Wonderland Trail Basics & Planning
I thru-hiked the Wonderland Trail in July 2019! This was my first thru-hike post-PCT and it was significantly shorter. But, I have been wanting to do the Wonderland ever since I heard about it back in college when I was living in Seattle. I’ve always be enthralled by Mt. Rainier. Seeing the mountain from campus on days when I was struggling lifted my mood x1000%. Needless to say, I was super excited to spend a week circumnavigating this awesome mountain.
Length: 93 miles
Elevation gain/ loss: 22,000 ft (23,000 ft with the Spray Park Alternate)
Time to complete: 9-12 days (we completed in 6.5, some people do it in 3 days!)
Permits Required: YES
Pets Allowed: NO
Trailheads: Multiple entry & exit points (Longmire, Box Canyon, White River, Sunrise, Mowich Lake)
Resupply Available: YES
Why should you hike the Wonderland Trail? To see the ever-changing and varied sides of Mt. Rainier, walk through beautiful old-growth forests, and experience the force of glaciers and glacial river landscapes. If you’ve been looking for a thru-hike you can easily do in a vacation period, and that has easy logistics, and probably has one of the highest scenery levels (and elevation change)/ mile, this is for you!
How to start planning
Mount Rainier National Park requires wilderness permits for overnight backcountry trips, and the Wonderland Trail is one of the hardest permits to get! This is because they don’t just give a permit for the trail: they are giving permits for each backcountry campground each night of your trip. I’m not as used to this type of permitting, but I definitely see its merits. Each year, the park service opens up permits for backpacking on March 15, and you must submit an itinerary on the form (and pay the non-refundable application fee - $20 at time of writing) by March 31. This is not true for all reservable permits at Mt. Rainier, but for the Wonderland Trail, they usually will not accept anymore permits after the 31st, just because there are so many that get submitted! The permits received during this time period are processed in random order, like a lottery. If your application is picked first, you get whatever you want. If it’s picked 500th, you might get some back-up itinerary. If it’s picked 2,478th… you’re probably not getting a permit (FYI I actually have no idea how many permits are given… I just picked a big number). I honestly couldn’t believe we got a permit! I was ready to go with my back-up summer option, but once we got the email, I was so stoked! I had previously applied and failed (in 2016) in get a permit. If you are not lucky enough to get a permit through the lottery, you can always try to get a walk-up permit. In fact, I saw 2 successful groups get one while we were resupplying at Longmire. This is because they do reserve some spots for walk-up, and people also cancel their reservations last minute. Since I have no advice on how to secure a walk-up permit, I am linking my fellow Gossamer Gear Ambassador’s page on how to increase your chances of getting one.
What does the application page look like? It’s going to ask for your Pay.Gov ID receipt to confirm you paid the application fee, will ask for your personal information (important! Only the person listed will be able to pick up the permit), number of people in group (max 12), an acceptable date range for starting your trip, and alternative options (alt. sites, dates, trailheads, direction of trip). It will also, obviously, ask for your preferred itinerary, including trailhead and campsite names. You can’t submit multiple itineraries, but you can check-mark all of the “alternative” boxes to be the most flexible.
I do think we did a couple of things right in our application though, which I researched beforehand based on my failure to obtain a permit in 2016, and I’m going to tell you here:
Going counterclockwise (CCW)
The majority of people applying for a permit will choose to go clockwise because the climbs are slightly less steep in that direction. Honestly, I thought some of the downhills were just as brutal as the uphills in the CCW direction, so I really don’t think this holds much merit. If you are looking for “easy” on the Wonderland, you ain’t gonna find it.
Starting somewhere other than Longmire
I specifically chose White River for a few locations: it was easy enough to get to from Seattle, and it put Mowich* and Longmire as easy resupply options for the hike. Other good options would be to start at Mowich Lake or Box Canyon. Sunrise would be fine too… but I’ll just say: I would never want to do the climb from White River to Sunrise going CCW at the very end of a trip. Just seems cruel.
* We ended up not sending a resupply to Mowich. I was only going to send one if we used a company that mails it for you because I didn’t want to spend all day flying to Seattle, driving to Rainier, getting a walk-in campsite at White River and then drive around the mountain dropping off resupply. Mowich Lake is the most inconvenient to reach entrance from the rest of the spots in the park. So, we ended up not dropping a resupply there.
Because you are trying to increase your chances of getting a permit via campground selection, the less campgrounds on your permit, the more successful you will be. I used the Wonderland Guides trip planner and came up with a few itineraries I thought we could do based on our fitness. Based on how this trip went, and being about 1 year out from a thru-hike, I think our itinerary was good, and I could probably have done it in one less night (5 vs. 6).
I touched on this a little bit above, but obviously, an itinerary is important for this trip, because you kind of have to have one to get a permit! And not having a realistic itinerary can not only make you unhappy, but your group members unhappy, and other people in campsites unhappy. There have been numerous reports of people not being able to make their permitted campsite and camp at an earlier campsite! This puts other people behind you, who have that campsite reserved, in an unhappy situation. There truly is not enough room at some spots for more than 1-2 tents, and the spots are sometimes pretty spaced out and it wouldn’t be nice to make someone search and figure out who has occupied the spot that is actually theirs. So please don’t knowingly choose an itinerary that is beyond your means, or straight-up ignore your permitted itinerary just because. We ran into multiple rangers on the trail and our permits were checked twice to ensure we were in the right area on the right day.
Anyways, I think most people who have hiked the trail will agree: the best campsites are the ones you can get that allow you to hike the trail! That being said, I have some favorites and not-so-favorites when it comes to selecting campsites along the trail, which will hopefully help you plan! Below are a few categories for the campgrounds. I did not have the chance to use or visit the toilet at each camp spot, so most are based on scenery, but I can assure you, if I used the toilet, and it sucked, it’s not on the favorites list. I’ll put an “*” next to the campsites whose toilet I used. And, if you’ve been following me for a bit, you know I love poop talk, so I will gladly answer any toilet questions for you. :D
Campsites that do the job and aren’t terrible, but aren’t particularly amazing, either:
South Mowich River*
South Puyallup River
Pyramid Creek (this toilet is kinda bad - privacy)*
Nickel Creek (this toilet is kinda bad - privacy)*
White River Walk-in*
Favorite, 5-star campsites that you must try for (listed in order of amazingness, in my opinion):
Campsites that Suck, mainly because of bugs and/or toilet:
North Puyallup River (toilet only available at group campsite on other side of river, probably 0.1-.2 miles away with steep trail)*
Campsites I have no opinion of because we didn’t visit them:
Paradise River ***CLOSED***/ Cougar Rock
Notable off-trail campsites that could be possible as an alternate (that are NICE!):
(yes, I used both of these toilets! Snow Lake I visited on a prior trip)
What Do the Campsites Look Like?
If you’re not used to designated backcountry campsites (like me), this whole campsite thing can be confusing or comforting. Generally, the campsites on the Wonderland are large spaces a little bit off trail, and well-signed. The campground is signed right on the trail, and each site within the space has a number. Some of them have water nearby, some are dry camps. They range from 2-12 individual sites (most are ~2-4 sites), and some campsites have an additional group site that can fit up to 12 people. Your permit will tell you if you have to camp in the group site or not. And when applying for permits, if your group has over 6 people in it, you must stay in the group campsite. This is because the individual campsites really can’t fit more than two 2-person tents (some are larger than others and you can fit maybe three 2-person tents, or two 3-person tents, but you’re going to be right next the each other). Also at the campsites is a “communal area” where there is a bear pole and a small trail to a pit toilet. The pit toilets do not have toilet paper provided, but that’s a small price to pay for not having to dig a 6-in hole every time you want to poop. I was confused what a bear pole is, and specifically meant to take a picture/ video of how to use one for this blog post, and… completely forgot. But, there’s a pole that you hang your food from, and another pole that you use to lift your food bag onto the hanging pole. I’d highly recommend that your food bag has a nice, big, roll-top closure that creates a big loop, for the easiest hang. Some of the poles can be a little unwieldy, but you get the hang of it. The really awesome thing about these bear poles is that you don’t need to bring a bear canister or waste time at night trying to find a decent tree to hang your food in! Thank you, MRNP for installing these.
How Do I Choose?
In terms of miles per day, it will greatly depend on yourself and your group. It will also depend on the kind of trip you want! Is this a vacation or an intense physical challenge/ Death March? This trail is by no means easy, and each day you will have at least one major climb and descent. I believe most backpackers will be able to do a 9-10 mile per day pace (9-10 days). Use the Wonderland Planner I linked above and plug that in and see what the elevation gain and loss is per day, and think about what trips you’ve done in the past and how those stats compare to certain days on this trail. I think grade and elevation gain are more important determinators than miles, but this is coming from someone who has hiked many 25+ mile days. If you are resupplying, maybe try to do your “harder” days the day before resupply, when your pack will be the lightest. And remember, the less nights you stay out, the better your chances of getting a permit in the lottery.
Our Itinerary (White River Trailhead, CCW):
Day 1 - White River Campground to Dick Creek: 16 miles, +4,600 & -4,700 ft
Day 2 - Dick Creek to South Mowich River via Spray Park: 12.4 miles, +3,600 & -5,000 ft
Day 3 - South Mowich River to Klapatche Park: 13.3 miles, +4,900 & -2,000 ft
Day 4 - Klapatche Park to Pyramid Creek: 13.7 miles, +3,400 & -5,200 ft
Day 5 - Pyramid Creek to Nickel Creek: 16.7 miles, +3,700 & -4,000 ft
Day 6 - Nickel Creek to Summerland: 11.2 miles, +5,000 & -2,400 ft
Day 7 - Summerland to White River: 7 miles, +500 ft & - 2,200 ft
*All mileage and elevation taken from Guthook Guides, which I highly recommend downloading!
Season/ When to Go
The Wonderland Trail is really only accessible during the summertime. And that is Mt. Rainier’s summertime, not the usual summer timeframe. Of course, climate is changing and we’ve seen crazy high snow years and low ones in recent years, so it’s hard to say when the trails will be open, and personal comfort is an important factor. For most people, going on the trail between end-July and early-September will be the most risk-averse and easiest. I have seen people going on the trail earlier in the season, possibly before the footbridges over the rivers are in, and late in the season when snowfall becomes more likely. In terms of good weather, it’s really not guaranteed at any time on the trail. The mountain makes her own weather, and we’re in Washington, so rain/ sleet/ hail can fall at any time, and the mountain can be obscured under thick clouds. Some people have experienced full trips of rain, never seeing Mt. Rainier. Our trip took place from July 23 - 29, 2019. We were incredible lucky, and only didn’t see the mountain at 2 disappointing times (Spray Park & Reflection Lakes), and were rained/ hailed/ drizzled on 3 times. That being said, there are some general timeframes to consider when selecting dates.
May: Not accessible unless there is a super low snow year and high temperatures.
June: A crap-shoot. But expect lots of compacted snow (like, covering most of the trail), and the possibility of bear poles not being up yet or toilets open at campsites or bridges to be in place over glacier rivers, even by late June (aka MUST have river fording experience and be ready to turn around, should have snow/ glacier travel experience. You’re probably traveling with micro spikes, at the LEAST). June can also still be rainy, and snowy.
July: Snow is melting everywhere, and continues to melt more as the month goes on. Wildflowers at the end of the month are in their prime, still expect some snow at higher elevations. Weather improves as the month goes on (sometimes), mosquitos can be bad in meadows and camp areas. Lots of water, though some small seasonal sources could dry up by the end of the month. Some bridges can still not be in place. Bear poles and toilets in place at campsites, definitely by mid-month.
August: Temperatures can be hot, but start to decease as the month goes on, mosquitos are better, wildflowers are dying, but berries are growing at the end of the month. Seasonal water sources drying up. Bear poles, toilets, bridges are in, usually.
September: Another crap-shoot month. Can be wonderful weather-wise through the month, but there’s a much higher likelihood of bad weather, and hike-ending weather. Bear poles and toilets will come down as the month winds down and the park prepares for winter. Berries are ripe, fall colors are increasing throughout the month. Park stops accepting advance wilderness permit reservations beginning September 28th.
October: Not recommended for backpacking, snow could fall at any time, if it hasn’t already put the park into winter operations. You need to get a walk-up permit from the park, and know how to handle early-season snow and its consequences. There will be no facilities (bear poles, toilets, bridges) in place.
I’d highly recommend following the park’s wilderness conditions page throughout the summer. They are pretty good at updating it, especially early in the season, when conditions are changing quickly.
This is a physically challenging trail, so why carry more food weight than you absolutely need? There are four locations you can drop a food cache: White River, Sunrise, Longmire, and Mowich Lake. The park service requires caches to be stored in lidded buckets. If you don’t have one/ want to buy one, you may be able to get one from the caching locations, as many hikers leave their buckets behind, “donating” them to the park/ other hikers. You can either mail your cache or drop it off in person. The park service has a host of regulations surrounding food caching, which you can read specifics on here.
We decided to only do one resupply, which we picked up early on our 5th day of the hike, at Longmire. We did not want to drive to Mowich Lake to do a resupply drop, and also didn’t want to pay to mail one there. If you don’t want to drive to Mowich (or any of the other locations) but still want to resupply there, you will have to mail your items, or use a service like Zero Day Resupply, which will package your food and send your resupply to a location for you (and in a bucket!). We are ultimately really happy with our decision. Unfortunately, we heard of a handful of hikers having their caches stolen from Mowich Lake and White River. Mowich Lake is the most unsupervised cache location, and is where we heard of the most theft happening. I have to assume that non-hikers are stealing caches, because backpackers know how precious resupply is. At Longmire, the caches are held in the wilderness office, and there is a sign-out log to receive your cache. So, you have to pick it up during business hours, but it is the most secure.
I went into this hike straight from the couch, after barely hiking/ backpacking since my PCT thru-hike. And I really can’t recommend this method to anyone. Thankfully, my hiker legs were in there somewhere, and we had plenty of daylight in our days, and I have some crazy mental grit, because this trail is HARD! I would highly recommend training beforehand. Whether that looks like the stairmaster at the gym with a loaded pack, or finding trails that have an average grade of 800 ft/mile, you should do something like that at least once a week to get prepped for this hike.
Make sure your rain jacket/ other rain layers are sufficient, and don’t skimp on your insulating layer.
Great trail to go UL on, since there are resupply options, and no need for a bear canister.
The only change I would make is to bring a stove on this trip, since we had plenty of time in the evenings at camp to make a hot meal, and water sources were plentiful and close to our camps, so wouldn’t have to tote extra cooking water for too long.
Questions? Drop them down below!
Want to read about my trip on the Wonderland Trail? Click here.