Length: 93-mile loop around Mt. Rainier
Terrain: forests, majestic meadows, glaciers
Highlights: waterfalls, great day hiking or backpacking experience
For more information: Mount Rainier National Park 1-360-569-2211 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 1-360-569-2211 end_of_the_skype_highlighting
In the pantheon of long-distance pathways, Wonderland Trail occupies an exalted place. Many experienced backpackers call it the Pacific Northwest’s greatest hike.
It’s an old trail as national park trails go, constructed at the turn of the 20th century just after Mt. Rainier National Park was established. Long before the park was ringed by paved highways, rangers used the Wonderland Trail to patrol Rainier on horseback. During the 1930s Civillian Conservation Corps’ efforts made the trail into the nationally recognized recreation trail it is today.
Long ago, “Wonderland” was park promoter’s phrase; in this instance, the name did not overstate the region’s allure. Wonderland Trail tours a grand assemblage of alpine meadows, thick forests, awesome glaciers, dramatic creeks and rivers. With every turn there is a different view up at the many faces of Mt. Rainier.
The prudent hiker will allow 10 to 14 days for a full circumnavigation of the mountain, but encounters with bad weather can considerably slow progress. In decent conditions, an average of 7 to 10 miles a day is about it, veteran hikers advise, as the trail has lots of ups and downs. Several hiking days climb 3,500 feet or so; the whole route requires gains in excess of 20,000 feet.
Some hikers figure hiking the Wonderland is a terrific summer vacation and complete the whole mountain-encircling route at one time. Others tramp the trail in sections, savoring the Wonderland a few days at a time.
Logistics are a bit complicated. Wonderland Trail camps number 18, they’re situated three to seven miles apart, and reservations are required. National Park Service policy has been to limit the number and capacity of campsites. Critics say this unduly limits backpacking , while other praise the policy and suggest it provides a superior wilderness experience for both day hikers and backpackers.
Required backcountry permits are issued at the Hiker Information Centers in Longmire and White River. As part of the permit process, you must commit to a particular trailside camp; exercise a little flexibility here because your first choice might be full.
Other camping options for experienced hikers are “cross country zones,” where backpackers find their own places to camp. Such camps are required to be located at least a quarter-mile from roads and trails, and a minimum of 100 feet from any water source.
You certainly won’t want to carry two weeks- or even 10 day’s worth of food on your Wonderland walk. Take advantage of the National Park Service’s Food Cache Program and store a food cache or two or three. The park has detailed instruction for the right waterproof and rodent-proof containers, how to ship them (UPS) and the five stations–Paradise, Sunrise, White River, Ohanapecosh and Longmire where you may stash your cache. By all means try to convince friends or family to meet you with a fresh food supply; you’ll enjoy the company and they’ll enjoy a day on the Wonderland.
The Wonderland can be day hiked from a dozen or so trailheads around the mountain.
The 30-mile route from Paradise to Sunrise is noted for its watery scenery: lakes, waterfalls and a dramatic river canyon. On the 16-mile jaunt from Sunrise to Carbon River, hikers get up-close views of Winthrop and Carbon glaciers. The 39-mile section from Carbon River to Longmire passes beautiful lakes, including Mowich Lake and Golden Lakes, as well as such wildflower-strewn meadows as Sunset Park, Klapatche Park and Indian Henry’s Hunting Grounds. A last 6.5 miles (a good one-way day hike) travels from Longmire to Paradise via Carter, Madcap and Narada falls.
Mid-July through September is the best period for hiking, as the snow has melted to reveal the trail. However, even during these months, rain, fog and poor visibility are often problems, and map and compass navigation may be required. Even during the 10-week “safe travel” window, no one will laugh at you if you carry an ice ax.
Request the following info: Wilderness Trip Planner, Wonderland Trail, Food Cache planner.