The Snow Lakes trail is known mostly as the long, gradual way into the Enchantments; but Nada Lake (and nearby Snow Lake) is a worthwhile - if deceptively grueling - destination in its own right. The narrow isthmus between the lakes offers a majestic view across the water to the towering heights of McClellan Peak.
Camping at Nada Lake used to be the strategy of backpackers who missed out on the Enchantment Lakes lottery but still wanted to get within easy day-hiking range of the permit zone. However, the permit zone has since been extended to include nearly the entire Snow Lakes trail from the top of the first set of switchbacks all the way around the far shore of the upper lake. As in the core Enchantment Zone, overnight stays within this area are allowed by special-issue permit only from May 15th - October 31st.
From its beginning just off of Icicle Creek Road, the trail immediately drops a short ways to a wide bridge over the creek and then begins climbing, gaining 800 feet in a set of lengthy switchbacks over its first mile. The grade levels off somewhat for the next mile and a half as you head straight back into the Snow Creek drainage, passing through terrain still bearing the sooty scars of a forest fire long ago. This early stretch of trail sees quite a bit of traffic from rock climbers making their way to Snow Creek Wall, the vertical face of granite visible on the far side of Snow Creek.
You soon enter forest and skirt the edges of the creek before the climbing begins in earnest again. Another set of switchbacks takes you through an area of trees snapped off impressively by slides and wind – you’ll pass several trees that bear sobering gashes from crashing boulders. After crossing a log bridge over Snow Creek, things once again level out, climbing slowly, but steadily until a steeper section over talus slopes takes you to Nada Lake under increasingly striking granite peaks.
WTA Pro Tip: The hardest part of this hike is not the climb in, but the journey out. On the return to the trailhead, the trail sheds 3,600 feet of elevation over a rocky, uneven 5.3 miles between the outlet of Nada Lake and the bridge to the parking lot. Though seemingly not that steep, the uncommonly long downhill produces a constant jarring and pounding that reduces even hardened mountaineers to a pained shuffle by the time the parking lot comes into view – unfortunately, with 24 switchbacks still left to go. Leave yourself time to take breaks – no matter how used you are to long hikes, your feet will thank you.