Hiking the Wonderland Trail

April 22nd, 2009  |  Published in Hot off the press  |  9 Comments

A peak experience on Mount Rainier

One hundred feet above the chasm, the Tahoma Creek suspension bridge
hung, narrow, 250 feet across, and swaying.

No good telling me that it was perfectly safe and had recently been improved. I love hiking but
I have a raging and irrational fear of heights. This, then, was my nemesis, encountered on Day
Four of our ten day, ninety three mile hike. I had dreaded this encounter from the start, hoping
that somehow desperation would get me across, or that the bridge wouldn’t be this high, or this
frail looking, or that a miracle would waft me across.

Because If I couldn’t get over this, it was retreat. End of hike. Maybe
end of marriage, as my husband, David, likes hiking more than Love itself.

It took two hours. Two hours of pacing, striding up to the bridge, starting over, backing up just
where the chasm fell away. Finally, I fixed my eyes on a large boulder high on the other side, squeezed
my terror into my stomach,  and advanced! I knew once I had begun, I would have to
carry on. There was certainly no possibility of turning around.

This was my personal triumph on the trail, so I’ve started here, even
though it wasn’t the beginning point of

our early September adventure.  The high from confronting and overcoming this
fear carried me through the rest of the trail.

We’ve done a lot of hiking over the years, primarily in Strathcona Park on
Vancouver Island, on the Olympic Peninsula, and in the Coastal mountains, but this was only the second
time we had ever hiked for over a week. Almost every day you’re staring at a different
vista of Mt. Rainier.

You feel close enough to reach out and touch it. Some days you hike alongside glaciers,
stare down at icefields, across at waterfalls, and always you’re alongside this incredible
volcano, seeing it from a different angle every day – weather permitting.

You pay for this experience, however. The Wonderland Trail isn’t the easiest hike in
the world. On that momentous fourth day, for example, in addition to crossing
the suspension bridge, there were two big climbs, a mountain ridge to straddle and
two steep descents. That’s a total of eleven miles and a gain and loss of
almost 4000′ each way, which makes for a long day! On other hikes, we might climb that much in a day, but then we would make it a short hike,
only five miles or so, and camp up on the summit.  Here on the Wonderland Trail,
however, that’s only the morning warm-up!

And there is have no choice. Because of its immense popularity, the Mt. Rainier hike must
be booked when you arrive in the park. A computer assisted ranger selects nightly camps for
you, based on how many days you want to take. (Super-hikers can do it in eight days, and
more leisurely hikers take two weeks.) It also depends where you start from.
There are only so many camps along the trail, and you can’t just camp anywhere. You
must make it to
your designated campsite – stiff knees or not.

We’re used to choosing our own spot when we’re ready to stop, and we prefer to camp on our own.
We also aren’t allowed campfires, and evenings without the warmth and light of a fire really do
feel a bit chilly. However, we still recommend the hike – highly. It’s worth sacrificing
choice, solitude and campfire for the vistas you’ll encounter on this trail.

The longest day we hiked was that infamous Day Four; the shortest was Day One, when we simply
headed four miles downhill from Sunset visitors’ centre to spend the first night at a ”
frontcountry” campsite at White River. (“Frontcountry” referring to the
fact that it’s accessible by car.) Most days we averaged about nine miles on a well marked
trail, with regular mileage indicators, clear route signs and sturdy log bridges.

The trail passes through all of the major life zones in the park, from lowland forests of douglas-fir
and hemlock, past rivers, up to subalpine meadows with wildfowers and glaciers everywhere you look.
The flowers were resplendent and for some lucky reason the bugs were conspicuous in their
absence during our late summer visit. Maybe garlic really DOES work! We ate a lot
of it.

Interested? Then the first step is to get to a ranger’s station, which you can find at four different
entry points, because you must have a permit listing each campsite. You have twenty
one to choose from and the ranger will help you select them, based on availability, your entry point,
and the number of days you have to do the trail.  You must book in person, and you can’t do it
in advance. The visitor centers at Sunrise and at Paradise also have all the
information you’ll need: maps, weather reports, relief maps showing the trails and ranges,
books, and even some basic supplies and fuel.

Our favourite campsite was the one at Mystic Lake, and in spite of the warning that there
were bears in camp, we never saw one. The lake is blue, surprisingly warm, and full of trout.
It also mirrors Mt. Rainier perfectly, helped by the expansive blue sky and total solitude on the
day we were there.

Our other favourite was Golden Lakes. We were wrapped in fog there, but it cleared long enough
for us to see that we were perched in the sky, overlooking one of the largest of the lakes.
We could imagine that on a clear day this would be outstanding, but not with sleepwalkers
or small children, as the drop is sudden and steep.

For those of you considering treating yourself to this hike of a lifetime, here’s some information
that might help persuade your partner.

  • You can cache food and clothes at various ranger stations first so you don’t have to carry food
    for more than a few days at a time. We stopped food off off at Longmire first. We
    reached it on the third day of our hike. Be sure to have this extra food in a mouse proof container.
  • It can be reassuring to know that at most points you are never actually that far from civilization.
    If you tire, for example, or the weather turns really foul, it’s usually possible to abandon the
    hike, get to a road and hitchhike back to your car in the same day. It can also be reassuring
    to know that your whereabouts are known at all times. On one night, for example, we were
    awoken at midnight by a ranger who has looking for a hiker who hadn’t come out at the
    scheduled time. The ranger had come in from the nearest station, ten miles away, and hiked
    on through the night until he found the hiker, a young Japanese tourist who had lost his party
    and wound up spending the night with a man and his son.

Persuaded? Then here are a few tips to help you plan for next summer.

  • travel light!
    What always amazes me on hikes is the weight people inflict on themselves. It’s unnecessary to carry
    forty pounds. My ideal pack weight is between twenty-five to thirty pounds, and David hovers
    around thirty two because he gets the tent. That’s a comfortable weight and you can carry it
    without undue discomfort. To me, a light pack makes all the difference between enjoying a
    hike and enduring it. (Or you can always hire a Llama to carry your load!)
  • wear good water-proof boots that have been broken in.
    This seemed to be the year of the hiking sandal, but even though I looked enviously at people wearing
    them on the trail, I was glad I decided to stick with my heavy leather boots because of the ankle
    support, the toe protection, (I’m always stumbling on rocks, especially at the end of the day) and
    the warmth. Traversing snow is not fun in sandals either! I do carry lightweight ones
    to give my feet a rest at the end of each day, but I’ve decided not to abandon my trusty
    heavy hiking boots yet.
  • don’t take tins or bottles – you really don’t have to – as they add a lot of weight and you have to
    carry them out. We allow about one and a half pounds of food per day for two, and eliminate
    all the packaging we can beforehand.
  • avoid strong smelling meats such as salted fish, bacon, salami, etc., in favour of cheese or meat
    substitutes, as the former attract bears. I’m convinced that being vegetarians has helped us
    avoid  nocturnal visits from bruins. Don’t sleep in the clothes you’ve cooked in, either.
    At some of the more populated campsites there are “bear wires” to hang your
    food from which you should use. Otherwise you need to find a good limb yourself to hang it
    from. We had one chipmunk party in our pack one night, but fortunately were able to spare those
    peanuts. There has never been a troublesome bear encounter between hikers and bears on Mt.
    Rainier, by the way, so don’t worry unduly.
  • have some knowledge of mushrooms, wild greens and berries that are edible. It sure helps brighten
    up those meals. The blueberries and blue huckleberries on this hike were plentiful and big
    and made pablum in the morning taste a whole lot better. ( I know it’s disgusting, but that
    babyfood is well fortified and VERY light.) We also brightened up a rainy night with a feed
    of King Boletus mushrooms.

If you’re interested but not sure you’re ready for the whole trip, read on for details and options.
The main thing is – go, whether you hike or not.


How to get there: Drive to Seattle, then take highway #161 South to Elbe and then East on highway
70. The park is about an hour and a half drive from Seattle.

Accommodation. Popular lodges are at Longmire and Paradise, and three regular campsites are
found at White River, Cougar Rock and Ohanapecosh (avoid this one unless you have a self contained
camper. (The mice really party there at night.) There are also two primitive campsites
accessible by dirt roads: Mowich River and Carbon River campsites.
When to go. Early September after the Labour day weekend is the best choice, in my books.
It’s less busy and usually the weather is more dependable. The second choice is
late August. July is very busy, the bugs are often bad, and there’s a lot more snow to slip
around in.
Cost. This is the best part. It’s five dollars to enter the park, and if you do the
whole trail, you may have to pay twice, as the permit is only good for a week. Hiking is free, and
believe me – if you never even leave the car, the scenery and facilities will make you very glad
you live close to the border. The campgrounds are only $9.00 and the primitive ones are free.
Showers are available at Paradise’s visitor’s centre, for a quarter. Avoid
late afternoon as showers get busy then.


1. Adventurous? Then climb to the summit of Mt. Rainier or up on the glaciers. You
can spend the night at Camp Muir, at 10,000′, and attain the summit the next day. Prior to the
climb, you must assure the rangers that you know what you’re doing, or you can also sign up to learn
on the mountain in a climbing class led by a ranger. (Just before we arrived, three rangers had
been killed trying to rescue climbers in this area, so believe me, this is for the hardy only.)

2. A more gentle option is to hike just a section of the Wonderland Trail, or walk in for the
day from a campsite. If you do decide to just do a day’s walk I’d highly recommend camping at
Carbon River, a primitive campsite accessible by dirt road, and walking to Dick Creek. This
walk is along an old road for three miles, then a narrow trail along Carbon River, to another less
frightening suspension bridge. You’ll start climbing for a mile once you cross the bridge,
but will have a terrific view of Carbon Glacier, literally just yards from the trail, as well as of
Mt. Rainier Summit. I don’t know any comparatively easy day walk that rewards you so well!
The round trip is about nine miles.

3. Or – if your idea of a hike is walking to the hot tub, then head for Sunrise and soak in
the view from there. I’ve never been on a road that gives you such views and gets you
so close to the attractions while still in a vehicle. Just don’t plan to do it in an hour,
though. The road around the park is winding, narrow, and scenic. There’ll be lots
of motorists perhaps even more entranced than you. Short walks in the alpine meadows lead
off from
here, and there’s washrooms, food, and information.


  1. Scott Stringer says:

    May 2nd, 2009at 1:49 pm(#)

    Fantastic review! This is the best description of the Wonderland experience that I have read. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

    I’m a bit concerned about the lodging. I can’t sign up for the campsites over the phone or online? I live a loong way away from WA, and I would hate to get there only to be told that everything’s full. And most of the sites are $9? I really wish they would let us do backcountry camping.


  2. Cherie says:

    May 7th, 2009at 2:36 pm(#)

    Hi Scott,
    Thanks for your comments re the wonderland trail. I need to update this site as that story is some time ago and I don’t know if camping would still be so cheap. There is no way to reserve those backcountry campsites in advance; you do have to go there. However, if you go a little off season you should be fine. I know what you mean about hating to have to get to specific sites. We always like to simply pitch the tent where we find a great spot, or when we’re ready to call it quits. However, in spite of this, it is a memorable hiking experience. Good luck,

  3. Sonya Dickinson says:

    July 21st, 2010at 9:32 am(#)

    You can reserve the campsites in advance – the NPS starts taking reservations for the W.T. on March 15th. I faxed my itinerary to them on that date, along with the I believe $25 fee, and I got my first choice of itinerary.

    For more information and to make reservations, go to: http://www.nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/reservations-and-permits.htm

    Great trip report, I enjoyed reading it. We are headed up there to start our journey on August 15th and can’t wait!

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    February 6th, 2015at 7:13 am(#)

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  5. Cherie says:

    February 19th, 2015at 10:14 pm(#)

    Thank you!

  6. Jamie says:

    May 19th, 2015at 12:21 pm(#)

    Hey Cherie,

    I am planning this trip clockwise on July 20, starting from Mowich. I am sort of freaking out about exposed areas, as I have a terrible fear of heights. I’m actually not bothered by the suspension bridge, believe it or not. I am more bothered by rocky spines and long falls.

    Do you remember encountering any of these during the trip?

  7. Kara says:

    March 5th, 2019at 9:04 pm(#)

    Thank you for the info. I am a hiking enthusiast, in great hiking shape. Unfortunately I am deathly afraid of heights. In particular I am terrified of exposed (above tree lines) narrow, steep trails. The exposed, narrow trails give me vertigo. My legs shake and I am paralyzed by fear and feeling dizzy. I dearly want to hike the Wonderland trail, but need to know how high, narrow, and exposed parts of the trail are. Also, what are the ridge sections of the trail like? Your honest opinion will be very helpful. Thank you!

  8. Cherie says:

    March 11th, 2019at 6:43 pm(#)

    There is just that one suspension bridge. If you can manage that everything else will be fine. If I could do it, you can too.

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