When planning a trip around Mt. Rainier via the Wonderland Trail, one of your first decisions will be whether or not to make an advance reservation. Any overnight stay along the trail requires a backcountry permit, and campsite reservations are recommended (but not required) for the busiest months, July and August. If you favor a more spontaneous approach, 30 percent of campsites are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis.

Rock Formations and Wildflowers ©Diana Vann

The decision to apply for campsites in person was an easy one for me. A group trip I’d anticipated along a section of the PCT was canceled because of the unusually heavy snow pack, and suddenly I had unscheduled time on my hands. I called a Mt. Rainier ranger station to inquire about snow conditions on the Wonderland, and the ranger on duty told me that most parties with reservations had been canceling because of the overabundance of snow. But he also said that a few people had made it through the areas with the heaviest snow pack without an ice axe, and that people with some snow experience should be able to get through using trekking poles and footwear traction devices. After hearing this and gathering information from other sources I deemed reliable, I was convinced that it was doable. So I grabbed my pack, poles and Yaktrax, and headed for Mt. Rainier National Park.

My first stop was the Longmire Administrative Building, where I was able to secure the campsites I preferred because of the large number of cancellations. Once campsites were assigned, I was issued a permit. I dropped off a sealed, plastic bucket, which contained food for four days. Then I drove to the Sunrise Visitor Center, where I left an additional food cache before continuing on to the Mowich Lake walk-in campsite.

Suspension Bride Over the Carbon River ©Diana Vann

I spent the first night at Mowich Lake and got on the trail early the following morning. After traveling only 0.2 miles I came to a junction where I had to make a decision: hike to Carbon River along the actual Wonderland Trail or take the Spray Park Trail alternative. I had read that the vistas along the Wonderland route are unremarkable, but the Spray Park alternate route features some of the most spectacular views anywhere in Mt. Rainer National Park. One advantage of taking the Wonderland route is that it’s shorter, and it climbs only 200 feet in elevation before it crosses Ipsut Pass and descends toward the Carbon River junction. The longer Spray Park alternative climbs more than 2,000 feet before it reaches the highest point and descends to Carbon River. And the lower elevation Wonderland route was snow-free, while a great deal of snow still remained in Spray Park.

Spray Falls ©Diana Vann

It was a bright, sunny day, so I chose the Spray Park alternative.

The Spray Park Trail rises steeply via a series of switchbacks, and after about two miles it intersects the trail to Spray Falls. I opted for the short side-trip and discovered that the best view of the 400-foot waterfall is on the other side of the creek. A few steps into the snow-swollen stream were enough to convince me that the partial view I had from there was good enough. I returned to the main trail, and steep switchbacks continued for roughly half a mile. Then the incline became more gradual and the forest thinned, as the trail entered Spray Park.

Mt. Rainier suddenly came into view as I approached the Grant Creek log bridge. It was stunning, and I stopped to remove my pack and to revel in the view. Bright sunlight sparkled on the creek water and on the distant mountain snow. Avalanche lilies were sprinkled across the foreground, and tree branches framed the scene, intensifying its dazzling impact. Throughout the remainder of my trek I would see a mind-boggling number of spectacular views, but none would have quite the impact of that first breathtaking glimpse of Mt. Rainier.

Spray Park View from Log Bridge

The trail continued upward, winding past meadows overflowing with wildflowers, stands of trees, and rock gardens, all surrounded by patches of snow. In addition to spectacular views of Mt. Rainier, the cloudless sky provided excellent visibility for rock formations and other mountains in the distance. As the trail climbed toward the rocky ridge above Seattle Park, the snow patches became more continuous, and I stopped to clip the Yaktrax over my shoes. The snowfields were slow going, but I crossed them without difficulty.

Because of the expansive views, the trek through Spray Park turned out to be one of my favorites. It’s apparently a favorite of many; I saw more hikers on the Spray Park trail than on any other section of my trip. Most of the hikers I met were doing round-trip day hikes from Mowich Lake to Spray Park, turning around when they reached the snowfields. For the remainder of the trip I went for long periods without encountering any other hikers, and many of the campsites where I stayed were almost deserted.

Spray Park Snowfield

After leaving Spray Park, the trail descends into Cataract Valley, then intersects the Wonderland Trail at the Carbon River Junction.  I crossed the Carbon River via the suspension bridge, and stopped briefly to enjoy the view of the river and to rest before tackling the steep climb up to Dick Creek, my destination for the night. The trail to Dick Creek parallels the Carbon Glacier, the lowest-elevation glacier in the contiguous United States, then crosses Dick Creek via a log bridge. The camp is located immediately on the other side of the bridge, just above the creek, so when I crossed the bridge I was home for the night.

The camp at Dick Creek was one of my favorites. It’s small, and it has spectacular views. I was one of three solo trekkers who camped there, and we were the camp’s only occupants that night. We gathered creekside and shared a relaxed, communal meal before going our separate ways the following morning.

The other section of trail I enjoyed the most starts at Summerland and ends at Nickel Creek. My two campsites along that section were favorites, too. Summerland, a large camp, and one that’s usually filled to capacity during summer months, was deserted when I arrived, except for one small tent.

Flower-filled sub-alpine meadows were bathed in golden sunlight, and I still had ample time to walk around without my pack to enjoy the splendid views before sunset. When I broke camp the following morning the solitary tent remained, but there was still no one in sight.

Snowmelt at Panhandle Gap

I walked a short distance beyond the camp to a small stream, and there I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast while watching a large colony of marmots at work and play. The weather was clear and warm as I started up the trail that would take me through Panhandle Gap, a saddle between two rocky rises, and the highest point along the Wonderland Trail. I crossed steep snowfields, and one exposed area had my full attention as I picked my way across it, but I reached the other side without mishap. Views of distant mountains were breathtaking. Beyond the gap, numerous switchbacks led steeply downward to Indian Bar.

Indian Bar Camp

Nestled in a valley, Indian Bar camp is surrounded by trees and mountains and is divided by the Ohanapecosh River. The main camp is located up a small slope on one side, and the group camp is on the other side. Not long before nightfall a party of four arrived and made camp inside the group shelter, but I was the lone inhabitant of the main camp on the other side of the river. The views I enjoyed on the following day as I hiked toward Nickel Creek were stunning.

I spent 11 days on the Wonderland, and if I decide to hike it again, I will probably plan to be on the trail for the same number of days. For most of my trek I enjoyed good weather and great visibility. On a couple of days I experienced short periods of light rain, but the visibility remained good, and the temperatures stayed in a comfortable range. Then on my last hiking day I was reminded of the importance of coming prepared for all conditions: the temperature plummeted, storm clouds gathered, and the visibility was greatly reduced. By the following morning, as I was leaving Mt. Rainier National Park, a cold wind was blowing and rain was falling.

Wildflower Meadow
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