In just six days, this 57.5-mile, roller-coaster route racks up a total elevation gain of 19,301 feet (and a loss of 18,183 feet) as it wraps around Mount Rainier’s glacier-chiseled terrain. After leaving the Sunrise Park Road trailhead, start a sustained, nearly 3,000-foot climb that parallels the cascades of Fryingpan Creek. At the head of the valley, scale switchbacks that deliver you to Summerland, a rolling, high-country meadow filled with wildflowers.
Next, pass the Summerland Shelter, a rock and timber lean-to, and keep climbing southwest to 6,750-foot Panhandle Gap, the highpoint of the Wonderland Trail. Linger at the top with resident mountain goats for views that stretch across the southern horizon to distant glacier-capped Mount Adams and, on clear days, Mount Hood.
Drop down the backside and traverse small snowfields above Ohanapecosh Park. At mile 8.3, cross Indian Bar, where the braided channels of the Ohanapecosh River vein the volcanic riverbed, then cross a bridge above Wauhaukaupauken Falls, gushing through a small slot canyon. Less than 200 feet later, drop your pack and spend the night at Indian Bar Shelter; deer and elk mingle in the adjacent meadows at dusk.
The next day, warm up with an 800-foot climb to a 5,930-foot high point on Cowlitz Divide. Trace the ridgeline southeast for three miles, before descending to Nickel Creek and Box Canyon. Turn south at mile 15.3 and hike roughly 1.5 miles to the mouth of Stevens Canyon. Sleep at Maple Creek Camp near mile 18.
Climb out of the valley on day three, passing Sylvia and Martha Falls—and the crowd-pleasing Reflection and Louise Lakes at the head of the canyon. Begin the 5.8-mile descent into Paradise Valley and Longmire a mile later. Pause at mile 24 to stare at Narada Falls, a two-tiered waterfall that plunges 168 feet, then 20 feet over cliffs (ice climbers scale the upper falls in winter). Pitch your tent a mile from here in the forested Paradise River Camp.
On day four: Pass back-to-back Madcap and Carter Falls at mile 25.2 and 25.5, and continue the southwest descent to Longmire, the park’s former headquarters and the most popular place to start and finish the Wonderland Trail. Just north of the park buildings, the route swings north for a steep, 1,050-foot climb up forested Rampart Ridge (dayhiking crowds diminish in a mile). Less than two miles later, the trail rolls over the ridgetop and drops north into Kautz Creek (springtime washouts are common; link the cairns to find log crossings). Half a mile later, cross Pyramid Creek, then climb 2.2 miles to Devils Dream Camp.
Rise early on the fifth day for the one-mile stretch to Indian Henrys Hunting Ground. Spend some down-time in the sprawling, wildflower fields, backdropped by Rainier’s southwest face, before starting the 1.1-mile, 1,050-foot descent to a suspension bridge slung high above Tahoma Creek’s broad and rocky riverbank. After two more rigorous climbs and two knee-jarring descents, cross the bridge over the North Puyallup and sleep at its same-name camp (mile 45).
On the last day, climb past the flowery meadows and clusters of lakes that dot Sunset Park (black bears come here in the fall for the huckleberries) before descending into the Mowich River valley. Cross the South and North Mowich Rivers and begin the final 3.2-mile, 2,330-foot climb to the bustling Mowich Lake Campground and your shuttle car.
INFO For information on permits, current trail and camp conditions, and wilderness guidelines, go to nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/wilderness-camping-and-hiking.htm.
PERMIT A wilderness permit is required for all overnight camping in the backcountry. Reservations requests accepted by fax or mail, starting on March 15th of each year ($20/reservation). Download form at nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/wilderness-reservation-information.htm.
FOOD CACHE: To decrease the amount of food you must haul on the first three days, leave a food cache at the Longmire Wilderness Information Center before starting the trip. nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/caching-food-and-fuel.htm
RIVER CROSSINGS Bridge washouts are common along this route. Check with a ranger before heading out on the trail to get up-to-date information on water levels and trail conditions.
CONTACT Mt. Rainier National Park, (360) 569-2211; nps.gov/mora
-Mapping and info provided by David Tate and NPS GIS data
TO TRAILHEAD: Shuttle car drop: Drive southeast on WA 410 E. In 11 miles, turn right onto Mundy Loss Rd. In 1.2 miles, turn left onto WA 162 E. In .3 mile, go straight on WA 165 S. Go 25 miles to parking at Mowich Lake Campground.
To trailhead: Return to the WA 162/WA 165 junction; turn right to stay on WA 165. In 1.6 miles, turn right onto WA 410 E. In 41.4 miles, bear right onto Sunrise Park Rd./White River Rd. Go 4.3 miles to parking pull-out.