The Wonderland Trail is a 93-mile loop that circumnavigates Mount Rainier. This hike may seem like a baby thru hike compared to the big three (Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails), but don’t let the “short distance” fool you into believing that it’s a walk in the park. With huge elevations losses and gains, the cumulative elevation gain of this trail is 22,000 feet and a daily elevation gain of approximately 3,500 (depending on the length of your trip)! The difficult terrain aside, there’s a reason this trail is a considered one of the jewels of Pacific Northwest. Between lowland forests of beautiful pine trees, valleys of wildflowers, alpine and subalpine areas, hikers of the Wonderland Trail experience an array of breathtaking landscapes. With over 25 glaciers, Mount Rainier has the most glaciers on a single mountain in the lower 48 and the Wonderland Trail traverses close to a number of them! Hikers get to see Mount Rainier in all her glory from all angles.
I visited Mount Rainier National Park last year during my five-week road trip. From the moment I saw the entrance at Nisqually Historic District, I was drawn to the majestic beauty of this place and the mystique of the mountain. As we were exploring the Longmire Visitor area, I saw the trailhead to the Wonderland Trail and felt the familiar pull of a long distance hike and knew that I’d soon be back to hike it. Because there’s so much information to cover, unlike my blogs on National Parks, I’m not going to cover planning but focus this post on my hiking experience (which of course includes misadventures!). You’ll find all the excruciating details of planning this trek in the Wonderland Trail Thru Hiking Planning Guide!
THRU HIKE SYNDICATE AMBASSADOR
Before I dive into the details of my trip, I want to share another exciting element of this hike. If you following me on Instagram, you already know that I was selected to be a 2019 Thru Hike Syndicate Ambassador. If you’re not familiar with the program, it is an amazing opportunity made possible by five sponsoring companies (Darn Tough, Leki, Nemo (the green tent people!), Osprey and Vasque Footwear) to thru hikers attempting short and long trails. As part of the program, I had an amazing opportunity to update my hiking gear and become part of a community of incredible adventurers! Look for the blog post, Why Thru Hike Syndicate’s Selection of a Diverse Group of Ambassadors Matters for the Outdoor Industry, which includes details of the program, why I was so excited to be a Thru Hike Ambassador and why representation matters in the outdoors.
As you can imagine, the Wonderland Trail is a popular hike – fairly short, easily accessible from Seattle and Portland, and a beautiful trail. So the first hurdle for anyone wanting to hike this trail is securing a permit. There are two options – enter the lottery in the spring or secure walk-in permit the day before starting the hike (see Wonderland Trail Thru Hike Planning Guide blog post for details on the permit process).
As part of the permit process, you’ll have to submit a day-by-day itinerary. To come up with a plan, you’ll need to make a few key decisions: what direction will you hike (clockwise or counterclockwise), which trailhead will you start and end your hike (Longmire is the most popular followed by Sunrise and White River Campground which are easily accessible in the summer, Mowich Lake is a starting point but is located in a remote and hard to access part of the park and there a couple of other minor starting points) and whether you will hike through Spray Park or stick to the Wonderland Trail. Fore more details, tips and strategies see the Wonderland Trail Thru Hike Planning Guide post.
One of the best things about hiking the Wonderland Trail is taking advantage of the food cache system, especially if your trek is more than five days. There are four food cache options: Longmire Wilderness Information Center, White River Campground Ranger Station, Sunrise Old Gas Station and Mowich Lake Patrol Cabin. Keep in mind that the Sunrise and Mowich Lake may not be good options to cache food early in the season as the road to both places may not be open. White River is close enough to Sunrise to make that your alternate food cache but there aren’t any alternates to Mowich Lake. There are detailed guidelines on how to select your food cache location and where to ship your food in the Wonderland Trail Thru Hike Planning Guide blog post.
The next logistically challenge, especially if you’re not from the area, is transportation to and from Mount Rainier National Park. By far the most popular option is to fly to Seattle and rent a car (which can run upwards of $500 depending on the length of your trip). I couldn’t convince myself it was worth the money to have a car mostly sitting in a parking lot, so I managed to find Tour Mount Rainier run by Diann Sheldon out of Tacoma that was willing to shuttle me to and from the Park. The round trip cost me $300 but it was less than a car rental and Diann has expert knowledge of this mountain, so it was a fun car ride learning all about this magical place. If you’re a follower of my IG account, you know what a savior Diann ended up being on this trip! Plus, you’ll be supporting an awesome small business.
MY THRU HIKE
As I mentioned earlier, I was lucky enough to snag a permit through the pre-season lottery and the itinerary they offered was slightly but not drastically different from what I requested! My hike started just after Labor Day when the crowds are starting to slow and it was supposed to last 12 days.
Because my loop was going to start and end at Longmire, I got to the Longmire Wilderness Information Center by 10AM, the deadline to pick up the backcountry permit from a wilderness or ranger station. On our drive to Mount Rainier, Diann from Tour Mount Rainier mentioned the Paradise River Campground was closed but it was the first campground I was assigned to according to my permit reservation. Sure enough, when I picked up my permit, the ranger told me that I would only be hiking just under two miles to the Cougar Creek Campground (coincidentally the same place that I stayed last year). So I spent much of the day walking around and exploring at Longmire and headed out to the campsite around 3PM.
I knew I was in trouble soon after I began the hike! My pack was HEAVY. Because of a family emergency, I didn’t think I was going to make the trip to Mount Rainier, so I didn’t mail my food cache. I decided I would be doing the trip two weeks before my start date, which way too late to mail. Since I was taking a shuttle instead of renting a car, I wasn’t able to drive around the park to drop off my food. Because I’d hiked the Appalachian Trail, I thought I could handle carrying 12 days of food. Of course, I always pack way more food than I need and don’t get into a rhythm until at least a week or two into a backpacking trip. So… I had a food bag that weighed at least 10 pounds! Like a rookie, I also packed way too much camera equipment and clothes. I read an erroneous weather report that called for snow my second week and I decided to carry almost five days worth of clothes (what a silly, silly mistake!). At this point, I didn’t have much choice but to carry it all for the duration of the trip. Once I added my water, my pack weighed close to 35lbs! It’s been three years since my last a multi-day backpacking trip and my body was not ready to carry that kind of weight. Luckily, the wonderful pack Osprey provided as part of my participation in the Thru Hike Syndicate saved the day by staying comfortable on my shoulders and waist.
Day 2 was a grueling 14-miles from Courgar Rock Campground to Nickel Creek Campground. I was not mentally prepared to do a double digit mile day so early in the hike, which made me anxious. I also had to cross over a precarious wash out area at Stevens Canyon, which didn’t do anything to ease my anxiety! When I got to Nickel Creek, I was the only person there. Normally this would be fine but I couldn’t hoist my heavy food pack onto the bear pole. Luckily, two people showed up close to dusk and they helped me get the bag up. With the food bag securely tucked away, I had a peaceful night of sleep but around 5AM I woke up to my face in a puddle of water. I opened my rain fly to see how hard it was raining outside. It was completely dry outside so how did it manage to rain inside my tent? If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you are now familiar that I have issues with water! I elevated my legs on my pack while I was sleeping, but I forgot about the full water bladder inside the pack. So at some point in the night, I’d pressed on the bite valve and emptied two liters of water into my tent. Luckily I’d spread all those extra clothes around me in the tent, so most of the water was absorbed. But it also meant I was now carrying soaking wet clothes and adding to the weight of my pack.
My third day of hiking was a short (6.5 miles) but mostly uphill hike to Indian Bar, one of the most beautiful campgrounds on this trail. Since the water puddle in my tent had woken me up early, I got an early start to the day. An hour into my hike, the sky opened and it started to rain. The saving grace of the water bladder incident was that I was all packed and hiking before my essentials like the tent and sleeping bag got wet. As I began to crest the top of the climb for the day, the rain stopped and the sun started to fight it’s way through the clouds. The sun came out fully by the time I got to the top and I got to enjoy a beautiful view of Rainier and the meadows surrounding it. I ran into a Park Ranger here and she told me the extra walk to camp site 2 at Indian Bar would be worth it. She wasn’t joking. I had the most expansive views of the Ohanapecosh Glacier and the valley below it just outside my tent. It was a large campsite, so when another hiker wondered over to check out the view and see if the space was available, I shared the tent space (in exchange for help hoisting my food bag on to the bear pole!). He gladly agreed.
The next morning, I had a long 12-mile day ahead, including a 4,000 feet climb in three miles to the Panhandle Gap (at 6,800 feet it’s the highest point on the Wonderland Trail) and steep 4-mile downhill. I was feeling a little anxious about the big climb and the long miles as I left camp and wasn’t fully paying attention to my footing. I took a misstepped on a stair and turned my ankle. The pain was intense for 30-seconds but then I was able to start moving. The climb was slow and steady and not as bad I feared. After taking in the breathtaking sites of the Panhandle Gap including a clear view of Mount Rainier, I started feeling confident and made my way down. My plan was to make a lunch stop at the Sunrise Visitor Center for a warm, real meal. I knew I was in trouble immediately as I started making my way down the rocky, boulder field. My foot couldn’t get a flat footing and my ankle began to ache almost immediately. With each step, my pain increased and it took me over three hours to cover the couple of miles from the Panhandle to the Summerland Campground. My plan at that point was to stop there for the night, even though I didn’t have a permit to camp, and if there was a ranger station grab a splint, change my itinerary and proceed on my trek in the morning. Just as I was approaching Summerland, I ran into Ranger Geoff! He took one look at me and knew the ankle must be sprained pretty badly and indeed it was – swollen and bruised. He convinced me to walk down with him to my original stop, since he and other rangers would be able to help me as opposed to being on my own the next morning. It sounded like a good plan, so I agreed to hike down with him. A couple of hours after we started the downhill, Rangers Dan and Gavin met up with us and they brought a pair of crutches. Although it slowed me down, walking with on the crutches was more comfortable. Just as I was hitting my stride with the crutches, we started loosing daylight and the much anticipated and expected rainstorm of the day caught up with us and brought with it an unprecedented lightning storm. Only a mile and half away from the campground, the lightning storm convinced the rangers that it was time to call for reinforcements and carry me the rest of the way so we could make better time (it is not a ride I’d recommend!). Once we got to the White River Campground, Rangers Gavin and Kevin convinced me the next best course of action was to go into the nearest town, Enumclaw. It was rainy, my tent got wet while the rangers were setting it up, so I agreed. The next day, the doctor confirmed it was sprain. Although his preference was for me to get off the trail, he understood that I wanted to finish the trail and just gave me some advice on the best ways to protect the sprained ankle. This unplanned stop also helped me lighten my pack. I sent most of my camera equipment and extra clothes home. I also got rid of food that I hadn’t touched in four days. These changes alone helped me shave about 12-15 pounds and the pack was much easier and more comfortable to carry.
After two nights off the trail, I had to come up with a new hiking plan which gave me a chance to add Spray Park to my itinerary, but the weather was anything but cooperative. It rained constantly for two days and most of my things managed to get wet in that time. Kudos to Nemo for the amazing sleeping bag they gave me. Even though the outside of the bag was wet from the water that got into the tent (also my fault for not staking the rainfly properly), the inside of the bag managed to stay dry and kept me warm!
I woke up to clear skies and sunshine on day nine, which was good because I had a long, hard trek up to Spray Park. I appreciated a pleasant day with lots of sun, but clouds started to move in half way through my hike. I was racing against them to Spray Park, so I could fully enjoy the beauty but also dry my wet stuff! Navigating through Spray Park was more difficult than I anticipated and luck was not on my side because the entire area was cloud-socked when I made it to the top. After snapping a few pictures, I started making my way to camp so I could use some of the daylight to dry my stuff. However, bears in the park had other ideas. I ran into four bears between Spray Park and the Eagle’s Roost Campground. The bears were busy filling their stomachs and paid no attention to me but that also meant I had to wait for them to move out the way before I could proceed. When I finally made it to camp, my ankle and spirits were feeling great. I had two more days left on the trail and I was feeling like I was hitting my stride again! The last days on the trail were looking bright.
After a strong day of hiking, I woke up early and felt confident about my 13-mile hike to Golden Lakes Campground. I packed up tent, ate my breakfast and began to lace up my boots. I got my right foot, the one with the sprained ankle, into the boot without any problems. As I put my left foot into the boot, there was a sharp twinge of pain around my Achilles tendon. I figured it was sensitive, maybe from overcompensation, so I wrapped an ace bandage around it and put my foot back in again but I couldn’t lace up the boot without searing pain. I could not hike without my boots. I didn’t have an alternative pair of trail runners. I’m sure if I’d given it a day or two of rest, I could’ve pushed further but I didn’t have the time flexibility either. My hiking plan was already running behind and there were no more adjustments I could make. I was also only a few miles away from Mowich Lake, the last exit point before heading into the wilderness and hiking out at Longmire (my final destination). If I couldn’t hike the last 26 miles then I’d need to be rescued again. I’d pushed myself through a sprain, came back to the trail and asked my body to do some more, but my body was telling me it could push no more. All things considered, exiting the trail felt like the right and responsible choice. But that doesn’t make it easy to accept emotionally and I was disappointed, angry and felt like I had failed.
With a strong sense of disappointment, one boot and a flip flop, I hiked out of the Wonderland Trail. My next hurdle was to find a ride from this remote part of the park to Longmire (the meeting point with Diann and a place with lodging). Once again, shout out to the Mount Rainier National Park staff because one of the maintenance workers was headed back to Longmire and offered me a ride! While I was waiting for my ride, I ran into a Wonderland Trail hiker, Barbara Dawn, who I’d run into on my first day back on the trail. I was stopped in the middle of the trail, lost in my thoughts but she patiently gave me my space and waited until I noticed her to say anything. I told her about the sprain and how anxious I was feeling about getting back on the trail and she gave me the words of encouragement (it was brave decision to return to the trail) I didn’t even know I needed! I saw her again as she was finishing her hike and she was disappointed for me but also reminded me that ending something also takes courage.
Once I finally made my way to Longmire, I was hoping to get in touch with Diann before grabbing the last room at the Longmire Inn. As I was waiting, another hiker, Ricardo, walked into inquire about rooms. I ran to the front desk to duke it out but once we started talking we realized there were some crazy coincidences including the fact he lived miles away from me. Because the room had multiple beds, it was easy enough to share (I realize this only sounds logical and not to thru hikers). I also had the chance to help him get organized for the start of his trip and lend him some of my lightweight gear. Honestly, it was not only the perfect way to spend an evening not wallowing in self- pity but it also felt like a fitting end to one of my most adventurous hikes filled so many misadventures, kindness and generosity!