By Michael Lanza
There are many good reasons the 93-mile Wonderland Trail encircling Washington’s Mount Rainier ranks among the most popular backpacking trips in the country. And yet, backpackers who’ve never attempted this loop around the third-highest peak in the Lower 48 may have questions about what it’s like. If you have not hiked all or part of the Wonderland Trail, read on to learn more about why you should—and perhaps learn some myth-busting truths about this iconic and challenging trail.
The Wonderland Trail certainly belongs on any list of America’s best backpacking trips—and I say that having hiked most of the best (some of them multiple times) over the past three decades, including many years running this blog and previously the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine for 10 years. That’s because the Wonderland possesses nearly all of the qualities that make for a great multi-day hike—most conspicuously the countless views, from all angles, of the most heavily glaciated peak in the Lower 48, 14,410-foot Mount Rainier, a sight that inspires beyond all expectations.
In fact, at the end of my most-recent trip there, a 77-mile hike on most of the Wonderland Trail, two friends and I—all of us very experienced and widely traveled backpackers—concurred that we had come to Rainier with high expectations for the Wonderland, and the trail exceeded them. That’s high praise.
Not many backpacking trips in the country are harder to get a permit for than the Wonderland. See “How to Get a Permit to Backpack Rainier’s Wonderland Trail” and “10 Tips for Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit” and get my e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Wonderland Trail Around Mount Rainier” to learn everything you need to know to plan and take this classic trip.
And see my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can put together a completely customized plan for you to backpack part or all of the Wonderland Trail.
If you have backpacked the Wonderland or have other thoughts or suggestions about it, please share them in the comments section below. I try to respond to all comments.
Here are five reasons every serious backpacker must hike the Wonderland Trail.
Click here now to get my expert e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.”
1. It’s ‘Next-Level’
What do I mean by “next-level?” Well, that could be interpreted in at least a couple of different ways—including that the Wonderland has next-level scenery (more on that below).
But for many backpackers, a 93-mile hike that may take upwards of eight to 10 days will be the longest and perhaps most demanding multi-day hike they have ever done. The physical, mental, and logistical challenges inherent to a hike of that distance provides excellent preparation for a longer thru-hike, such as the John Muir Trail or a more obscure and lonely long-distance trail like the Idaho Wilderness Trail; a section or all of a long-distance footpath like the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, or the Continental Divide Trail through Glacier National Park; or simply longer and more demanding backpacking trips in places like the remotest corners of Yosemite, the “best backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon,” or the North Cascades.
The Wonderland also delivers a powerful sense of accomplishment—a strong reward, whether it’s for backpackers gaining experience or a family whose children are ready for this level of challenge and parents trying to inspire and raise their kids to love the outdoors. See my stories “10 Tips for Taking Kids on Their First Backpacking Trips,” “10 Tips for Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids,” “12 Tips for Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You,” and “The 10 Best Family Outdoor Adventure Trips.”
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2. It’s Challenging, But Feasible
Make no mistake: Any backpacking trip of nearly 100 miles is a serious undertaking, but the Wonderland Trail amplifies the arduousness, subjecting backpackers to a constant succession of long ascents and descents—many of them 2,000 to 3,000 vertical feet—between alpine ridge crests of volcanic rock and wildflower meadows and deeply shaded forest in valley bottoms.
The Wonderland Trail profile at nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/upload/Wonderland-Profile-2018_Web.pdf shows at least 45,000 vertical feet of cumulative elevation gain and loss over the trail’s 93 miles (roughly 500 feet of up and down per mile, a moderate grade overall, although the WT has steeper sections). And that doesn’t include the variation many backpackers take off the WT onto the Spray Park Trail, which entails about 1,000 more feet of cumulative elevation gain and loss than the section of the Wonderland Trail it skirts (between the Carbon River and Mowich Lake).
Still, the Wonderland Trail shouldn’t be considered experts-only terrain. Despite its challenges, the WT does not pose the difficulties of some long, hard hikes.
The trail is well-marked and obvious—no one who can read a map will get lost. Well-spaced, designated campsites with poles for hanging food give backpackers a known destination each night with little risk of bear problems. While there are rocky sections with difficult footing, much of the trail consists of a soft treadway of packed dirt and conifer needles that’s easy on feet, leg joints, and the body overall. (It’s no mystery why many ultra-runners and hikers gravitate to it.)
If you’re looking to step up your game as a backpacker, the Wonderland Trail is a great place to do just that.
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3. You Will Probably See Wildlife
On our first day on the Wonderland Trail, we saw a black bear (from a distance, and it immediately dashed away), marmots—and nearly 30 mountain goats. Over the course of our hike, we also spotted perhaps two dozen more mountain goats and saw and heard pikas, both in alpine areas, and observed elk tracks in mud on the trail in deep forest.
In fact, Mount Rainier National Park—which spans an elevation range of about 13,000 feet—hosts 65 mammal species, including deer, mountain lions, fisher, and American marten (or pine marten), as well as 14 species of amphibians, five species of reptiles, 182 species of birds, and 14 species of native fish. While it lacks apex predators like grizzly bears and wolves, the Wonderland does not lack for thrilling wildlife sightings.
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4. It Can Be Hiked in Sections
Yes, 93 miles sure is a really big walk. Throw in more than 45,000 feet of combined elevation gain and loss and the words “really big walk” seem inadequate. But you need not feel compelled to eat that entire meal at your first sitting.
My first backpacking trip on the Wonderland Trail covered just part of its northern section, between Berkeley Park and the Carbon River, when I hiked Rainier’s 32.8-mile Northern Loop (a solo trip that unexpectedly turned into a tense adventure). My second WT hike traversed its southernmost stretches. On my third, with my family when our kids were nine and seven, we hiked from Mowich Lake across Spray Park and covered the gorgeous WT stretch from the Carbon River to Sunrise.
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Finally, after the Wonderland sat on my to-do list for years, two friends and I took a 77-mile hike on most of the trail—including the sections I had not yet hiked previously. Read my feature story about that trip, “An American Gem: Backpacking Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail.”
With several access points at road crossings in the park, the WT offers numerous opportunities to backpack—or take ultra-hikes or runs on—sections of varying lengths.
My e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Wonderland Trail Around Mount Rainier” tells you everything you need to know to plan and take this classic trip and includes several shorter, alternative itineraries describing section hikes on the WT.
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“The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.”
5. It’s… Incredible
Any conversation about the quality of a hike always circles back to the scenery—and in that regard, the Wonderland equals its name and deserves top-tier status alongside classics like the Teton Crest Trail, John Muir Trail, and premier hikes in flagship parks like Yosemite, Glacier, and the Grand Canyon.
Why? There are the meadows choked with an abundance and variety of wildflowers matched in few places. The crystalline creeks and rivers gray and frothing with “glacial flour.” Waterfalls leaping off cliffs and cascades plunging and roaring for hundreds of feet. Mountain lakes shimmering in sunshine or offering a mirror image of Mount Rainier. Intensely quiet and enchanting forests of giant trees like Douglas fir, western red cedar, and western hemlock at lower elevations and subalpine fir and mountain hemlock growing in islands amid sprawling meadows at higher elevations.
And all of that frequently showcases a backdrop of “The Mountain,” as Rainier is known to Washingtonians. Cloaked in crack-riddled glaciers, Rainier ranks third among all U.S. mountains—behind only Alaska’s Denali and Hawaiit’s Mauna Kea—in topographical prominence, a measure of how high a peak rises above its surroundings, which for Rainier is 13,210 feet. It often fills the horizon at a seemingly unbelievable scale.
As you round yet another turn on the Wonderland to discover another meadow or cross another river, Rainier appears suddenly in surprising places, stealing your breath away.
Given all of its qualities, any adventure-seeking backpacker would have to contemplate the question: How many reasons do you need to walk the Wonderland Trail?
Go there. It is the kind of adventure that validates itself over and over and stays with you long afterward.
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Read my feature story about a 77-mile hike on most of the Wonderland Trail, “An American Gem: Backpacking Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail.” See also “The Best Hikes in Mount Rainier National Park.”
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”
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