My 2003 Wonderland Trail Hike


Over August 15-25, 2003, I solo-hiked the Wonderland Trail which encircles Mount Rainier. With the addition of several optional loops, the total distance I hiked exceeded 100 miles.

This was my first backpacking trip of any kind.


I tried to end each day with a photo of my sleeping bag, and a photo looking up from my sleeping bag.



Getting there: I got to Mount Rainier via mass transit and the Rainier Shuttle, arriving at Longmire in time to pick up my wilderness camping permit. [Note: I used the same shuttle for my return.]

Resupply: I mailed my two food caches to the official cache sites at Mowich Lake and Sunrise several weeks before my hike began.

Longmire to Devil's Dream Camp: Easy and pretty. I used this section to get used to my gear (particularly the trekking poles). Once in camp, the water source was Squaw Lake, a bit north along the Wonderland Trail. Near Devil's Dream Camp I saw a deer, which was the largest animal I saw my entire trip (I didn't see any elk, mountain lions, or bears). My main memory of this camp was the beautiful mist through the trees: I felt like I literally had my head in the clouds. This was also the only camp where a ranger came by to check my camp reservation permit. One of my stronger memories is of the dreams I had that night: before leaving I'd learned that the dangerous animals in the park are the bear (esp if you get between it and its cubs), the mountain lion (esp if you act like prey or get between it and a recent kill), and the elk (esp if it steps on you). Well, at Devil's Dream camp I dreamed, in turn, that I was stepped on by an elk, then had my left hand gnawed off by a mountain lion, and then was mauled by a bear. The interesting thing was that in each of these three distinct dreams I was in the same place I was in real life, so I had trouble distinguishing them from real life.

To Klapatche Park Camp: For me this was the most physically demanding part of the trail, probably because my body was still getting used to both higher levels of exertion as well as being at higher altitudes. I have a fear of heights so the descending switchbacks just over the top of Emerald Ridge were a bit scary for me, although they probably wouldn't be for most other people. You don't have to go into South Puyallup Camp, but if you do and go to the end of it, you'll find some interesting rock formations. One thing to be aware of: you'll definitely want to load up on water at the stream before South Puyallup Camp, because the hardest part of this leg of the trip (the rapid climb 2700 feet up to St. Andrews Lake) must be done on a path in which I didn't notice any significant water sources. I didn't have any water with me for this part of the trail and ended up feeling quite dehydrated by the end, a mistake which I resolved not to repeat for the rest of the trip (and which for the most part I didn't). At the time I did this trail there was a point near South Puyallup Camp with a stream and some benches that would be a good place to fill up on water before the climb to St. Andrews Lake. Also, if I remember correctly, St. Andrews Lake (rather than Aurora Lake) was the water source for Klapatche Park Camp, so you'll probably want to fill up there as well before heading into the camp. Two final things about this leg of the trip: (1) if you start to feel a hot spot on your foot apply moleskin immediately so as to head off blisters, and (2) keep in mind that you will probably experience this as being the absolute hardest part of the trail, so if you can complete it you can probably rest knowing that barring injuries (and assuming you continue to take care of yourself) you should be able to complete the rest of the trail. For what it's worth, in dealing with the ascent to St. Andrews Lake, it's helpful not to think about when it will be over, i.e. to imagine that the next hill or the next switchback will be the last one, since that only leads to frustration. It's highly likely that near the Emerald Ridge you'll see a hoary marmot and perhaps a Pika or two (though I wasn't able to photograph any of the latter). Side note: it was on my way to Klapatche Park Camp that I first met the hikers who would later end up being a big help to me around the Panhandle Gap. Final memories of Klapatche Park Camp: the sunset through the trees was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen, and after sunset one of the trees in my camp looked like the tree in one of the final scenes from the movie Baraka.

To Golden Lakes Camp: Many of the views along the way were spectacular.

To Mowich Lake Walk-in Camp: The ranger station by the Mowich Lake Walk-in Camp (which is really just a parking lot) is where you pick up your cache, which at the time I did my hike was stored on the left side of the ranger station. If you do this hike then the procedure may be different than when I did it, and they may have moved this camp by then, but when I did this hike the camp was in the parking lot (i.e. you just set up your sleeping spot next to a picnic table) and there was no bear pole. As such I suppose one thing I could have done would have been to have just eaten my fill from whatever remaining food I had with me, thrown away any uneaten amounts remains as well as any and all garbage in my pack into one of the parking lot garbage cans, and picked up my cache from the ranger station the next morning. Note that it's pretty common for there to be an excess bucket into which you can put excess food that you packed into your cache (or had with you) but find you didn't need, so that other hikers in need can take it if they need it. Although this parking lot camp doesn't have the same "Wonderland" feel, the fact that your sleeping area isn't immediately surrounded by trees lets you see a much bigger sky, which is particularly spectacular if there are no clouds in the sky during the night. One last thing: while at Mowich Lake Camp I found a fortune cookie fortune, devoid of its cookie, underneath the park bench I'd set up my bivy near. The inscription was: "Rarely do great beauty and great virtue dwell together as they do in you." Awwww :)

To Carbon River Camp: According to the trail signs, the official Wonderland Trail is still the leg that goes to the north of Mother Mountain along Ipsut Creek, not the leg that goes through Spray Park to the south of Mother Mountain. The Spray Park route is apparently much more physically challenging: according to other hikers more challenging than the ascent to Klapatche Park. I did the official (northern) route, which also lets you see a 1200 year old Yellow Cedar (see also this sideways picture) that may be the largest such tree in the world. One funny story to share: along the stretch of trail where I thought this tree was, I happened upon a group of more experienced hikers which included a very quiet older gentleman who seemed to be an expert naturalist. I mentioned to one of these hikers that I was looking for this old and big Yellow Cedar, and after hiking for a while I noticed a tree that looked big to me and asked, "Is this it?" The older naturalist quietly replied, "That isn't even a cedar."

To Mystic Camp: I saw a tick at this camp. You may want to be sure you have notes on how to remove ticks, as well as a tweezers in your first aid kit. Mystic Lake is very pretty. One thing to be aware of in the approach to Mystic Camp: the Wonderland Trail goes to the south of Old Desolate mountain, not over it. There's apparently an old hiker or climber trail which isn't marked on the Green Trails map that leads up Old Desolate, first with what looks like a trail and eventually with rock cairns. This is wrong: the correct trail looks more like this when you're properly traveling south of Old Desolate. I'm mentioning this because it was my one navigation error of the trip and I want to make sure others don't make it, if for no other reason than that if you make it you're likely to trample alpine vegetation. BTW, I saw a Blue Heron at Mystic Lake, and you'll probably see plenty of tadpoles in some parts of it.

To Sunrise Walk-in Camp: Here is where the views of the mountain really start to get spectacular. You'll want to make a detour to Sunrise to pick up your cache (ask about it in the visitor center if the ranger station is unstaffed). Once you're done with your cache you can put any excess food back in it and put its lid back on (I only left stuff in unopened packages) and return it to the ranger you got it from for the sake of other hikers who might be running low. Note that the bathroom at Sunrise is a great place to wash your hands, that you can get rid of any accumulated garbage in the Sunrise garbage cans, and some replacement gear is available at the Sunrise store if any of yours failed. The drinking fountains at Sunrise are a great opportunity to be sure you're fully hydrated, and you'll probably want to fill up your water bottle at them as well since (at least at the time I went) the Sunrise Camp itself didn't seem to have a water source. Finally, note that you can mail things home from Sunrise: I suppose one could mail home a full notebook if you've replaced it from your Sunrise cache with a blank one. I suppose one could also change clothes at Sunrise and mail back home your old clothes. Note that the squirrels near the Sunrise Visitor Center are very aggressive: this one took it upon itself to jump in my cache bucket and then try to climb up my pack.

To Summerland Camp: Very pretty. Note that there's a really flat stretch of trail after you leave through the drive-in camp that you'll pass through along the way. If you want to be able to tell your friends "I hiked over 100 miles" by cramming in some additional mileage above the 93 for the trail, AND if you don't plan to make a north trip to the Paradise visitor center on your way between the Maple Creek Camp and Longmire at the end, then going back and forth on the flat parts of this trail would be an easy way to pack in some extra miles (though note that it's at least two extra miles to leave the Wonderland Trail to get your cache from the Sunrise Ranger Station, and then get back on the trail, so you should count that towards your total).

To Indian Bar Camp: The stretch between Summerland Camp and Indian Bar Camp, particularly the area around the Panhandle Gap, may be the scariest part of the trail. The impression I got from talking to folks, though, was that the time I left - starting the trail from Longmire on Aug 15 going clockwise - was ideal for this part of the trail, in particular giving me the best possible chance of navigation being the easiest (i.e. with the least amount of trail obscured, and hopefully with no need to have to constantly resort to map and compass out of confusion over where the trail actually is). My trekking poles were a great help in crossing snow, and in crossing the scary part of this trail it definitely helped to have someone there watching me who could have called for help if I'd fallen. In general, unless you take the aforementioned Spray Park route rather than the official Wonderland Trail route on the north side of the mountain, this may be the only part of the trail where you'll need to cross snow and ice (at least if you leave around the same time I did). I'm told that getting a very early start is helpful for this part of the trail, both because apparently things are less slippery then, but also because (if you're traveling solo) if there's nobody around when you need to cross the scary part (see also this picture) you'll be pretty sure you wouldn't have missed the last person to be in that area during the day. Note that some of the snowy parts of this part of the trail may be marked with flags, although realistically at the time I went it was pretty obvious where folks were going from looking at the places where there were multiple footprints. Realistically it's possible that I'm making a bigger deal about the scary part of this trail than others might (the hikers ahead of me didn't seem to be bothered by even the scary part in the slightest) because I have some fear of unprotected heights. But for what it's worth, what helped me the most on the scary part (in addition to having the support of the kind folks who doubled back to make sure I was getting through it) was the practice of not thinking about falling, rather just focusing all of my attention on where I was placing my feet. In any case, whatever you do, don't try to climb up the boulders on the far side of the scary part: the boulders could shift and crush you, and besides you're not supposed to be going off the trail.

To Maple Creek Camp: I believe I was the only person in this camp the day I stayed. Be careful which bear pole you use: at the time I went the bear pole I selected was close enough to a tree branch for a squirrel to jump from a branch onto the pole and get to some of the food (which didn't really matter because I was exiting the trail the next day).

Back to Longmire: There's a very special feeling when you pass the fork for the Wonderland Trail, i.e. the one you passed your first day when selecting clockwise. After exiting the trail you can visit the Information Center to report that you've finished and offer suggestions: for what it's worth, my suggestion was looking into ways a supporting metal cable could be strung along the scary part of the trail near the Panhandle Gap for hikers (particularly solo hikers) to hold as they cross.