I was immediately intrigued by the idea of backpacking the Wonderland Trail when I started researching trails to hike in Mount Rainier National Park back in April. It sounded like an amazing undertaking, but I figured, what with having to get an advanced permit and all, that this would be another trail added to our future to-do list (which only seems to grow after visiting places). Then, after spending 4 captivating days in Mount Rainier at the beginning of July, my desire only grew and I began looking in to the venture further. There is just something about Mt Rainier and its massive, majestic beauty, that pulls you in and calls to your spirit of adventure.
For those of you who don’t know anything about the Wonderland Trail, here’s a little background. The Wonderland is a giant 93 mile loop trail that goes all the way around Mt Rainier. The many glaciers coming off the mountain have carved deep valleys and ridges, making the trail notorious for its tremendous elevation gains and losses. Due to these huge elevation changes, by the end of the journey you have cumulatively climbed 22,786 feet (and descended another 22,786′) and hiked the equivalent of 126 flat miles. That means that Wonderland Trail hikers do enough climbing to have climbed Mt Rainier 2-1/2 times (which stands at 14,410′ at it’s summit and climbers start at 5,359′). Now that’s a lot of climbing…Challenge accepted!
Normally, you have to apply for an advanced reservation to hike the Wonderland Trail, and these are getting increasingly harder to come by as the number of people who want to hike the trail grows each year. This year, however, the reservation system crashed and all permits are being given on a first-come-first-serve basis. This was perfect for us. We had the time and the flexibility to try and make it work! I had spent a good amount of time researching and planning, and most of my sources recommended doing the trip anywhere in 8-14 days, though 8 is pretty tough with long days and 14 is super leisurely with rest days included. We decided on a 10 day itinerary and it worked out great.
We were incredibly lucky, walking in to the White River Wilderness Information Center at 2pm on a Monday and getting a permit right off the bat. The trail was super busy (lots of locals are taking advantage of this first-come-first-serve opportunity as well) but it had been relentlessly raining the last 2 days and a lot of people were bailing. So there were enough openings at the backcountry camp sites to make an itinerary work! We ended up with a 10 day itinerary, starting at White River Campground and going counter-clockwise, which according to some sources is harder, but Matthew and I have concluded that either way you go is pretty hard and it’s the same amount of up and down either way. Some sections may be easier going clockwise, but then again some sections were easier going counter-clockwise. We were ecstatic with how well our direction worked for us. We had a good warm-up first day but not too strenuous. Our last night on the trail was filled with some of the most magnificent scenery, and our last day was a very easy day of down for a good way to finish. So in our opinion, starting at the White River Campground trailhead and going counter-clockwise is the best way to go. 🙂
One of the the really cool things about the Wonderland Trail is that you can cache food at certain locations around the trail. With a 10 day itinerary, we decided to take advantage of only one cache location, and that was at Longmire. We arrived at Longmire during our 7th day on the trail, so we carried 6-1/2 days of food with us for the first leg, and then picked up our cache full of the remaining 3-1/2 days worth of food supplies. You can take advantage of more cache locations (Mowich Lake, White River, Sunset) and carry less food which means less pack weight, but it would have taken us forever to drive around to the multiple locations to drop off the caches, so we decided carrying more in our packs was a better option for us.
A few quick additional thoughts about the trail:
If you’re looking for complete solitude and seclusion, this isn’t the trail for you. It’s relatively busy and you’re not likely to have a campground to yourself. While caching food is readily available about the trail, this does mean you’ll be sharing the path with many day-hikers during these sections in addition to other backpackers.
However, since you have to stay in designated backcountry campsites, you don’t have to worry about trying to find somewhere to pitch your tent or hang your hammock each night. Additionally, each campground provides the convenience of a pit or composting toilet and a bear pole for nightly food storage. Quite nice for planning purposes!
Planning and preparation completed, check out the details of the hike itself here….