Looking for a long hike with little elevation gain? Well . . . the Wonderland Trail could fool you with her zero net gain stats, but with nearly 46,000 feet of ascents and descents, you’d certainly feel the fool.
Day 0 - Obtaining My Permit
I took plenty of risks on the planning side of this trip, something quite out of character for me. I didn’t get an advance permit, instead choosing to watch the weather and opting for a walk-up permit. I knew very little about the trail except mileage, elevation profile, and that a permit was required. At Longmire, the rangers provided me with a list of campgrounds that were full for next 5 days, and a map detailing mileage between campgrounds. It was stressful hurriedly putting together options, committing to the schedule, then quickly organizing my food to leave at the resupply location. My permit was for a 10-day counterclockwise hike, starting and ending at Sunrise. I carried 6.5 days of food leaving behind 3.5 days at Longmire. Additional details and resources are provided at the end of this posting.
Day 1 – Sunrise to Mystic Camp
The official mileage for this section is 9.2 miles, but after an initial misadventure which required more than a few repeated steps, plus additional mileage for photo ops, toilet visits, campsite access and water gathers, my actual mileage was 12.46 for the day. In retrospect I wish I would have started at White River Camp so I could have ended with an easier day, better balanced my first day, and ultimately not ended up missing a couple miles of the designated trail due to the Sunrise connector trails. Although I’m sure I’d have suffered a bit more with it being my first day and all, but . . . . My loop started on the northern section with a westward heading.
Lost before getting started?
- Sign 1 (near parking lot) clearly directs “To Wonderland Trail”
- Sign 2 (a bit further up the trail) clearly directs “Wonderland Trail 1.3 miles”
- Sign 3 (at .1 miles) neglects mentioning the Wonderland. After some fumbling, I find that I should follow the trail toward Frozen Lake.
The previous day’s storm started clearing when I arrived about 8am. The clouds, skies and lighting made for gorgeous images. Mother Nature taunted me with her idea of fun all day.I was beyond excited when I saw this sign and was finally on the Wonderland Trail! Destination Mystic Lake and Campground in about 7 miles.
Having limited knowledge of and no first-hand experience with glaciers, the Winthrop Glacier took me by surprise. The carve-outs or cataracts, with red rock covering was not what I was expecting. I assumed glaciers would be snow covered. Enjoy the sights and sounds of Winthrop Creek on this video.
Mystic Lake is just to the west of Mystic camp. It’s worth the short hike from camp for dinner, sunset, sunrise and breakfast; catch a swim, do a little laundry, and most importantly find the sun as the campsites are primarily shaded. There is also creek water available between the individual and group sites. A ranger checked my permit just prior to camp, likelihood increases when near a Patrol Cabin.
Day 2 – Mystic Camp to Ipsut Creek Camp
The official mileage for this section is 7.8 miles, but with additional mileage for photo ops, toilet visits, campsite access, water gathers, and a detour (the suspension bridge side of the trail was closed), my actual mileage was 11.36 with cumulative at 23.8. Lots of descending today will certainly mean lots of climbing on a future day. My movement was primarily northwest today as shown on the map.
Just to the west of Mystic Camp is Mystic Lake, a worthwhile early morning stop to refresh and warm up.
The impressive Carbon Glacier, covered in charcoal colored rock versus the red rock of Winthrop. It was truly exciting to be hiking in such proximity to these glaciers, with the rushing rivers of glacial melt adding to the drama.
This suspension bridge is used to cross the Carbon River which then provides access either northerly toward Ipsut Creek Camp or toward Cataract Valley and Spray Park (which I heard was also worth a visit). On this date the west side trail to Ipsut was closed, with the east side trail noted as the alternate, and only .2 mile longer. As a lover of bridges and heights mixed with a little danger, I enjoyed a slight detour to cross the bridge while taking this video.
I believe this was another crossing of Carbon River. These log bridges were typical throughout the park. The railings on most were slanted outward, sometimes significantly, to make room for those carrying large packs.
I felt like a gnome or hobbit at times today, with plenty of moss, lichen and ferns along the trail, and greens of every shade.
Dick Creek was a great spot to stop for lunch. Looks like I missed grabbing a photo.
Ipsut Creek Camp might seem intimidating to some with it’s 12 individual sites and notation as a walk-up campground. It’s a 5-mile road walk after an out-of-the-way drive on Carbon River Road, so highly unlikely that would be a big draw. There were a total of 5 people and 4 sites in use the night I was there. It was a very nice campground with amenities such as a restroom with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, plus picnic tables and garbage cans (lighten your load and reduce odors in your pack). For drinking water follow the road for a short distance to the bridge to access Ipsut Creek. The campsites are mostly shaded in the late afternoon and morning.
Day 3 – Ipsut Creek to South Mowich River
The official mileage for this section is 9 miles, but with additional mileage for photo ops, toilet visits, campsite access, and water gathers, my actual mileage was 11.43 for the day, and 35 cumulative. My first day with a major climb, and happily my first break-even elevation day! It was a day to switch direction and start heading south along the west side of Rainier.
The first 3 miles of today’s climb was in a gorgeous lush fern laden canyon. Where’s the trail? Over the bridge and through the ferns . . .
Since there had been lots of streams over the previous three miles and looking up at this green lush climb, you’d assume there would be plenty more along the way. If you do, you’ll make the same mistake I did. It was a long humid exposed mile up the switchbacks to Ipsut Pass, and I ran out of water due to my incorrect assumption. Additionally, there were no water sources for the next 1.6 miles between the pass and Mowich Lake. Once again, where’s the trail?
Looking back down at the lush green of Ipsut Pass. Near the top, I found my first huckleberries!
As I hiked down from Ipsut Pass, there were obstructed views of beautiful emerald-colored Mowich Lake with Rainier reflections. Assuming I’d get an open view as I descended, I did not take any photos until I reached the lake, and sadly at that point the view was subpar at best.
Mowich Lake is a great place to swim (aka bathe) and rinse (aka wash) clothes. As an added benefit the campground has bathrooms with TP and hand sanitizer plus there is a garbage bin. The lake is the only nearby source of drinking water. Don’t expect privacy or a wilderness experience at this lake as it has road access (yogi opportunity). It’s used as a trailhead for day hikers, backpackers, and as a drive-by sightseeing photo-op locale. I strongly recommend avoiding this location as a campground choice. It’s noisy, dusty, and has sandboxes in a parking lot type environment for camping. A food resupply can be mailed to Mowich Lake and retrieved at the Patrol Cabin.
From Mowich Lake to South Mowich River camp it’s down, down, down. Nice shaded forest with occasional views. No water at camp except glacial (not recommended). I took from a creek just north of camp.
Day 4 – South Mowich River to Golden Lakes
The official mileage for this section is 6.8 miles, but with additional mileage for photo ops, toilet visits, campsite access, and water gathers, my actual mileage was 10.39 for the day, and nearly 46 cumulative. Finally it was make-up day, more ascending than descending, and continued southward progress.
I can only imagine the challenges of crossing South Mowich River earlier in the season. Even in September, there was plenty of mud and rock; the trail was marked by cairns, occasional flags, and log bridges.
Between the South Mowich River and Golden Lake campgrounds, there were no water sources on this mostly shaded, good condition, upward spiraling 6.5 mile trail. Hiking through dense forest provided only a few peek-a-boo teaser views of Rainier. Huckleberries became plentiful; after filling my belly, I started collecting them to add to my morning oatmeal.
This was one of the less accessible lakes in the Golden Lakes region. The water source for the Golden Lakes campground is one of the lakes, with the best being directly to the rear of the ranger’s cabin.
Patrol Cabins (aka Ranger Cabins) are present and staffed at several of the campgrounds I visited; expect a permit check. The rangers at Golden Lakes were very friendly and outgoing, providing tips for swimming, water sources, and most importantly were to find the best views.
I wish I would have taken a video of hanging and retrieving food bags from the bear pole. On my first night, I needed bear pole 101 training as this was my first exposure to such a device.
- Step 1, retrieve the hook, sometimes challenging in itself.
- Step 2, hang your bag on the hook, once again quite a challenge depending on how heavy your bag is and the quality of hanging loop on your bag.
- Step 3, lift your bag and position over the arm on this pole (which I guess is about 10′ tall), definitely easier said than done, especially when the hooks are full or your headlamp is needed.
- Step 4, rehang hook, which again can be a challenge depending on how many bags are on the pole. I found the hook on the ground several times and in fact I left it there once myself. I’d like to see Yogi master this maneuver.
- Retrieving your bag from the pole was at times just as challenging. I camped several nights with a group of 3 gals who placed all their items in one very large, very heavy shared bag. It took two to lift and position the pole, with the third guiding placement, and same for retrieval . . . oh how I wished I’d video’d this game . . .
There were plenty of bear sightings and evidence (i.e. scat) starting at this section of trail. Sadly, I missed out on seeing Yogi.
This was my first camp with a view, albeit obstructed.
With my easy miles today, and early arrival in camp, I had the time and energy to explore the area. The ranger suggested a visit to Sunset Park, a little over a mile south, for one of the best unobstructed views in the park. As an aside, this is the first area I’ve visited where the word “park” is used as a naming nomenclature. By this point, I’ve already been through or had views of several including Yakima Park, Berkeley Park and Moraine Park.
I don’t know the name of this red rock vista, but it was prominent and caught my attention.
There was plenty of bear grass, berries and scat. Be bear wary in this area!
Oh how I wanted to explore this ridge. It was a good thing (1) it was getting late (2) there was lots of fresh bear scat (3) I was solo and (4) I hadn’t brought sufficient water or food. That ridge called my name for a better view and my curious side wanted to know what was on the other side. The ranger later told me there was an official trail (social trail) that made for fairly easy access. I scouted for the trail unsuccessfully the next morning.
There were a couple of great viewing areas above the campsites to partake in this sunset back dropped by the Olympic range. While I was mesmerized by the sunset from my vantage point, others were enjoying lake reflection of the mountain and full moon.
Day 5 – Golden Lakes to Klapatche Park
The official mileage for this section is 7.8 miles, but with additional mileage for photo ops, toilet visits, campsite access, and water gathers, my actual mileage was 10.42 for the day, with cumulative miles now totaling 56.
This morning I returned to Sunset Park as the trail continued south. During peak blooming season, this area would be overrun with the beauty of bear grass. This is a bird watchers paradise!
Although, it was past prime wildflower season, there were a few remaining, as well as a variety of mushrooms and ripe berries.
All afternoon and evening there was steam rising from the right side of the mountain. This is St Andrews Park and Lake, just to the south of Klapatche Park. Since Klapatche Lake was nearly empty, a hike to St Andrews was required for water.
How’s this for dining with a big screen view? This was the best campground yet for mountain, sunset, sunrise, and full moon views, as well as a nice mix of sun and shade. The only downside was the 3/4 mile hike to St Andrews for water. This was another area ripe for bear sightings.
And another great sunset view.
And, another full moon rising . . .
Day 6 – Klapatche Park to Devils Dream
The official mileage for this section is 9.8 miles, but with additional mileage for photo ops, toilet visits, campsite access, and water gathers, my actual mileage was 11.51 for the day, with 68 the cumulative total. This was a challenging day, but the payoff was so worth it. My favorite day of the trip!
It was a beautiful sunrise breakfast.
My morning view of St Andrews Park.
The day began with more berries, bear grass, wildflowers and hints of autumn.
And a peek of Mt Adams
South Puyallup River
The next section up to Emerald Ridge and through Tahoma and South Tahoma glaciers have very rocky terrain, tender feet be aware. But oh the eye candy, I was so happy seeing such beauty.
South Tahoma Glacier, colors and textures so different than the Tahoma Glacier, each one has such unique geology and personality. I’m in awe of Mother Nature!
My second suspension bridge, wasn’t nearly as much fun as the first. If the weather were inclement, it’d be downright scary. As it was, there was a breeze and it was swaying, and I think due to the length and height it was much more bouncy than the first. It’s a LONG way down and a not-so-soft landing. There was no room for carelessness on this bridge.
Indian Henry had quite the hunting grounds!
I recommend spending plenty of time at view points and Indian Henry’s before heading to the densely forested, mostly shady Devil’s Dream camp.
Day 7 – Devil’s Dream to Paradise River
The official mileage for this section is 8.5 miles, but with additional mileage for photo ops, toilet visits, campsite access, and water gathers, my actual mileage was 10.33 for the day, with 78 cumulative miles. This was my easiest day, perfect for resupply, rest and rejuvenate. And of note, my direction of travel has now turned predominately to the east.
As I was packing this morning, it started lightly raining. Secretly I was a bit excited as I would have the opportunity to test out my new umbrella. I attached the umbrella to my pack per Rambling Hemlock’s instructions. It worked GREAT, although I lost the foam piece immediately, I found my shoulder strap provided sufficient padding. I was even able to jog for a bit this morning with umbrella maintaining it’s position, without bounce.
The trail was delightful in so many ways. I shot a video so you could experience it for yourself.
Another highlight of the day was my visit to Longmire. During my rushed preparation and packing, I’d miscounted my meals for the first 6.5 days, shorting myself a dinner and breakfast. Thankfully I’d reviewed the meal times at the restaurant when I left my resupply and knew I needed to arrive prior to 11am for breakfast. Happily I arrived at 10:30 and enjoyed an omelet, hash browns and an english muffin. YUM!
I found myself savoring the civilized sit-down break so much that I ended up hanging out in the restaurant for hours eventually ordering and eating another meal before pulling myself away to pack my resupply and return to the trail. Before I consumed that much food, I really should have looked at the profile. While it was only 3.5 miles to camp, it was all uphill.
Nisqually River was a pleasant distraction from the nearby road noise.
I believe this pipe ran from Paradise River supplying fresh water to Longmire.
From Longmire to camp was mostly along either the Nisqually or Paradise Rivers. A glimpse of the mountain, the sound of water and the occasional waterfall made this moderately steep pleasant terrain trail an afternoon delight. Paradise River provided convenient water resupply at camp as well as more than an adequate source for bathing and laundry although privacy was a bit of an issue. The camp itself is another hidden in the trees and shade.
Day 8 – Paradise River to Nickel Creek
The official mileage for this section is 11 miles, and according to my tracker I was at 10.56 for the day, now up to 88 miles total. The red areas on my map indicate lost GPS signal due to being in a deep canyon. I’m sure with this mileage and trudging up and down 6,000′, I minimized any additional mileage and the stats are nearly correct.
The day began with a climb, interrupted by Narada Falls and glancing views of the south side of the mountain.
An early morning stop by Reflection Lake gave me a chance to grab some sun and dry out my gear. A better option is Louise Lake but it takes a bit of descending to access. Expect plenty of company at Reflection Lake as it has road access.
This was waterfall day! I believe this is Martha Falls. Note the stairs and then double bridge crossing the river. I found this bridge a perfect place to enjoy lunch with an uninterrupted and restorative view of the falls.
As a lover of fall foliage, I was excited to find a show of early autumn as I climbed up to Box Canyon, another busy place. The tradeoff is restrooms, drinking fountain, yogi opportunities and a nice sunny area to lounge with drying gear on a nearby fence. As I descended the hill, it looked like a hiker trash yard sale.
This was the only sketchy section of trail I found during my entire visit.
A highlight of my day was having the opportunity to photograph a pika. Not a great photo as it was from a distance, shy critters that they are, but hey it’s a photo! Notice the coloring and how well it blends into the rocks, where’s the pika? They are known for their high-pitched beep or peep sound. Here’s a video if you want to see and hear a pika.
I was quite impressed with this rock wall.
This was my second encounter with toilets on a trail. They are not the most pleasant, but with the quantity of humans using these trails and my previous experience with white butterflies and human excrement littering the trail, I see the necessity. The toilet to the left is what I called the cadillac model waste-eating machine. The one on the right was more common. Some were housed in a structure, others out in the open. Some had views, others not so much.
From the main trail, it’s further than expected to the Nickel Creek campground. It’s another shaded area, but it was a much drier location than my previous two nights.
Day 9 – Nickel Creek to Summerland
The official mileage for this section is 10.9 miles, but with additional mileage for photo ops, toilet visits, campsite access, water gathers, my actual mileage was 12.05 for the day, and I passed the magic 100 total! I anticipated this would be my most challenging day, between mileage and elevation gain. I turned the corner on my circular adventure this morning and started heading north along the eastern side of Mt Rainier.
I’d been told there were no water sources between Nickel and Indian Creeks, so I carried sufficient for the 6.5 mile ascent. The early morning was frosty, so I was glad for that 2-3 mile switchback climb.
I was pretty excited to find views of Goat Rocks and Mt Adams, an area I’d hiked last September.
Upon reaching the first summit, I had plenty of sunshine and a pretty nice view also.
Nothing like fresh bear scat to awaken your senses. Don’t they know not to eat the red berries?
And then I was treated to a marmot moment. This one loved the limelight. I’d watched one the previous day collecting leaves, but it was hidden in the meadow making it nearly impossible to photograph.
Once I reached the Cowlitz Divide, I had incredible 360-degree views, and took the opportunity to capture it on video.
And then it was time to head down to Indian Bar while enjoying a view of Cowlitz Park. I highly recommend reserving a spot at Indian Bar campground if it’s available. Not only is it a beautiful location, but it would have provided me enough time to explore the Cowlitz Divide.
The toilet at Indian Bar wins the award for the best view.
The hut looks nice from the outside.
Sure has a nice view
The beds don’t look very inviting though, and I heard rodents were a problem in all the shelters.
Glacial melt is fierce.
I was intrigued by the colors within the glacial rock. Notice the band of color on the sidewall of the creek.
Next up was the misery of my trip. There were at least 1,000 water-bar steps to climb straight up 1,500′ to the Panhandle Gap followed by a scree descent. It took me about 3 hours to make it up that climb, over the top and down into camp. I took this video while on the Cowlitz Divide, so naive to what really lay in wait. I thought I was being melodramatic, but alas . . .
Once over the top, there were outstanding views of Frying Pan Glacier.
Summerland camp was frigid with glacial wind by my 5pm arrival. I ran into a few people who had done the trail in reverse of me and whom I’d met at a previous camp, making it fun to celebrate our progress and my final night. But, it was just too chilly to spend much time outside my sleeping bag and tent, so it was early to bed.
Day 10 – Summerland to Sunrise
The official mileage for this section is 10 miles, and as I was anxious to finish this great adventure, I didn’t spend much time exploring or lollygagging. The 2.6 mile climb from White River to the Sunrise jump-off trail was not a pleasant way to end the trip, thus the reason I recommend starting at White River and ending with a nice downhill glide. My ending cumulative mileage was 111 miles with nearly 46,000′ of ascending and descending. Over 10 days, that’s an average of 11 miles and a little over 4,000′ per day.
The wind had stopped blowing during the night making the morning much more pleasant. I was kicking myself for not having the energy or motivation to enjoy the morning sunrise with alpenglow on the mountain. My last morning on this beautiful trail, but the finish line was yelling louder.
The section of trail between Frying Pan Creek and Summerland is wide and well groomed, much like a freeway. It’s heavily used due to the easy road access and popularity of the area. These trail conditions made for a very pleasant and fast early morning walk.
I believe this is a grouse.
Plenty of beauty this morning.
This looked like an oversized slug but alas more fungus.
And with camp signage, I wasn’t surprised to find fresh bear evidence. Sadly, I ended my trip with a big zero on the bear sightings count.
White River provides a nice place for respite, plus the nearby campground and day use areas are a convenient place to toss your garbage, refill water without the need to filter (however it tasted strong of chlorine), and use the restroom.
I was ecstatic to reach the trail apex, so near the car and the finish line.
Looking back down at White River, from wince I’d come.
Celebrating the finish and my 55th a bit early.
- Walk up permit: 30% of permits are reserved for those without reservation. At the ranger station you’ll be given a list of full sites and a map showing campsites and miles between them as well as number of sites and elevations at each. Be flexible with departure trailhead, campgrounds and daily mileage. Another benefit is that the permit is free for walk-ups. I recommend arriving around 10am as anyone with a reserved permit must check in by then or the campsite will be released for walk-ups.
- Permit considerations: You must camp at designated campgrounds; therefore, all other decisions become secondary and must be adjusted based on campground availability.
- Mileage: How many miles do you want to hike daily? Do you need to adjust mileage based on ascents, descents, and terrain? Do you want to adjust based on views, scenery, or other exploration? There are some who hike/run the trail in 3-5 days, others who meander and enjoy every camp over 14+ days. Do not base your decision strictly on the 93 official miles; for example my mileage registered at 111 primarily due to additional miles needed to access water or campgrounds.
- Camp Location: Given weather considerations, do you want views or sun at camp? If so, consider higher elevation camps are usually the best option. Do you want protection from the elements? a warmer camp? shade? If so, consider lower elevation camps. Want to be near lakes? rivers? creeks? The only campground I recommend avoiding is Mowich Lake, it’s fine as a starting and ending location, but is the least desirable for camping.
- Starting/Ending Location: Do you want free camping? If so consider White River or Mowich Lake. Do you need to leave your vehicle? Do you want food available at your ending location? Do you have a preference to start or end with an ascent or descent? There are many places the trail crosses or shares the road making other access/exit points possible. What is weather forecast? Do you want to minimize chance of rain? If so, plan the western section accordingly.
- Resupply: If you want to leave/mail food, you’ll want to consider retrieval hours and the distance between drops.
- Clockwise or Counterclockwise: Personally I’m not sure there is a benefit. Based on my profile stats, the ascents and descents were fairly even and I didn’t find any areas where I thought I can’t imagine hiking this in reverse.
- Changing Campground/Camp Site: Although you’ll be told at the ranger station that you can’t change campgrounds, you can ask a ranger (you’ll find some near camps, on the trail or at the ranger stations) if a site has become available. If so they’ll update your permit accordingly. Sites are opened daily when an advance permittee doesn’t check in by 10am on their starting date. Another option is to friend a fellow traveler and ask if you can share their site. Most sites can and do house 2-3 tents routinely. If the group site has not been reserved it’ll be assigned as an individual site. I was assigned such in one location and would have been happy to share. You can also ask to switch to an individual site if you encounter a ranger along your journey; many times the group site is not in an ideal location (i.e. too near the toilet, trail, or shared water source).
- Time of Year: I think each season has benefits. Fall was great. I know I’d love the wildflowers of earlier in the season, but I was glad to avoid the mosquitoes. Snow travel and freezing temperatures will be a concern to many. Prepare for rain throughout the year.
- Water Availability: There were some areas when water near camp was more difficult to find, especially this late in the season. There were also some areas with more mileage between creeks. Don’t be shy, ask rangers and those traveling in the opposite direction. Don’t rely on one opinion, ask a few as some hikers and rangers are more astute than others.
- Campsite Selection: You are not assigned a specific site, only a campground. Therefore, first to arrive gets first choice. Most sites were perfectly acceptable, and I found no reason to hurry to camp in order to get first choice. However, if you are a hammock camper (not sure if allowed), have a large tent, have several small tents, or have other special needs, you may need to consider arrival time.
- Cell Signal: I activated my phone a few times to see if I could catch a signal. Sure enough I found signal and usually not in places I would expect. I had written text messages in advance so I could quickly send if I received signal.
- Near Klapatche Camp: To the southwest of Klapatche on my way to Aurora Lake, I received 4G signal for about 5 minutes. I sent all my messages quickly then lost signal completely, never to return, even the next morning in the exact same location.
- Near Louise Lake: Where the trail parallels the road to the east of Louise Lake I had sufficient bars to send and receive texts.
- Near Cowlitz Divide: I had signal at the first summit to the east of Nickel Creek as well as on Cowlitz Divide.
- Near Sunrise: I found a few places where I was able to catch sufficient signal to send/receive texts.
- Enjoy the Journey: A tip that was shared with me at the beginning and I quickly adopted was “when you find sun and a view, take a long break and soak in your surroundings.” You’ll see more wildlife, hear nature’s sounds, notice small details, etc. If you’ve budgeted time to be on your side, there is no need to rush from camp to camp. Enjoy the rivers and scenery, look carefully at what’s around you, watch nature at it’s best. Get up early and watch the sunrise, take time to witness sunsets and alpenglow, chat with strangers they may just become friends or future adventure partners. Mount Rainier and the Wonderland Trail are special and everchanging, make this day another for your memory books! Try not to leave with regrets; those should have, could have, would have wishes.