A Quick & Dirty Guide to the Wonderland Trail
The Wonderland Trail circles Mount Rainier, the highest peak in Washington (14,411 ft / 4,392 m) and the most glaciated mountain in the contiguous United States. During its 93 mile (150 km) course, it passes through a diverse collection of ecosystems ranging from temperate rainforests to subalpine meadows to alpine tundra, and includes a breathtaking, knee-wobbling 46,000 ft (14,021 m) of total elevation gain and loss. I’ve had the good fortune to hike this most aptly named of pathways on two occasions – 2003 and 2014. All planning details have been updated as of June 2020.
At a Glance
Distance: 93 miles (150 km)
Average Time: 6 to 8 days
Difficulty: Moderate to challenging
Start / Finish:
The Wonderland Trail takes place entirely within the boundaries of Mount Rainier National Park. There are three main trailhead options that have both camping and parking. In descending order of popularity, they are as follows: 1. Longmire; 2. Sunrise/White River, and; 3. Mowich Lake. I started both my Wonderland Trail hikes at Longmire, which has a ranger station, museum, shop, and indoor accommodation in the form of the historic National Park Inn.
Highest Elevation: 6,750 ft (2,060 m) – Panhandle Gap
Lowest Elevation: 2,320 ft (720 m) – Ipsut Creek Campground
Total Elevation Gain & Loss: More than 46,000 ft (14,021 m).
Getting There & Away:
Season / Weather:
July to early October. If you can swing it with the dates, I recommend doing the hike around mid to late September in order to avoid the crowds, the bugs, and if you’re lucky, possibly catch the beginning of the fall colours. Click here for a summary table from Wonderland Guides, of what to expect conditions-wise between July and October.
The weather around Rainier is very changeable. Irrespective of when you hit the trail, come prepared for wet and cold conditions. Be sure to check the short and long-range forecast before departure.
Highlights & Lowlights
Highlights: Mesmerizing waterfalls, glistening alpine lakes, towering ancient forests, wildflower-laden meadows, rugged volcanic ridges, and the incredible Mount Rainier itself, which sports twenty-five named glaciers around its circumference. The trail received its fitting moniker a century ago to the year (1920) when Roger Toll – Mount Rainier National Park’s superintendent at the time – released a publicity bulletin proclaiming that:
“There is a trail that encircles the mountain. It is a trail that leads through primeval forests, close to the mighty glaciers, past waterfalls and dashing torrents, up over ridges, and down into canyons; it leads through a veritable wonderland of beauty and grandeur.”
Lowlights: There aren’t many that come to mind. Some folks might point to the often rainy weather or peak mosquito season (July to early August), but both scenarios are manageable with the appropriate attire and a positive attitude. To my mind, the only thing that can potentially be a pain in the bum is the permit situation. Speaking of which…………..
Note: The Park’s Permit process has changed in 2020 due to COVID-19. Click here for up-to-date details. The following information held true before the arrival of the Coronavirus Pandemic.
Online & Walk-Up: A permit is required for overnight camping at the Wonderland Trail’s 18 wilderness campsites. Approximately 70 percent of permits are available online with the application window generally open between March 15 and March 31. The requests are then processed in random order, meaning that there is no guarantee of success. The remaining 30 percent of permits are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis at the Park’s four Ranger stations: Longmire, Paradise, White River, and Carbon River. See the Mount Rainier National Park website for additional permit information (Note: For both my Wonderland Trail hikes I obtained a walk-up permit at Longmire).
Strategies for Permit Success: Whether you are booking online or going for the walk-up option, your chances of permit success increase by avoiding public holidays, beginning your hike mid-week, and being as flexible as possible with your itinerary. Another way of improving your odds is by being open to the idea of spending a night (or two) at one of the trail’s three non-wilderness (aka “frontcountry”) campsites, which are accessible by car and don’t require a pre-arranged permit.
Can I do the Wonderland Trail sans permit?: Yes. However, your overnighting options will be limited to the aforementioned non-wilderness campgrounds – namely Mowich Lake, White River, and Cougar Rock. Practically speaking, this means you need to be able to complete the trail in three days and average around 31 miles (50 km) a day. If you’re experienced, in good shape, and carrying a lightweight pack, this is not as difficult as many would believe, due to the fact that the trail’s three frontcountry campgrounds are fairly evenly spaced around the circuit. (Note: A shout-out to Mac at HalfwayAnywhere for coming up with this non-permit strategy, which I think is particularly relevant for fit veterans interested in doing the trail during the peak season, when permits are harder to come by).
Wonderland Trail App: Guthook Guides have produced a Wonderland Trail App, as a companion to the “Hiking the Wonderland Trail Guidebook” mentioned above.
Resupply: If you’re not keen on carrying supplies for the entire circuit, food caching options are as follows: 1. Longmire Wilderness Information Center; 2. White River Campground; 3. Sunrise Old Gas Station; 4. Mowich Lake Patrol Cabin. For more details, see the Mount Rainier NP website.
Wildlife: Due to its constant variations in altitude, the Wonderland Trail is continuously passing between different ecosystems. As a result, hikers are treated to a vast array of fauna, including 182 species of birds and 54 species of mammals. It is possible to spot elk, mountain goats, deer, mountain lions, red foxes, and the animals that everyone both wants to see and doesn’t want to see, black bears. On the ornithological front, keep an eye out for ptarmigans, pileated woodpeckers, red-breasted sapsuckers, and the endangered northern spotted owl.
Overview: The Wonderland Trail is well marked and maintained from beginning to end. It is suitable for intermediate-level backpackers, or relative newbies accompanied by more experienced partners. As far as challenges are concerned, potentially the two biggest hurdles are the trail’s rollercoaster topography, along with the high probability of encountering wet conditions. In regard to the first point, your cause will be helped immensely if you begin the Wonderland in the best shape possible and carry a lightweight pack. As for the weather, a good rain jacket, a positive attitude, and a lightweight umbrella can collectively be worth their weight in gold if you happen to draw the short-end of the meteorological stick.
Which Direction? Though the Wonderland Trail is most commonly hiked in a clockwise direction, from a difficulty perspective I don’t think it matters which direction you go.
How long will it take to finish?: As mentioned above, the average backpacker takes around 6 to 8 days to finish the Wonderland Trail. However, the time needed can vary a great deal depending on the fitness, strength, experience, pack weight, and goals of the hiker in question. Strong folks carrying a light load can comfortably do the trail in three days, whereas slower, more heavily-laden ramblers might take up to 9 or 10 days to complete the circuit.
Not-to-be-missed Alternate Route: Unless the mother of all storms is upon you (and even then I’d consider it), take the Spray Park Alternate route between Carbon river and Mowich lake. It’s higher, tougher, and more scenic than the official trail. Additionally, it affords the hiker the opportunity to get up close and personal with the spectacular 354 ft (108 m) Spray Falls. Note: To access the cascade, head down a short, signposted side trail. Once you reach Spray creek you will see the falls up to your left. Although the view at the end of the pathway is good, I highly recommend scrambling up the true right side of the watercourse to the base of the falls.
Notes & Musings
Mother of Waters
Mount Rainier’s many glaciers are the source of nine major rivers and their tributaries. These include the Nisqually, Puyallup, Mowich, Carbon, West Fork, Huckleberry, White, Ohanapecosh, and Muddy Fork rivers. Given its hydrological preeminence, it’s no surprise that one of the region’s native tribes, the Puyallup people, refer to the mountain as Talol or Tahoma, which translates to “mother of waters.”
Interested in a celebratory meal after completing the Wonderland Trail? I highly recommend eating at Wildberry restaurant, located just down the road from Longmire Wilderness Information Center (7.6 mi / 14 minutes drive). Good food, great service, reasonable prices, and big portions; who would have thought there would be a “Traditional Sherpa-Burger Joint” fusion restaurant so close to Mount Rainier!!
Wonderland Trail Gear List (2020)
If I was to hike the Wonderland Trail (COVID-19 permitting) later this year, this is the gear is I would carry:
Gossamer Gear Kumo (2015 model)
Wide shoulder straps are among the most comfortable I have tried / Robic material is durable and has good water resistance / Outside pockets are easily accessible (i.e. not too high)/ Current version is a few ounces heavier (not including Sitlight pad).
Trash compactor bag (pack liner)
Tarptent Aeon Li (including Easton stakes)
Uber-lite, holds up well in a storm when pitched low (108cm), and very roomy for something which weighs around a pound.
Pad – Thermarest NeoAir XLite (Small)
Very comfy / Doubles as makeshift framesheet for pack / Put feet on backpack when sleeping. Click here for my long-term review.
Quilt – Katabatic Palisade 30°F
I’ve had this quilt since the beginning of 2012 and it’s still going strong after more than 15,000 km (9,321 mi). Click here for my long-term review.
LokSak 20×12 (Food Bag)
Food storage bag of choice for hundreds of nights.
Reconstituted Gatorade Powder Container
Toaks Titanium Spork
Top-end wrapped in orange tape so I won’t lose it.
Reconstituted sports drink bottles (2)
FIRST AID / HYGIENE
Sunscreen (repackaged in tiny bottle)
Hand Sanitizer (repackaged in a dropper bottle)
I haven’t had a case of the backcountry trots since 1999 – I think a big reason is the diligent use of hand sanitizer.
Aquamira (repackaged in dropper bottles)
Toothpaste (mini tube)
Doubles as sewing thread
Antiseptic Wipes (2)
Clean cuts and wounds
Triple Antibiotic Cream (tiny tube)
3M Micropore Medical Tape
Breathable, paper tape / Adheres well.
One-armed blind folks can sew better than me.
Tenacious Tape, Mini Tube Super Glue (repairs)
To compensate for lack of sewing skills
Lip Balm SPF 30
Kept with sunscreen & hand sanitizer in shoulder pocket.
Rain Pants – Montbell Versalite (Lge)
Lightweight, quick-drying, and a surprising amount of warmth for something that weighs less than 4oz / Not super durable, but fine for on-trail hiking.
Rain Jacket – Montbell Versalite (Lge)
Insulation – Patagonia R1 Hoodie
I’ve owned the same model R1 Hoody since 2009. Super-versatile – Insulation layer for cold/wet weather and base layer for deep winter conditions.
Extra Socks – Darn Tough Hiker Micro Crew
Dirty Girl Gaiters
Helps keep the mud out of my trail runners.
MLD eVent Rain Mitts
Outer Layer for hands.
Montbell Chameece Gloves
By far my all-time favourite liner gloves. Very durable – I’ve had the same pair since 2016.
Phone – iPhone 11
Recent upgrade over my old Samsung Galaxy S7.
Otter Symmetry case for iPhone 11 (orange)
Trekking Pole – Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon Fiber
After reading many positive reviews, I recently picked these up on Amazon. At less than US$60 for the pair, they arguably the best value for money trekking poles on the market.
Umbrella – Montbell Trekking
Lightweight sanity-saver for extended PNW rain. Click here for my long-term review.
Small DCF stuff sack – Hyperlite Mountain Gear (2)
Ditty bag / First Aid / Toiletries
Headlamp – Nitecore NU25
Recent pickup. I’d been hearing great things about it for the previous year or two, and decided to give it a try. Double thumbs up
Swiss Army Classic
Suunto M-3G Global
Adjustable declination and globally balanced needle.
Small LokSaks for Valuables (2)
Protection for phone, passport, etc.
Potty Trowel – Deuce of Spades
Shorts – Patagonia Baggies 7″
Hiking shorts of choice since 2015/16. Click here for my long-term review.
Base layer – Montbell Merino Long Sleeve Zip Neck
I’ve used this merino wool base layer since 2016 for all my hikes in cold/wet conditions (e.g. Tasmania, Scotland, New Zealand) / Not too thick/not too thin, warmer than synthetic equivalents when damp.
REI Merino Wool Liner socks
Still my favourite Merino liners after more than a decade / Cheaper and more durable than the big sock companies (Note: Though not as durable as the pre-2013 models)
Hat – Adapt-a-cap
I’ve been wearing this cap since 2003. Repaired and sewed up more times than I can remember / Haven’t switched to the newer model, which is both tighter and heavier than the original.
Shoes – Brooks Cascadia 14
Favourite model of the Cascadias since the 9th edition was released in 2014. Click here for my long-term review.
Timex Ironman Watch
Light, cheap, durable, reliable.
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