American Gem: Backpacking Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail

By Michael Lanza

“Bear!”

Todd calls this out to me and points toward a meadow maybe 200 yards off—but I glance up a moment too late and the black bear has already disappeared into the dense forest. “It was a big one,” Todd says.

We’re hiking along the crest of the Cowlitz Divide on the southeast side of Mount Rainier National Park, just a few hours into a five-day, 77-mile backpacking trip covering most of the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, and we’ve already had our first wildlife sighting—a harbinger of what awaits us. Before this trip ends, even before this day draws to a close, wildlife sightings will become almost commonplace.

Backpackers in Moraine Park on the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm and Todd Arndt backpacking through Moraine Park on the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.

Unfortunately, The Mountain—as Washingtonians know the 14,411-foot, heavily glaciated peak that often appears to float above the horizon when seen from Seattle, some 60 miles to the northwest—has been concealed behind a dense wall of fog since we hit the trail this morning.

But the wildflowers have hung on for our arrival in the first week of September, the sky isn’t really threatening rain—in the Pacific Northwest, the light mist we’re walking through barely qualifies as precipitation—and besides, we’re just happy to be embarking on one of America’s most coveted backpacking trips.

Having backpacked some sections of the Wonderland previously, I planned this trip with my friends Todd Arndt and Jeff Wilhelm—neither of whom have been here—to link up what I consider the Wonderland’s best sections. Our itinerary will include a stretch I covered on a three-day, 22-mile hike with my family that I consider the best weekend hike in the park. (This trip’s itinerary is summarized in the Take This Trip section at the bottom of this story, which requires a membership to read, and described in much more detail in my Wonderland Trail e-guide, which can be purchased without a membership to The Big Outside.)


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Previous exposure to the Wonderland, though, does nothing to diminish its impact—the trail will still surprise and astonish me over the next five days with its beauty, ever-changing personality, and relentlessly rugged character.

After eating lunch on rocky ground between braids of the milky creek that flows off the Ohanapecosh Glacier, we’re several hundred vertical feet into today’s second big uphill slog when we spot two mountain goats staring at us from rocks partly hidden by bushes. Within moments, we notice a third and fourth and eventually count nine goats in that spot.

A backpacker descending from Panhandle Gap on the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.
Todd Arndt descending from Panhandle Gap on the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park. Click photo for my e-guide to the Wonderland Trail.

Not much later, the fog finally lifts, unveiling a sprawling mountainside of ice and snow rising steeply above us, seemingly close enough for someone with a good arm to hit it with a baseball—the first of many such uniquely defining experiences of hiking the Wonderland Trail that we’ll have on this trip: You look up countless times each day and abruptly see The Mountain looming above, appearing impossibly enormous.

Hiking through meadows bursting with lupine in the newly emerged warm sunshine balanced by a breeze and just about perfect hiking temperatures, we reach Panhandle Gap at 6,750 feet—the highest point on the Wonderland.

At least 18 mountain goats graze in a flat meadow carpeted in green grass perhaps a quarter-mile distant. Nearly 8,000 feet above us, a swirling, blindingly white lenticular cloud spins like a 33 RPM vinyl album around Rainier’s summit. Below the cloud, snow gleams in the bright sunshine.

All in all, this feels like an auspicious first day.

Want to hike the Wonderland Trail? Get my expert e-guide
The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.”

 

Mount Rainier

On our second afternoon, we reach the Sunrise area of the national park and swing west with the Wonderland as it wraps around Mount Rainier’s north flanks—arguably the most glorious section of this entire trip.

With every unobscured view toward The Mountain, we stare at one of those rare objects in nature whose size defies attempts to wrap your brain around it. Rainier ranks third among all U.S. mountains—behind only Alaska’s Denali and Hawaii’s Mauna Kea—in topographical prominence, a measure of how high a peak rises above its surroundings, which for Rainier is 13,210 feet. The Mountain leaves a footprint spanning roughly 100 square miles—about as large in area as Bryce Canyon and Haleakala national parks combined.

It often fills the horizon at a seemingly unbelievable scale, its face changing with each day circumambulating it. The stark fact that for most people it takes more than a week to backpack all the way around Mount Rainier speaks to its gargantuan mass.

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More than two dozen crack-riddled, named glaciers and numerous smaller snowfields cloak Rainier. For hours of hiking today, we have a direct view toward two of the biggest tongues of ice pouring off The Mountain: the largest glacier by area in the contiguous United States, the Emmons, which covers 4.3 square miles, as well as the conjoined twin of the Emmons, the Winthrop, Rainier’s second-largest glacier at 3.5 square miles.

Rainier’s thick mantle of ice and snow, the Columbia Crest, leans out as if peering cautiously over the brink of towering cliffs of broken, black rock comprising much of Rainier’s north face. Ahead of us still, the Carbon Glacier holds four distinctions among all U.S. glaciers outside Alaska as the longest (5.7 miles), with the lowest glacial terminus (3,600 feet above sea level), and greatest volume (0.2 cubic miles) and thickness (700 feet).

Read “The 5 Reasons You Must Backpack Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail.”

A backpacker descending toward Granite Creek on the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm descending toward Granite Creek on the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan this trip.

Called “Tahoma,” or “mother of waters,” by the native Puyallup tribe, Rainier functions as the spigot for five major rivers and an estimated 100 waterfalls in the park. You pass some of them every day on the Wonderland Trail, from myriad unnamed cascades and small falls to 354-foot Spray Falls.

We follow the Wonderland Trail as it rolls gently across the lushly green, wildflower-strewn meadows of Berkeley Park, where a few dozen mountain goats mow the grass. As we crest another of the numerous ridges that extend for miles off Rainier like the arms of a starfish, The Mountain springs suddenly and dramatically into view yet again, many times larger than the rows of satellite peaks that reach to far horizons, including the sharp, broken incisor of 11,138-foot Little Tahoma Peak, the third-highest in Washington, jutting into the sky.

We’ll remember this as one of the most inspiring panoramas along the Wonderland.

I can help you plan this or any other trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.

 

Spray Park

The long suspension bridge bounces and vibrates as I creep across it, moving slowly not only to enjoy the view up and down the Carbon River Valley—but also to minimize the wave effect reverberating back and forth over the bridge, potentially causing more bouncing. Through gaps between the slats of wood at my feet, I watch the foaming river, 10 feet or more below the bridge, crashing over its boulder-strewn bed.

Upstream from the bridge, the Carbon Glacier loudly and violently births the Carbon River from an ice cave at its snout; we saw it earlier from a stretch of the trail high up one wall of the valley carved by this glacier and river. Already fully formed when it erupts from the glacier, the heavily silted, battleship-gray river snarls downhill over innumerable boulders that choke its bed. Like all rivers flowing off Rainier, it carts inestimable tonnage of The Mountain’s broken and pulverized volcanic rock on the rough first leg of a long, inexorable journey to the Pacific Ocean.

Across the Carbon River bridge, we turn onto the Spray Park Trail, a popular variation off the WT because, although it involves much more ascent and descent, it’s also more scenic than the WT section from the Carbon River to Mowich Lake. Then we launch into one of the longest and hardest uphill grinds of this trip, ascending more than 3,000 vertical feet in a little over three miles.

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A backpacker on the Spray Park Trail, Mount Rainier National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the Spray Park Trail, Mount Rainier National Park. Click photo for my e-guide to the Wonderland Trail.

As one does repeatedly on the Wonderland Trail, we walk through a calmingly quiet forest of immense, stately Douglas fir, hemlock, and cedar trees. As we gain elevation, the giants give way to stands of smaller subalpine fir trees amid meadows exploding with wildflowers and, finally, the open, rocky terrain of Spray Park.

Snowfields leftover from last winter hang on here in the first week of September; rivulets and miniature cascades gurgle downhill from the snow. Lupine and other wildflowers signal that we’ve arrived during the brief window—a matter of weeks—when summer holds court at this elevation, over 6,000 feet.

And, of course, Mount Rainier fills one horizon, its snow and glaciers soaking up the soft, late-afternoon sunlight. A marmot whistles not unlike the sharp report of a gunshot as we reach the trail’s high point in Spray Park and follow the sun dropping downhill toward the west.

Click here now to get my expert e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.”

 

The Wonderland Trail

In 1920, five years after the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier was completed, then-park Superintendent Roger Toll said of it, “There is a trail that encircles the mountain. It is a trail that leads through primeval forests, close to the mighty glaciers, past waterfalls and dashing torrents, up over ridges, and down into canyons; it leads through a veritable wonderland of beauty and grandeur.”

The original trail was much longer—an estimated 130 to 140 miles total—than today’s trail, sticking to lower elevations closer to the park’s boundaries rather than the more-scenic route the WT now traces at higher elevations closer to The Mountain.

A waterfall beside the Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park.
A waterfall beside the Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park.

The first thru-hike of the Wonderland Trail was accomplished by members of The Mountaineers Club of Seattle over three weeks in August 1915, and featured some members marching along the trail in military order, scouts marking each night’s camp ahead of the main group by nailing a triangular aluminum plate bearing the club’s name to a conspicuous tree, and the building of a large bonfire beside which the kitchen “commissary” would be set up. In subsequent years, lobbying by club members led to rerouting the WT through higher, prettier terrain.

In recent years, the park has received 2,500 or more applications for backcountry permit reservations for a full Wonderland Trail circuit, but it has the backcountry campsite capacity to issue only about 450 Wonderland permits annually—ranking it among the most difficult national park permits to obtain.

(About 70 percent of available permits are issued by reservation in early spring and the other 30 percent issued first-come during the backpacking season. See my story “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit” and more details in the Take This Trip section at the bottom of this story, which requires a membership to read; or learn all you need to know to plan and pull off this trip, including tips on improving your chances of getting a permit, in my Wonderland Trail e-guide, which can be purchased without a membership to The Big Outside.)

Read all of this story, including my expert tips on planning this trip, and ALL stories at The Big Outside, plus get a FREE e-guide. Join now!

 

The Wonderland Never Lets Up

After eating lunch on our final day in the empty backcountry camp by the South Puyallup River, Jeff, Todd, and I commence yet another big and steep uphill slog—some 1,500 feet in about two miles. We’re on the longest leg of the WT between roads, just over 34 miles from Mowich Lake to Longmire on the park’s west side, a segment where the trail packs in about 19,500 cumulative vertical feet—that’s a whole lot of panting and sweating uphill and pounding downhill. The Wonderland Trail never relents its grueling profile.

But it also never lets up on the goods that backpackers come here for. As we gain elevation into the sub-alpine zone, Rainier once again pops into view, towering high above what looks like ancient ruins, though of the geological kind—the busted rock, cliffs, and waterfalls of the valley of the South Puyallup River, fed by the Tahoma Glacier looming above us.

Learn how climate change is affecting Mount Rainier and other parks in my book Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.

 

A backpacker on the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.
Todd Arndt backpacking the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park. Click photo for my e-guide to the Wonderland Trail.

Ascending the slender crest of Emerald Ridge, we cross more meadows carpeted with wildflowers and stop at a high point, quietly surveying another grand panorama of rock and ice and a behemoth mountain unlike any other in the Lower 48.

Then we shoulder our packs for the long descent to the thrilling crossing of the high suspension bridge over the silt-gray whitewater of Tahoma Creek—and one more big up and down before we reach Longmire and conclude one very rigorous and memorable walk most of the way around Mount Rainier.

A backpacker crossing the Tahoma Creek suspension bridge on the Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park.
Todd Arndt crossing the Tahoma Creek suspension bridge on the Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan this trip.

Take This Trip: Backpacking the Wonderland Trail Around Mount Rainier

Gear Tips Trekking poles are indispensable for this route’s steep descents and ascents. See my picks for “The Best Trekking Poles” and my stories “How to Choose Trekking Poles” and “10 Best Expert Tips for Hiking With Trekking Poles.”

While there are rocky sections of the Wonderland Trail, much of it consists of a soft path with good footing in forest; lightweight or midweight hiking shoes or boots will be adequate for many backpackers, who may also prefer waterproof-breathable boots for an extended backpacking trip on the Wonderland Trail, when rain may be possible; see all of my reviews of hiking shoes and my “8 Pro Tips for Preventing Blisters When Hiking.”

The Gear I Used See my reviews of the outstanding backpack, tent, ultralight rain jacket, and water filter bottle I used on this trip.

Find the best gear, expert buying tips, and best-in-category reviews like “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and “The 10 Best Down Jackets” at my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside.

See my expert tips in these stories:

How to Prevent Hypothermia While Hiking and Backpacking
8 Pro Tips for Preventing Blisters When Hiking
5 Tips For Staying Warm and Dry While Hiking
7 Pro Tips For Keeping Your Backpacking Gear Dry

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.

 

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3 thoughts on “American Gem: Backpacking Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail”

  1. Hi there! I recently found The Big Outside while doing outdoor adventure research. I loved this piece on Mount Rainier, especially all of your photos. Thanks for sharing.

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