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A World-Class Trek: Backpacking the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier

93 miles, 22,000' of elevation gain and loss, 9 days, 8 nights, and 1 unforgettable backpacking experience!

By: Sonja Saxe + Save to a List

The Wonderland Trail is 93 miles long, includes 22,000' of elevation gain and loss, and circumnavigates the tallest point in Washington: Mt. Rainier. It is a world-class hike that has been on my mind for years. Finally being able to complete it was such a wonderful feeling, but it wasn't an easy road (or trail) to get there. 

Back in January, I began planning my hikes for 2018. I knew I 100% wanted to hike the Wonderland Trail but my fiance/backpacking partner, Alex, had some work obligations. I asked my friend Nate if he wanted to join me. He also loves photography, mountains, and sufferfests as much as I do and he replied with an emphatic, "Yes!" In March, we both applied for the permit lottery (there are many more people interested in doing this hike than the park has permits for so they enact a lottery system), and a few weeks later both Nate and I received the dreaded rejection emails.

Not willing to accept defeat so easily, we decided to try to obtain walk-up permits. We headed to the Carbon River Ranger Station at opening the day before our desired trip date. When we told the ranger we'd like permits for the Wonderland Trail he sighed, nearly rolled his eyes, and told us it took over an hour the previous day to get an itinerary to work for a different group. We resigned ourselves to having to completely scrap our original plan and create a new itinerary from scratch, however, after the ranger entered all of our desired campsites he gave us a shocked look and informed us that all sites but one were available. We would have a long first day to make our itinerary work but it worked! We walked out of the ranger station three minutes later with our permit in hand, hardly believing what had just happened. After dropping our food caches at Mowich Lake and Longmire we headed back to Seattle and I was at home by mid-afternoon, positively giddy thinking about the hike I was finally about to start.

The next morning we made the drive from Seattle to Mt. Rainier again and officially began our hike at 10:30am. We had a 14-mile day ahead of us with plenty of elevation gain and loss so I was eager to hit the trail. We started from the Sunrise parking lot, heading counter-clockwise, which is in the opposite direction people traditionally complete the loop. By heading this direction we had steeper ascents and, more importantly, more joint-friendly descents. I will gladly take some huffing and puffing over joint pain!

The sprawling views from the Sunrise area made it immediately difficult to keep a brisk pace. Mt. Rainier loomed over us on the trail and demanded our attention at every turn, and often we obliged, taking out our cameras, and snapping a few photos before continuing forward. It wasn't long until we left the hundreds of day hikers and tourists at Sunrise behind and were hiking in solitude. We passed through meadows and hiked down steep, forested inclines, crossed rivers on rickety bridges, and watched as Mt. Rainier danced in and out of view. By the time we arrived at the Carbon River campsite, my feet were in agony, I was covered in a thick layer of dirt, and I was beyond exhausted. As it turns out, that was just a preview of how many of the following days would end for me on the Wonderland Trail. 

As we were sitting on the rocky shore of a creek near our camp, eating cold, leftover pizza (my last "fresh" meal for over a week) Nate spotted movement in the brush across from us. Suddenly a black bear materialized out of the foliage, and then two miniature copies of her followed! A mama bear and her two cubs slowly ambled up the embankment—seemingly oblivious to Nate and I standing slack-jawed just twenty yards away—and then disappeared into the forest. I stared at the spot they disappeared into for the remainder of dinner, straining my eyes against the impending dusk, but they never reappeared.

I woke up on the second morning feeling good, despite the fact that when I slipped into my sleeping bag the night prior I could barely move my toes without wincing in pain. On our second day we decided to take the Spray Park detour up to Mowich Lake instead of following the traditional Wonderland Trail. Spray Park is famous for its wildflowers, meadows, and in-your-face views of Mt. Rainier. It also came at a hefty price: 3,700' of elevation gain, but it was certainly worth every foot! As we ascended into Spray Park clouds began to descend onto us. Slowly they engulfed everything around us, leaving us cold and without much of a view. Faint clouds rolled across the meadows so quickly they appeared to be a ghost army marching towards battle. It was an eerie, but beautiful scene. 

We arrived at Mowich Lake to another eerie scene—the lake was perfectly still and blanketed in a dense fog. It looked like the opening scene to a slasher film and Nate was quick to describe it as "murder-y". Mowich Lake is actually a front-country campsite that the Wonderland Trail happens to pass by, so there was a parking lot, restrooms, and recycling and garbage cans for us to utilize. It was certainly not the place you'd expect to stay on just the second night of backcountry adventure.

Day three was another day full of misty scenes and cold rain. We didn't take many breaks. This was done in an effort to stay warm and make it to camp as quickly as possible so we could retreat into our tents and sleeping bags and stave off the cold. Our camp for the third night was Golden Lakes. The campsite was perched on a ridge with reaching views of Golden Lake and the forested slopes below. It rained intermittently all afternoon so I spent most of the day in my tent, reading.

At about 8:30pm Nate suddenly said, "Sonja! Are you awake? This light is insane!" I had been toeing the line between consciousness and unconsciousness but hearing Nate mention beautiful light instantly energized me. I sprang out of my tent and couldn't believe what I saw. The clouds had cleared and the sky was glowing a fiery orange. And, as if the scene couldn't have been more spectacular, Mt. Rainier was completely clear!

Day four was one of the shortest days—a mere 7.8 miles—but the last three miles of the trail gained 2,500' so this ended up being the toughest day for me. I had mentally prepared for a "short" day but hadn't mentally prepared for the grueling uphill. I tried to muscle my way through the hike but by the time we arrived to camp at Klapatche Park, I was ready to nap for the remainder of the afternoon. Unfortunately, there was one issue. There wasn't a great water source at Klapatche. There was the small and quickly evaporating Aurora Lake but it was full of thousands of tadpoles! The nearest water source was St. Andrews Lake, but that was another 1.6 mile round trip hike away. Nate and I reluctantly picked up our water filters and started making our way there. My pace was noticeably slower than Nate's and I felt like I was going to pass out. I had come to realize that I was severely dehydrated. I told him that I was going to turn back and just drink the tadpole water but he insisted that he take my water filter with him. So he carried on ahead and picked up four liters of fresh water for me while I headed back to camp and laid down, feeling wholly defeated.

The weather of the fourth day was similar to the third, in that clouds blanketed the mountain for a vast majority of the day but began to dissipate in the early evening. By the time the sun began to set almost all of the clouds had disappeared and Mt. Rainier's west face glowed orange and pink. After such a challenging day it was just the boost of energy I needed. Well, that and the two liters of water I had forced myself to chug! In fact, I felt so energized that I actually set an alarm and took night photos just a few hours later.

On day five we hiked from Klapatche Park to Pyramid Creek. It was another long, but beautiful day. We ascended to Emerald Ridge, which ended up being one of my favorite views of the entire trail. From high up on the ridge we had a commanding view of Mt. Rainier, the massive Tahoma Glacier, and numerous waterfalls that poured from the volcano's rocky outcroppings.

On the sixth day we hiked from Pyramid Creek to Maple Creek, passing through Longmire along the way. We picked up our second food cache and restocked a few supplies, namely king-sized candy bars and another book, since I read the one I brought so quickly when I was tent-bound in the rain at Golden Lakes. It was interesting—bordering on uncomfortable—to be thrust into the bustling front-country halfway through a long hike. I was more than ready to return to the trail, away from the sideways looks from strangers who smelled too strongly of laundry detergent and coconuts, and their questions about our oversized packs. This day also happened to be our second longest day (13.8 miles) and once again my feet were in agony by the end. It seems my sweet spot for daily mileage tops out around ten.

And on the seventh day we did not rest, we continued on to the Indian Bar camp! We saved the "best" campsites for last, hoping that the stunning views would energize us enough to pull us through the final miles and I think it worked. Indian Bar was a spectacularly stunning campsite, with its perfect view of towering rock walls, dense forests, and lush meadows.

I thought that the views could not possibly top Indian Bar but the hike to Summerland on the eighth day stole the show. Once we made it to Ohanapecosh Park the views did not stop. We crossed over snowfields, watched plump marmots sun themselves on the rocks, and enjoyed sprawling views of Mt. Rainier and turquoise glacial tarns. This was our shortest day—only 4.4 miles—so we had the luxury of time and we took advantage of it by stopping often. 

As we fired up our stoves for our final dinner on the trail it seemed inconceivable that the hike was coming to an end. It seemed both to have lasted forever, and also to have flown by in an instant. As much as I was looking forward to seeing Alex, sleeping in a real bed, and not swatting flies away from my face multiple times a minute, I was sad thinking about the end of the journey. A journey that was initially dreamt of years ago and set into motion months ago. It felt like I was nearing the last pages of a good book that I didn't want to end, but of course, it must. 

We got an early start on the last day and hiked out in a smoky haze that had drifted in overnight from a nearby wildfire. It took us just over four hours to hike the ten miles up and out of Summerland to Sunrise. As we made it within a half mile of the trailhead we began to run into day hikers again. One of them asked us how long we had camped and when we answered nine days she responded, "Oh so that's why you smell!" As if we didn't already have enough reasons to hustle to the car, that was another.

And then just like that, we were back where we started, but with 93 miles behind us. I hopped in the car, turned the engine, cranked up the AC, and just sat and let the cold air blow over me as I smiled. What an incredible experience!

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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