Did you know you can thru hike trails that are not the big three (Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide)?
I thru hiked the Wonderland Trail, a 93-mile loop around Mount Rainier. Considered a crown jewel of the Pacific Northwest, this trail had everything from valleys of wildflowers, alpine and subalpine areas, glaciers (over 25 – the most on a single mountain in the lower 48), and sweeping views of Mt. Rainier from every angle imaginable.
When I saw the Wonderland Trail on my first visit to Mt. Rainier National Park, I felt the familiar pull of a long distance hike and knew that I’d be back to thru hike it.
Planning a thru hike no matter how long or short the trail requires some deep planning for many things but especially the four most important logistics – gear, permit, transportation and food resupply.
Gear. After 2,100 miles on the Appalachian Trail, most of my ultra light gear needed to be replaced, if not for anything else but for the lingering thru hike smell that only seemed to get worse. On a whim, I applied to become and was selected as a 2019 Thru Hike Syndicate Ambassador, a program made possible by five sponsoring companies (Darn Tough, Leki, Nemo, Osprey, and Vasque Footwear) that provided most of the basic gear I needed for my hike.
Permit. I was lucky to secure my permit for the hike during the spring lottery. I could’ve tried my luck for a walk-in permit the day before the hike, but that wasn’t really an option for me since I was flying across the country solely for the hike. With my mom scheduled to start chemo after my trip, I also didn’t have much flexibility with my start and end dates.
Transportation. Because I was flying in and out of Seattle for the hike, renting a car for it to sit in a parking lot for eleven days didn’t seem like a great idea (and it turned out to be a great decision when I had to end the hike early after I fractured my ankle). I arranged for shuttle ($300/round trip which was cheaper than the price of a rental) with Tour Mount Rainier operated by Diann Sheldon who is not only expert of the park but was also an amazing support after my hike ended.
Food resupply. Unlike many other thru hikes where you have to resupply in a town close to the trail, Mt. Rainier National Park offers a food cache system that keeps you on the trail for the entirety of the trip. However, it requires advance planning to ensure that your package will be at the designated cache on the scheduled date. With my mom’s cancer diagnosis and treatment I wasn’t sure I’d be able to undertake the hike so I opted to carry my food rather than use the cache.
My Wonderland Trail hike went anything but according to plan.
Because I was carrying food for all 12 days of the hike along with extra clothes in anticipation of a snow storm along with extra camera equipment, my pack weighed a whopping 35lbs – much heavier than I could handle which I didn’t realize until I was already hiking.
The second day on the trail brought an unexpected fourteen miles because of a campground closure. If crushing the miles made me over confident, it was quickly corrected when I woke up the next morning with my face in a puddle of water because I rested my feet on my backpack which had a full bladder and an open bite valve.
As I was getting the fourth day of my hike started, I turned my ankle but it felt fine soon after. I finished the big 4,000 feet climb to the most beautiful and highest point on the trail, the Panhandle Gap, without any problems from the ankle. As I made my way down, I felt such an intense and constant pain that I immediately knew that I’d need help. And I was lucky to run into a ranger who started to help me get to the campground but the one-man help had to turn into a full “basket” evacuation after an intense lightning storm started.
The rangers were kind enough to take me into town. The next day, a doctor confirmed that I had a sprained ankle. I took two nights off the trail to rest, then headed back in time for another storm and night with water in my tent (this time because I didn’t stake my rainfly properly while setting it up in the rain).
On what turned out to be my last day on the trail, as I packed my stuff up and put my hiking boots on, I couldn’t get the boot into my uninjured left foot because my Achilles tendon felt raw to the touch. I was less than a mile from Mowich Lake, an exit off the trail, in one direction and two days and 26 miles left to go on my hike back to Longmire in the other direction. With a boot on one foot and a flip flop on the other, I had to make the smart decision to end my hike.
Whether things go according to plan or not, long distance hikes force me to confront myself with a raw honesty I don’t afford myself out of this unique space. During this hike, I had to confront how much I ask and will my body to do, but when it is tired and screams no more I don’t afford it the grace of rest instead I demand more until it breaks down.
I also had come to terms with the fact that I have very little compassion, patience and kindness for myself, especially when I feel like I’ve failed at something. I wanted to blame myself for not planning better, knowing better than to carry such a heavy pack, not drinking enough water the night before, and on and on. So much of our outdoor narratives are about people conquering and beating nature and their bodies into submission. And I had to accept that this does not have to be my narrative and that I had the courage to redefine connecting with the outdoors as communal rather than adversarial.
Although I still wish I’d had the opportunity to finish the Wonderland Trail, I can’t say that I’m not glad about the opportunities to confront myself with a lot of raw honesty and demand I be kinder and gentler with my mind and body. And to me that’s the ultimate experience of a long distance hike – using the gift of time and the power of nature’s healing to get in touch with the root of me and growing and healing into stronger self.