Early summer is here. The days are long, warm, and gorgeous. But for those of us looking forward to backpacking season in the Pacific Northwest, summer won’t truly arrive for another two months. Snow still abounds in the Cascades and Olympics, covering some of the best backpacking routes in the state: Seven Lakes Basin in Olympic National Park, the Enchantments in Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and, at the top of almost everyone’s list, the Wonderland Trail in Mt. Rainier National Park: 93 miles of pure beauty circling one of America’s most iconic mountains. Jaw-dropping vistas, gorgeous wildflowers, lowland forests, wild rivers—this trail has it all.
And that includes a reputation for difficulty that precedes it: The trail travels over countless ridges as it undulates along the edge of Mount Rainier for a cumulative 22,000 feet of elevation gain. The National Park Service encourages backpackers—of whom there are roughly 200-250 who thru-hike the trail per year—to allocate 10-14 days to complete the trail, averaging 7 to 10 miles per day. Unfortunately, most of us won’t have 14 days this summer to spend circling the Wonderland Trail, as much as the trail deserves that kind of leisurely pace. But just because you can’t spend two full weeks thoroughly exploring every meadow and side trail, doesn’t mean you have to postpone your plans indefinitely. The reality is that it is not only possible to complete the trail in less time, but it might even be more enjoyable than a longer hike. On a short hike you can stay only at the choicest campsites, hike straight through the mosquito swarms in mid-afternoon, and be on the trail at dawn and sunset, seeing the mountain at its greatest advantage.
What you choose to do depends on your personal preference—do you want to spend as much of each day hiking as possible, or do you enjoy an hour-long break at each new vista? Do you want to keep your pack lightweight, with only the essentials, or is it important to you to bring along a camp chair, coffee press, or camera tripod? Do you have two weeks to hike the trail, or only one?
If you enjoy long days on the trail, a 5-7 day thru-hike of the Wonderland Trail might be perfect for you. And the good news is that while a shorter hike requires a more structured day to ensure you cover the necessary miles, it also offers more flexibility.
Here’s a look at how to prepare for a 5-7 day thru-hike of the Wonderland Trail:
Get the Right Gear
If you haven’t updated your backpacking gear since the 1990s, now is the time to do it. To hike long days with high mileage you’ll need a lightweight pack. Ideally, the total weight of your pack, including food and water, will be a maximum of 20% of your body weight, and ideally closer to 15%, or even 10% (so, if you weigh 150 pounds, your pack should never be more than 30 pounds). Don’t compromise your trip by taking a pack that is unnecessarily heavy. If you’re looking for high-quality lightweight gear for the first time, there are a number of online resources that can get you started:
The Importance of a Map
While the Wonderland Trail is so well-marked that it’s possible you may go your entire trip without pulling it out, don’t skip out on your map as a way to save an ounce or two of weight, as snowfields or washed out stream crossings may make the trail difficult to follow. Grab the Green Trails Wonderland Map or the National Geographic Mount Rainier National Park map.
Have the Proper Training
In addition to your map, take the time to get acquainted with the elevation profile for the Wonderland Trail. You’ll be tackling numerous 3,000 foot elevation gains and losses over the course of your trip—possibly even multiple times in one day. So be sure to spend the months leading up to your hike taking advantage of any opportunity to grab your daypack and tackle some steep climbs.
The difficulty of the elevation is partially mitigated by trail conditions: this is a well-loved, carefully maintained, thoughtfully constructed trail. And while trail conditions will change from year to year, and you should check with the park service before making any final decisions, experienced hikers can and should plan to wear trail runners, which will both increase their speed and reduce stress-related injuries.
Food and Water
Remember that hiking big days means that your body will require more food per day than it would on a normal backpacking trip. The good news is that you can get away with carrying less water since you’ll be spending less time in-between the trail’s many water sources. For the Wonderland Trail, I recommend carrying a two liter capacity, which should be more than sufficient. Remember to carry a water filtration system as well—don’t assume that the water sources you run into will be sparkling clean (even if they look it). The Sawyer Squeeze filtration products are arguably the best bang for your buck, and they're incredibly easy and efficient to use. But there are plenty of other filtration methods out there worth researching.
Plan for Mosquitoes
Nothing is more frustrating than arriving at camp in early afternoon only to be forced into your tent by hordes of mosquitoes. And while hiking at a brisk pace can help to keep the bugs away during the shoulder seasons, the prime hiking months inevitably correspond with the worst of the swarms. Bring along a lightweight bug net and, if you prefer to hike in shorts and a t-shirt, a lightweight layer that will cover your arms and legs. To save weight, another option is to pick out a lightweight shell layer that can double as a mosquito barrier without causing you to overheat.
As an alternative to bug spray, consider spraying your clothes in advance with permethrin, which will offer protection against mosquitoes for the entire length of your trip.
Make a Reservation
Unlike other trails in the Pacific Northwest, the Wonderland Trail doesn’t just require a permit, it also requires you to choose your campsites in advance of your trip. And campsites are limited: most stops on the trail only have about six sites. The good news is that the stops themselves are plentiful: 23 in total, as well as an option to stay at Longmire Lodge for those willing to splurge.
Keep in mind that not all campsites are created equal: Indian Bar is a highly coveted spot while Dick Creek will have more spots available. If you can, plan your trip so that the destination campsites are at the back-end of your hike to better ensure that you get your top picks.
For years, aspiring thru-hikers would prepare their reservation form in the days leading up to March 15, and then rush to fax, mail, or show up in person to secure a coveted spot at Mystic Lake, Indian Bar, or Summerland. But, thanks to a computer glitch, the parks service did something a bit unusual for 2016—they opened up all reservations to first come, first serve. Take advantage of the situation this year by allowing the weather to plan your trip for you, picking out a week when the wildflowers are in full bloom and the mountain is out, and arrive at the ranger station with a flexible itinerary in mind.
If you prefer the security of having a reservation confirmed in advance, look forward to the 2017 season, when the parks service expects to have a new online system in place.
Clockwise or Counterclockwise?
Conventional wisdom says to hike the Wonderland Trail clockwise, to avoid hiking the steepest section on the uphills. But I suggest the opposite: while steep uphills are difficult in the moment and require a degree of physical training to be ready for, hiking the steepest sections on the downhill puts a huge strain on your joints that are likely to take longer to recover from than muscle fatigue. Save your knees and hike the Wonderland Trail counterclockwise.
If you are from out of town, plan to rent a car for the duration of your Wonderland Trail hike, as it is very difficult to get to and from any of the trailheads without one. When you confirm your reservation at the ranger station they will take information on your vehicle at the same time so that you can leave it at the trailhead where you plan to start and end.
When to Go
The typical hiking season for the Wonderland Trail runs from mid-July to early September, but these are simply rough parameters for when the snow has sufficiently melted to allow for an unencumbered thru-hike. Check with the ranger station to find out what current conditions are like, as the snow level could force your hike later into the season, or allow you to get an early start. In 2015, the year my husband and I hiked the trail, it was a drought year, and we planned our hike for early July, weeks ahead of when the first hikers normally begin. When we started hiking that year, the snow was nearly melted, the wildflowers were in full bloom, and the crowds that August would typically see were nowhere to be found.
Choose a Resupply Spot
One way to reduce your pack weight is to plan a resupply. This way you carry only a few days of food at a time, rather than a week’s worth right at the start.
There are four places along the Wonderland Trail that you can mail a resupply box to:
Longmire Information Center
White River Campground
Sunrise Visitor Center
Mowich Lake Patrol Cabin
Ship your package in a hard-sided plastic bucket (this is to keep out rodents) that is clearly labeled with your name, your resupply destination, the date you expect to arrive, and your permit number. Here's how .
Plan Your Route
There are dozens of different permutations that you could create to hike the Wonderland Trail. Below are sample trips for five, six, and seven day thru-hikes that are designed to spread out the mileage evenly while maximizing the time spent at some of the trail’s most prized locations.
Beginning Trailhead: Fryingpan Creek
Night #1: Carbon River
Mileage: 19.1 miles
Night #2: Golden Lakes
Mileage: 18.6 miles
Night #3: Devil’s Dream
Mileage: 18.5 miles
Night #4: Nickel Creek
Mileage: 19.3 miles
Finish: Fryingpan Creek
Mileage: 15.4 miles
Pros: Evenly spaced days maximize the odds that you’ll complete each leg before sundown.
Cons: Golden Lakes is lovely and Devil’s Dream has some unique rock formations, but the rest of the campsites on this itinerary aren’t the stars of the trail. But with this mileage, you’ll be spending so much of the day hiking that you’ll have less time to notice.
Beginning Trailhead: Mowich Lake
Night #1: North Puyallup River
Mileage: 15.1 miles
Night #2: Devil’s Dream
Mileage: 13.7 miles
Night #3: Maple Creek
Mileage: 16.2 miles
Night #4: Summerland
Mileage: 14.4 miles
Night #5: Mystic Lake
Mileage: 18.4 miles
Finish: Mowich Lake
Mileage: 13.1 miles
Pros: Spend your last night on the trail at gorgeous Mystic Lake, and then enjoy a leisurely morning before hiking the 13 miles back to Mowich Lake.
Cons: Your fifth day on trail, from Summerland to Mystic Lake, is both long and involves serious elevation gain and loss.
Seven day trip:
Beginning Trailhead: White River
Night #1: Mystic Lake
Mileage: 12.9 miles
Night #2: Mowich Lake
Mileage: 13.1 miles
Night #3: North Puyallup River
Mileage: 15.1 miles
Night #4: Devil’s Dream
Mileage: 13.7 miles
Night #5: Maple Creek
Mileage: 16.2 miles
Night #6: Indian Bar
Mileage: 9.9 miles
Finish: White River
Mileage: 10 miles
Pros: A short day into Indian Bar and a short day to White River mean that you maximize your time on the jaw-dropping and sometimes difficult sections on the east side of the mountain.
Cons: The south side of the mountain offers quieter beauties than the rest, so your fifth day on the trail, between Devil’s Dream and Maple Creek may leave you wanting more after Klatpatche Park and Emerald Ridge the previous day. But it’s also the flattest side of the mountain, making it a great place to pack in the longest day on the trip.