“My feet feel as though I’ve jumped off a three story building”
— My hiking partner four days after completing the Wonderland Trail
While hiking off Mt. Rainier in 2009, I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful the forest had been on the approach and descent. As I gushed about the incredible glacier to meadow to forest vegetative zones, a guide informed me of the existence of the Wonderland Trail. I immediately knew that one day I would have to return and hike around the magnificent mountain we had just summited. Fast forward to August 2015, shortly after completing the John Muir Trail (JMT), I was once again itching for another medium length trail to thruhike. The top two choices were the 165 mile Tahoe Rim Trail, for it’s proximity to my home of Oakland, and the 93 mile Wonderland Trail, for the aforementioned reason compounded by my friends’s recent move to Portland, OR. The window was closing on the Rainier permitting season, but targeting the last possible weekend, I was able to get a plane ticket and he was able to take a couple days off work, so we committed to the Wonderland Trail. Only three hours from Portland, we headed north on Thursday night, camping near Longmire for an easy, early morning visit to the Ranger Station.
HITTING THE TRAIL
It was an hour after dawn and the clouds hung low, obscuring Mt. Rainier, as we drove past Reflection Lakes with our permit in hand and descended the long switchback towards Box Canyon. The leaves were beginning to turn and, emerging from the car, the sweet, damp smell of decaying foliage invigorated our minds–the last weekend of the season was indeed going to be the perfect time to circumnavigate Mt. Rainier. We double checked our gear, double knotted our shoes, extended our poles, oriented a lost hiker, said goodbye to the subie, and set off down the trail.
The forecast had been glorious, for pure sun for the next four days, however, as is typical in the mountains, this was not what we were experiencing. Rather it was cool with moisture hanging in the air. The trail wasted no time and almost immediately we were shedding layers as we pumped uphill through switchbacks, in awe of the thick, massive, old growth forest. This was why I came back to Mount Rainier National Park.
Soon we’d gained the ridge and continued the climb along the ridgeline through short trees and beautiful, small grass meadows adorned with expansive eastern panoramas. For the first few hours we had the trail to ourselves as we climbed through a pleasantly cooling, light rain & sleet mix. We then caught up to a couple hiking the WT on their way to Indian Bar for the evening (where there is a beautiful leanto) and began leapfrogging between photo breaks with another WT hiker as we approached mid afternoon and found the Saturday day hikers at Panhandle Gap. From Panhandle Gap, there was a long descent to the steep final climb to Sunrise Camp. About 300 yards before we made it to camp we had had the amazing opportunity to see a doe nursing her two fawns. And with that, we were a quarter of the way through our hike…
CAMP SITE LOGISTICS
NOTE: Due to a technical error in the NPS registration system all Mt Rainier permits are walk-in only this season (2016).
To hike the Wonderland Trail you need a permit that accounts for your campsite every night you’re on the trail, since you can only camp in designated camps and every camp needs to be reserved. This becomes complicated when camps begin to fill up, since ideally the miles will be split equally among the days. Thankfully the Rangers at Longmire are top notch and helped us shift our proposed plan into a working plan. Longmire is also where we picked up our permit when they opened at 7:30am sharp.
We ended up traveling counter clockwise, beginning at Box Canyon.
Day 1: Box Canyon to Sunrise Camp | 22.3 miles
Day 2: Sunrise Camp to Mowich Lake | 24.8 miles
Day 3: Mowich Lake to South Puyallup River | 21.8 miles
Day 4: South Puyallup River to Box Canyon | 25.4 miles
After completing the trip I came across Wonderland Guides, who have created a fantastic trip planning calculator.
We packed 3,900 calories per day per person. We discovered this to be too few calories when we easily finished all the day’s ration on the third day. On the fourth day we finished all our food by 3pm, when we still had 3 hours of hiking left. Thankfully it was a short 4 day trip and we both happily ate a super burrito and two doughnuts each after returning to Portland on the fourth night (probably an additional 1900 calories per person).
We were surprised by the daily elevation change due to misreading 5,500′ of elevation gain per day as 5,500′ of elevation change per day. Thus the Wonderland Trail has 11,000′ of elevation change per day, which is rather large and double what we were expecting. (For comparison when thru-hiking the John Muir Trail in ten days there was an average of 8,000′ of elevation change per day). No day is equal, so some have more climbing and others more descending, but all said and done it was 44,000′ of elevation change over four days. And it turns out that descending is the hard part, at least for our bodies; I ended up with a sore IT band causing pain every step and my friends foot bones became quite sore as well.
I had hiked the JMT about two months prior to this hike at a similar pace (22 miles/day + 8,000’ of elevation change), during which time I trained primarily on a stairmaster. I probably should have spent a bit more time hiking outside to help strengthen the muscles and tendons used during descent. For final prep I did a 24 mile, weighted, training hike four days before the trip just to be sure I was feeling good and all my gear was dialed in.
EXPECTATIONS, MEDITATIONS, & ESCAPING FROM CIVILIZATION
The Wonderland Trail felt similar to the first day on the JMT, where there are frequent encounters with day-hikers until the trail leaves Tuolumne up Lyell Canyon. On the WT there is no Lyell Canyon. This always brings about a sensation that could easily be misidentified as one of superiority (“I deserve to be on this trail more than them, since I’m hiking so much further”), but is rather the notion of a failed escape—looking for a vacuum and directly observing the reality of that impossibility. Especially on the Wonderland Trail, where there are trail heads on all sides of the park, providing day hikers from every angle. Of course, it doesn’t take a mirror to see that we were also hikers, diminishing the “wilderness” feel for others on the trail. And, as this was a weekend trip, of course there would be many of day hikers. I want folks to visit the national parks. I want the parks to be used. But there’s still something about being in the wilderness with just your group. I believe that level of remoteness might require a trip north, or perhaps just a little more devotion to the mid week hike on a less popular trail. And, while the WT is quite popular, the behavior and trail etiquette by those in Rainier National Park was excellent—we didn’t see a single impromptu camp or fire circle on the entire route.