The Wonderland Trail: Get Permits And Plan Now

By Terry Wood(Outdoor Enthusiast)
Got plans to hike the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier someday? Maybe this year? Good call.

Every serious trail hound should have the 90-something-mile WT on his or her to-do list, and from now to April 1 is the prime time to request required camping permits for this summer.
Need tips? Having hiked it twice, here’s what I think I know:
• Understand what you’re getting into. The Wonderland Trail is a gorgeous, world-renowned route but a demanding grind of a hike. The trail offers few flat stretches and involves more than 22,000 feet of elevation gain along its approximate 93-mile length.
The better your conditioning and the lighter your pack, the happier you’ll be. Sounds simple, but people routinely take such advice too lightly.
Savvy hikers will train seriously by carrying full packs up steep trails before trying to go the WT distance. Try to take at least one multi-night wilderness trip a few weeks before you step onto the Wonderland.
• Get serious about purging extravagances from your pack. On my first trip, in 1999, I encountered a kindly gentleman (and backpacking newbie) shuffling northward on Rainier’s remote west side. He carried a vintage external-frame pack stuffed to the seams. Tied to it were three (!) swaying plastic grocery bags filled with doodads.
Gassed from making a long uphill trudge to magnificent Emerald Ridge, he barely had the strength to raise his head and ask, “Does it ever stop going up?”
I assured him it did. I got his contact info and later learned he bailed out halfway through his trip. The exertion, the freeze-dried food, the weather fluctuations — all were new to him, someone who too quickly embraced the romance (not the realities) of walking the WT after hearing his grandson rhapsodize about the experience.
• Realize the Wonderland Trail is not a beginner’s course. It’s wise to hike small sections of it first to acquire a taste for the rigors involved. Try an out-and-back overnighter up to Summerland from Fryingpan Creek. Got two vehicles? Try one-way hikes on the east or north sides —IF you can get permits for the popular campsites along those routes.
If you’re a backpacking greenhorn, ask an experienced friend to eyeball your customary backpack stash. He or she can suggest extractions from your perceived indispensables.
• Which way to go? The conventional direction is clockwise. Yet I’ve gone counterclockwise on my two trips and liked it both times.
Doing so, if you time it right, makes possible a glorious east-side descent to Indian Bar in morning light. But on the north side I had to keep turning around to gawk at mighty Rainier when in lovely Moraine Park. It’s a debate with no clear answer.
• How many days does it take? As few as your lungs and legs need, but as many as your psyche demands. That sounds like a straining-to-be-cute answer, but it’s actually good guidance.
In 1999, unfamiliar with Rainier after moving to the Northwest, I set aside 13 days for my first trip. Last September, I launched myself from Longmire aiming to complete the loop in a chest-thumping five days.
I wound up needing six, and luckily found a ranger who adjusted my permit. Six was ideal. I had fun taking 13, but my soul was still satisfied with a faster pace.
I asked people how many days they were taking to go the distance. A group of trail runners promised they would finish the loop in three days. The next group said two. A fellow in another fast-moving foursome never broke stride but hollered over his shoulder: “30 hours.”
Whew. The fastest anyone has circled Rainier on the WT is 20 hours 53 minutes (ultrarunner Kyle Skaggs, 2006, on a supported run). The WT is a magnet for endurance runners.
Hikers were targeting trips of between five and 12 days. The guidebooks mentioned in the If You Go section propose seven- to 13-day itineraries. My advice: Know thyself, plan accordingly.
• Steepest sections? To me, the west side ranks No. 1, but the east side is 1A. Many steps are built into the WT. Don’t underestimate the prolonged grunts that await you.
• Prettiest sections? East and west tie for first, followed by the north. The south is a comparative ho-hummer.
• Best camps? Klapatche Park (tip: hike up to St. Andrews Lake for sunset views), Indian Bar, Summerland. The trail has 18 designated camps, each with a privy — one of the WT’s most welcoming attributes. Not one hole to dig!
• Starting point? Longmire is popular, but not if traveling clockwise and facing the steep west side with a heavy pack. Guidebook author Doug Lorain recommends Mowich Lake instead. If going counterclockwise, I like using Longmire and zooming the south side on Day 1.
• Starting time? Snow lingers long near the trail’s second-highest point (Panhandle Gap, 6,800 feet), making late August and September popular travel times.
• Ipsut Pass or Spray Park? On Rainier’s northwest corner the WT diverges into two parallel routes. Check with rangers for meltout status, but if it’s reasonably clear, take the more scenic Spray Park route. A ranger told me in ’99 that the Ipsut Pass route was designated as the official WT only because it melts out sooner than Spray Park.