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September 2000

A Hiker In Mt. Rainier’s Wonderland

Sure, you can summit Mt. Rainier, but the real treasure isn't on top. It's the Wonderland Trail down below.


Photo by John Harlin

It isn’t just fog that obscures the mountain-top: Towering trees shade hikers along this section of trail near Eagle Campground.

The route: Up and down and ’round and ’round. So where do you get on and off this mammoth carousel? Technically, there are eight or so options where paved roads cross or come within striking distance of the trail. Deciding where to start comes second only to choosing a camp, since the latter requires careful scripting with the backcountry-permit mongers. Longmire is the most popular launch site, since it’s natural to begin there after picking up the permit at the hiker center inside the Longmire Visitor Center (see Contact), and because you can also get there by bus. But that makes the first days of hiking the most difficult, and the final walk downhill from Paradise to Longmire slightly disappointing.

If assured of better weather, I would start my trip all over again at Sunrise Visitor Center, with its fantastic view, mellow but spectacular first days, and climactic finale. This route also permits a stash to be cached at Longmire, should you so desire. Once you’re on the path, just follow Wonderland Trail signs. Almost all thru-hikers walk the loop clockwise, making the many ridges somewhat easier to negotiate. Take the Spray Park alternate route on the north side; this adds a few thousand feet of gain and loss, but you’ll eyeball some of the area’s most beautiful scenery. The normal time to hike the loop is 10 to 14 days, though a reasonably fit hiker can cut that time in half.

A 100-person crew from The Mountaineers club in Seattle established the entire Wonderland Trail route in 1915. Today, some 200 to 300 people thru-hike the trail annually. Expect company during the high-use season, and relative tranquility (but less stable weather) in fall.

Season: Typically, the trail is pretty melted out and the bridges are in place by mid- to late July. Before that, some stream crossings could prove problematic, and the route should be reserved for adventurous and experienced wilderness travelers. Be prepared for fall’s rain and high-country snow at any moment. Call Mt. Rainier National Park for backcountry information.

Permits: Camping permits are required and free without reservation from the park’s hiker center in Longmire. Or, pay $20 to reserve your campsites in advance (a good idea during high-use season if you know where you want to camp). If you haven’t reserved, be prepared to accept alternate sites.

Guides: The trail is so well signed that you really don’t need any map other than the free mileage handout that comes with your permit. But carry a topo map, both for safety and to better understand the features around you. Waterproof maps are available from Trails Illustrated (#217; 800-962-1643;; $9.95) and from EarthWalk Press (800-828-6277; $3.95 paper, $7.95 waterproof). Fifty Hikes in Mount Rainier National Park, by Ira Spring and Harvey Manning (Mountaineers Books, 800-553-4453;; $14.95) offers plenty of info. Yours truly is writing the text for a coffee-table book on Mt. Rainier, featuring the photographs of James Martin, to be published in 2001 (Sasquatch Books, 800-775-0817; www.

Contact: The Mt. Rainier National Park hiker center in Longmire, (360) 569-HIKE (360-569-2211 in winter);

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