibilities. Carrying primes is a good strategy – they are small and lightweight. But I also prefer to have a walk around zoom – I rather take great images than pixel peeping with a prime. I did not carry a macro or a long lens (like 200 or above) – I will probably try to take these lenses if I go again.
2. What to shoot? Lakes!
Enchantments is famous for its lakes, of course. But not all the lakes get the same grade in terms of photographic potential. Let me describe some of my favorites with my assessment of photographic potential: H – High, Medium – M and L – Low. The lakes are in order of how you see them as you walk from Snow Lakes side and traverse through the lower Enchantments to higher Enchantments (towards Aasgard pass)
Lake Viviane (Potential = High)
By far my favorite location. This is the first core enchantment lake that you see when you walk up from Snow Lakes side. You will get immediately drawn to its dramatic setting – rocky shores, submerged rocks and fascinating peak reflections – you can catch both Prusik peak and McClellan peak reflected in the water. If you walk along the shore, you will find so many compositions with rocks and small larches growing out of nowhere. Best time to shoot is possibly in the early morning as alpenglow illuminates soaring granite peaks and water is still like a mirror.
Leprechaun Lake (Potential = Medium)
Next lake after Viviane – this one is very pretty too. This is a much larger lake with longer coastline with varies scenes. There are larches, rocky outcrops and giant McClellan peak as a backdrop. Early morning light is the best – but afternoon can be great too. Look for little streams flowing into the lake and creating gargling waterfalls. There are a number of campsites – many will give you superb vantage point of the lake.
Sprite Lake (Potential = Low)
A small lake between Leprechaun and Perfection. I have personally have not explored this much but opportunities looked limited and not so different than what you get in other lakes. But still a magical lake – if it was anywhere else, it would be destination by itself.
Perfection and Inspiration Lake (Potential = High)
These two large lakes are aptly named. Perfection has some camping areas along the north shore. The larches along these areas are just from heaven – some of them are very old, crooked and have a lot of characters. Shoot the lake through these colorful trees – even on a overcast midday, the images will stand out on their own.
Inspiration lake is on another level – not just physically (you go up around 200 feet from Perfection lake), but also in terms of drama and beauty. The hill between Perfection and Inspiration is a iconic location to shoot sunrise. But I also like the more quiet scenes along the shores of Inspiration lake – many stately larches with awesome shapes play with the green hue of the water and rock/snow along the other coast.
Gnome tarn (Potential = High)
Another legendary spot in Enchantments. A little harder to find – either go up Prusik pass and come down Or find a path after you cross Lake Viviane. It’s a tarn (small lake) but in such a gorgeous setting that it will take your breath away.. Prusik peak’s granite walls rise behind the lake – and you can catch the sunrise shot (or sunset) from its shore.
Crystal lake (Potential = High)
As you climb up from Inspiration lake, you see Crystal lake sitting way below. From this vantage point, it’s the classic Enchantment shot. There is another side trail that goes to the shore of this trail – I did not have time to explore that, but I bet that it will be a great place to photograph.
Tranquil, Isolation and other upper Enchantment lakes (Potential = Medium)
These lakes seems to be in a completely different world than lower Enchantment lakes. Larch trees become sparse, wind often picks up and you are totally exposed to the elements. But the soaring peaks of Dragontail and Colchuck provides great backdrop on one side, while Prusik peak rises from the other side.
3. What to shoot? Larches!
Golden larches contrasting with white/grey polished granite landscape is a photographer’s dream. But get close to some of these trees – you will find stories and characters. Only way to do this is to slow down and see like a photographer – the nature will open her world to you and you will see the world around you in a new way.
4. What to shoot? Nature intimates!
Opportunities are endless. There is something magical about Enchantments – there are visual poetries everywhere. You need to slow down to find these gems though.
5. What to shoot? Atmospheric conditions!
Fall in Enchantments mean all kinds of weather – fog, cloud, snow, blizzard, sun. Take advantage of these amazing change of seasonal moods. I specially liked the mornings – you never know what you are going to get.
6. What to shoot? Abstracts!
Reflection of granites in the lakes create some stunning effect. These shots are better done early in the morning or later in the evening when the wind is not there. Other than perfect symmetric reflection, one can find a lot of intricate patterns in the rock here.
7. What to shoot? Wildlife!
Goats …There are a lot of goats in Enchantments. And they will come so close to you that you can almost touch (not recommended though – these are wild animals and can be fierce and protective of their territory). A funny story – while we were relaxing in our tent one day, a couple of goats were roaming so close that a passer-by day hiker called us and said “hey you guys brought your dogs up here? white dogs” before realizing that those were the goats. He apparently never saw mountain goats before.
8. What to shoot? People/Lifestyle!
With all the overwhelming dose of natural beauty, it’s easy to forget the human elements. Don’t forget to shoot the hikers/backpackers in these gorgeous settings.
9. Where to shoot? Side trips
The trail to Prusik pass is from near Perfection lake – highly recommended for views of Shield lake and Earle lake.
Another fun trip is to hike up to the top of Little Annapurna. Going down towards Crystal Lake can be another option.
10. How to shoot?
These tips are more generic than applicable in Enchantments, but I am pointing out what really works here..
a. Don’t just look for wide-angle expansive wow shots, but look for more intimate portraits of nature
b. Light is naturally great in the early morning or late evening, but don’t depend on it – you will often be under a thick cloud and deprived of any golden hours light in this time of the year. A lot of wonderful images can be made throughout the day..
c. Slow down, contemplate more, get into the zone – sometimes it helps to drop the camera, and just see and enjoy. More you see, more it seeps in, more visions will open up to your inner eyes. Anyone can come to Enchantments and take some pretty shots, but when you feel the place in your heart, you will make the images that are truly personal and heartfelt. Nothing can beat that!