The 93-mile-long Wonderland Trail is aptly named. It encircles Mt. Rainier, the centerpiece of Mt. Rainier National Park, providing stunning views of the two-dozen glaciers that crown the mountain as it winds steeply up and down through an infinite variety of vistas that change with the seasons. It leads through low elevation forests of Douglas fir, western hemlock and western red cedar, over footlogs and bridges that span pebble-and boulder-filled river valleys, and around the shores of pristine mountain lakes.

© Diana Vann

As the weather warms, melting snowfields flow into waterfalls, some hundreds of feet high, and make way for knee-deep wildflower displays. The first to appear, avalanche lilies, poke up through the snow as it melts. Other early blooming flowers, such as marsh marigold, rocket-shaped Jeffrey’s shooting stars, scarlet paintbrush, and lupine, in shades of blue and purple, soon follow. By the time the wildflower bloom is at its showy best, the varieties are seemingly endless.

An important thing to keep in mind when choosing a time to trek the Wonderland is that mosquitoes and other insects are present in the greatest numbers at roughly the same time that the wildflowers are in full bloom. Long sleeves, long pants, an ample supply of bug repellent and a head net can prove invaluable.

© Diana Vann

Peak blooming season depends on weather and precipitation, so accurate predictions are difficult. In most years, many flowers will be blooming by mid-July, and around the first week of August the wildflower displays usually become quite spectacular, especially in the sub-alpine meadows. Hikers lucky enough to be on the trail during peak wildflower blooms are treated to mile after mile of extravagant, multicolored displays, often in the foreground of one of the Wonderland’s many views of Mt. Rainier, or of several other mountains including Mt. Baker, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams.

But when planning a trek, expansive views and good weather should not be taken for granted. The mountain can be shrouded in heavy fog or clouds, even during the summer months. And though bright, sunny days are common during the summer, especially in the months of July and August, wet, cold weather can be experienced then, too, so hikers should come prepared for all conditions.

© Diana Vann

Sounds are also impressive, and can alert the trekker to something noteworthy along the Trail: The roar from a snowmelt or glacier-fed waterfall is often heard long before it comes into view; loud cracks or clatters can signal that there’s something to watch, as boulders become dislodged and fall from a glacier; high-pitched warning squeaks from a pika or marmot are a signal that other members of the colony are nearby.

Pika ©Diana Vann

The Wonderland is considered to be strenuous. It is constantly climbing or descending. The highest point, at Panhandle Gap, is at 6,750 feet, and the lowest point, Ipsut Creek Campground, is at 2,320 feet. Throughout the course of the Trail, the total elevation gains add up to roughly 22,000 feet. Because it is a loop trail, there is an equal total elevation loss over its course. Though the trail provides a challenge for even the most seasoned backpacker, less experienced trekkers (or those with a limited amount of available time) can experience the Wonderland, too. Many choose to hike it in segments, with several trips of shorter duration, rather than all at once. Refer to this profile map illustrating the elevation gains and losses between trail segments.

The most common number of days to hike the whole Wonderland Trail appears to be 10. But some hikers and trail runners do it must faster. Others take the maximum number of days allowed (14) to enjoy a more leisurely pace. Regardless of the number of days on the trail, packs can be made lighter by caching food and fuel at one or more of several locations along the route. Food can either be mailed in advance of the hike, or it can be dropped off in person at the cache locations. Fuel cannot be mailed.

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Trailside camps are located along the Wonderland. Each individual permit is issued for 1 to 5 persons, but an individual site will only hold 2 average size tents, so larger parties will need to share tents. Group sites are available at some camps for parties of 6 to 12 persons. Group sites hold 3-5 tents. Each camp has a pit or composting toilet and a nearby water source. Most camps have a bear pole for hanging food.

Permit reservation letters are mailed out prior to the beginning of a trip, but permits must be picked up in person before 10:00 a.m. on the starting day. Permits that are not claimed may be given away to walk-ins.

At 14,411 feet, Rainier is the highest mountain in Washington State and it’s topped with the largest, single-peak glacier system in the United States, outside of Alaska. On clear days, the views of the mountain along the Wonderland are astounding. It’s a trek that should not be missed.

Additional information about hiking the Wonderland Trail can be found on this page of the National Park Service website.

Part Two of this feature will be published next week.

© Diana Vann
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