I felt fortunate when I won the National Park Service lottery to hike the 90-miles (plus) around Mount Rainier on the Wonderland Trail. However, by day three of an eight day trek, I was wondering how I landed on this trail. While the trail offers some amazing vistas, long days and steep terrain make you pay for every spectacular view.
The trail experienced a rough winter, and trees cover many of the trails while high, fast rivers destroyed several critical bridges. The northern leg of the trail from the Carbon River campsite to Ipsut Falls has been particularly hard hit. The bridge over the fast moving Cataract Creek is out and the Carbon River campsite is under construction. When I passed through the area, there were several groups of confused trekkers who had not been told about the detour by the Park Rangers.
The trail now looks like a Jurassic park, with the hot weather making the undergrowth grow wild and obscure or completely cover the trail in some areas. The downed trees makes it look like a herd of brontosauruses have migrated through the area, and, when you are hiking up your second 3000 foot hill of the day, it will seem like you are walking up the backs of the same brontosauruses. According to Park Rangers, the hot weather has also made the wild flowers bloom in late June instead of July/August. So, if you have planned your trek through Spray Park in August to see the wild flowers, you may be disappointed.
What you will see on the trail is a 360 degree view of Rainier in all its majestic glory. The mountain seems to change before your eyes; providing shadows and colors that will captivate the viewer. Just when you think you have seen everything the mountain has to offer, you’ll turn a corner and, wham-o, another one-of-a-kind postcard view will hit you in the face… along with a branch from a fallen tree.
Like any long trek, the enjoyment of the experience is often in equal proportion to the research conducted before you go. Where to stay, how long will it take to get there, where the good water is, and what the mosquitoes are like are all questions that can make or break a trip. The tips below are designed to help in this research phase of your planning; hopefully, they will make you more prepared for what you’ll find on the Wonderland Trail than I was.
Tips for trekking Mount Rainier on the Wonderland Trail
1. Decide if this trek is an endurance test, or if you want to take your time and enjoy the experience and many beautiful campsites. This may be the most important decision of your trip. Many of the campsites are in amazing locations with side hikes that will take you off the Wonderland Trail to some incredible areas. However, if you are moving all day and getting to the campsite late, you will probably not feel like enjoying the additional opportunities the trail provides.
2. Adjust your trekking millage calculator. Park Rangers will tell you that your normal walking pace and daily millage will be greatly reduced on the Wonderland Trail. This phenomenon is mostly due to the steep terrain and under-appreciating how long it takes to go up and down very steep slopes. The heat is the other x-factor that will slow you down more than you know. Rangers say that people routinely underestimate the heat, need for water and the physical endurance to climb thousands of feet every day.
3. Manage your level of pain. The faster you do the trail, the more difficult the trail is. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it isn’t. A 7-day trek will include several 15 mile days (hard days on the trail); an 8-day trek will have no 15 mile days, but will have several 10-12 mile days. While a 13-day trek will average about seven miles a day. The Green Trails Wonderland Trail Map #269S gives a profile of the elevation gain and loss for the entire trail – valuable information. A good rule of thumb is that a 10 mile or longer day will take you over two ridges; this could mean a 7000+ foot elevation gain and loss in a single day. In her definitive book on the trail, Hiking the Wonderland Trail, Tami Asars says the 90 mile plus loop covers over 22,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. Think wisely about how you want to break-up that 22,000 foot evaluation.
4. Prepare for all types of weather and account for our trending warmer weather and how that effects how you feel, how fast you move and your ability to find water. There are significant sections of the trail without shade, where you will get direct heat from the sun and reflected heat from the rock. Also be ready for rain, heavy winds and possible snow… Rainier makes its own weather, and you never know.
5. Cache Food. I did an 8-day trip and carried all my food. I’m not an over packer, and the only frivolous items I brought were a Chuck Palahniuk novel (I would argue this is not frivolous) and a hammock I didn’t use. My pack weighed 50 pounds with water; I carried 3 quarts of water. The rest of my pack contained items to account for #4 above, and I used all the items. For trips longer than 8-days, I would recommend caching food at the Ranger Stations along the way. The Park website and Tami’s book give detailed instructions for doing this. Caching does require more planning and time, but it’s worth it for longer trips.
6. Stay away from Mowich Campground, Nickel Creek, Devils Dream and Klapatche Park campsites. Mowich is like setting up a tent in a gravel parking lot, and it’s open to non-Wonderland Trail campers on a first-come, first-serve biases. This means that you could arrive exhausted late in the afternoon and find yourself squeezed between screaming babies and partying college kids on a gravel patch. Nickel Creek is just a closed patch in the forest, no views, small sites and a good hike to the water source. Devils Dream is infested with aggressive mosquitos. I did not stay in Devils Dream, I walked through it quickly (okay, I ran), and still got over a dozen bites. These mosquitos are crazy. Klapatche Park is on Aurora Lake. The lake is dying and drying out; the Rangers recommend not getting water from the lake, because several people have gotten sick from a water source in the area that they suspect is Aurora Lake. The only other water source in the area is St. Andrew’s Lake. St. Andrew’s is beautiful and a great swimming hole, but it’s almost a mile from the Klapatche campsite. The last thing you want to do at the end of a long day is walk two miles to fetch water.
7. Indian Bar is beautiful and, if you stay at Golden Lake and grab campsite four, one of the best camp spots on the trail.
8. Plan your water sources wisely when you hike. The warmer weather has been drying up some normal watering holes and, if you take water from one of the sediment filled glacier rivers, it will clog your water filter, and a Steripen won’t clean the dirt out of the water. Ask fellow trekkers you met along the way for the most current information on good water sources.
9. One of the best ideas I heard on the trail was from a young lady that was hiking the whole trail, but with family and friends stage hiking different legs of the trail with her. Her stage hiking friends would meet her at a campsite, bring food and goodies, and hike a day or two with her until she met the next stage hiking friend. This seemed like pure genius to me: it kept her motivated to see new friends, she didn’t have to carry all her food and it let her friends and family experience a part of the trail with her. Awesome idea!
10. If you are not compelled to walk 90 miles… don’t. Stay at the Longmire Lodge and drive the loop, parking at different trail heads. Most of the great views of Rainier and the wild flowers that you see along the Wonderland Trail are accessible from trailheads as day hikes.