By Michael Lanza
Any backpacker making the substantial effort to hike the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around Washington’s Mount Rainier soon discovers why it’s one of the most popular backpacking trips in the country. Those reasons include regularly wading through some of the best wildflower meadows you’ll see anywhere, the numerous waterfalls and raging rivers gray with glacial flour—and the countless times that the most heavily glaciated peak in the Lower 48, 14,410-foot Mount Rainier, suddenly pops into view, looking impossibly massive.
That’s also why few backcountry permits are harder to get than one for the Wonderland—unquestionably one of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips” and “The 10 Best National Park Backpacking Trips.”
If you want to backpack the Wonderland Trail this year, it’s essential that you know how to navigate the permit-application process and the strategies that can help improve your odds of getting a permit—and the time to start that process is now.
This story will explain the brand-new-for-2022 procedure for obtaining a permit to backpack Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail and offer tips on how to maximize your chances of success, sharing expertise I’ve acquired from multiple trips on the WT and in Mount Rainier National Park over the past three decades, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.
See my feature story (which requires a paid subscription to The Big Outside to read in full) about my most-recent trip on much of the WT, a 77-mile route that combines what I consider the trail’s best sections and alternate segments, plus “5 Reasons You Must Backpack Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail” and “10 Tips for Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
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, including a day-to-day primary itinerary, alternate itineraries, and detailed pros and cons for hiking clockwise versus counterclockwise.
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.
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Know this truth about the Wonderland Trail: Permits are issued based on availability in designated backpacker campgrounds—and all backpacker campgrounds along the trail will become fully booked from July through September. That includes the two-thirds of backcountry campsites available for reserving and the one-third assigned on a first-come basis to backpackers requesting a permit in person at a park wilderness center up to one day before starting a trip.
Those are the only two ways of getting a Wonderland Trail permit—and a reservation is a better strategy because it will be difficult to walk in and find enough campsite availability to create an itinerary for hiking the entire trail.
For trips beginning May 27 through Oct. 10, Mount Rainier National Park accepts applications for permit reservations at recreation.gov/permits/4675317.
Want to hike the Wonderland Trail? Get my expert e-guide
“The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.”
The park holds an optional Early Access Lottery from 7 a.m. Pacific Time on Feb. 21, 2022, through 9 p.m. Pacific on March 7, 2022, at recreation.gov/permits/4675317. Lottery winners receive a date and time when they can apply for a multi-night wilderness permit reservation competing against a limited number of other applicants—offering the best and perhaps the only chance of securing a permit for the entire Wonderland Trail. Lottery winners can also apply for a Mount Rainier climbing permit.
After all lottery winners have applied for permits, general reservations for all other permit applicants opens at 7 a.m. Pacific Time on April 25, 2022. When searching permit availability at recreation.gov/permits/4675317, view by “Daily Groups” to see how many sites are available in each backcountry campground. There is a non-refundable $6 fee for a lottery application or a first-come permit and a $20 recreation fee for every permit reservation.
Find more information about permits at nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/wilderness-permit.htm and nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/upload/Wilderness-Trip-Planner-2020-combined_508.pdf and more about the Early Access Lottery at recreationonestopprod.servicenowservices.com.
Read all of this story, including my expert tips on getting a Wonderland Trail permit, and ALL stories at The Big Outside, plus get a FREE e-guide. Join now!
Be Flexible With Your Dates and Itinerary
As I write in my “10 Tips for Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit,” the single most-effective strategy for maximizing your chances of getting a permit for a popular trip during its peak season is to have flexibility with your dates and itinerary.
Availability at Rainier’s backcountry campgrounds will be shown in real time when applying for a permit reservation at recreation.gov/permits/4675317. If you cannot reserve a specific campground on a specific date, you must be ready with alternative campgrounds, dates, and perhaps starting points.
The Wonderland being a loop trail with just a handful of access points limits the options for alternate itineraries. But consider how far you’re willing to hike each day—bearing in mind that the WT constantly presents you with a succession of long, strenuous ascents and descents and the park will not issue a permit for an itinerary with any daily hiking distance over 17.5 miles—and map out at least a couple of potential itineraries, perhaps with different starting and finishing trailheads.
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After the Teton Crest Trail, hike the other nine of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”
Try for a Walk-In Permit
You didn’t make a wilderness permit reservation but you hope to backpack all or part of the Wonderland Trail? There is a last resort: a walk-in (or first-come) permit.
Mount Rainier issues about one-third of permits on a first-come basis to backpackers requesting a permit in person at a park wilderness center up to one day before starting a trip.
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While the chances of having enough backcountry campsite availability to put together a complete Wonderland Trail itinerary is very slim, you may be able to backpack a section of the trail—or another trip in the park, like the Northern Loop or arguably the nicest, short backpacking trip in the park, the 22-mile traverse from Mowich Lake to Sunrise.
Expect high demand for walk-in permits. Show up at a park wilderness information center or ranger station that issues permits at least two to three hours before it opens to get a spot near the front of the long line that will form; those are located at Longmire, Paradise, White River, and Carbon River. Go there with primary and alternative routes in minds. Bring warm clothes, a headlamp, a hot drink, and something to read (or a park trail map to study). See “How to Get a Last-Minute, National Park Backcountry Permit.”
You might get lucky and score a permit to start the same day. But expect to have to wait a day—if you’re fortunate enough to get a walk-in permit.
See all stories about backpacking the Wonderland Trail and backpacking in Mount Rainier National Park at The Big Outside. Like many stories at this blog, reading some of those in full requires a paid subscription to The Big Outside.
See also my expert e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Wonderland Trail Around Mount Rainier” and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can plan your backpacking trip on the Wonderland Trail.