I just returned from a five-day backpack on the northern tier of Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail and I’m here to report: You can do just a section of the famed trail — not the whole 90+ miles — and still have a wonderful time communing with our mountain.
You also don’t have to set any speed records to come away with a great sense of accomplishment — not to mention a big, goofy smile on your face.
I went with my 21-year-old daughter, with whom I’ve been traveling the world for years, and this ended up near the top of our best-trips-ever list.
She had mentioned a couple years back a captivation with hiking the Wonderland, the famed loop route around Washington’s iconic peak. But it’s been a while since I’ve backpacked multiple nights, and the Wonderland is known as a challenging up-and-down grind. Plus, there was the daunting logistical challenge of finding two weeks or so in which to do it — in both of our busy schedules — along with all the planning and food caching and permitting required.
So I took a look at doing it in sections. The mountain’s less-visited north side — including the Spray Park alternate route, with what’s reputed to be some of the national park’s most spectacular scenery — sounded like a good starter.
I researched it and proposed a 24-mile, four-night trip, spread across four different trailside camps, that wouldn’t wear us out and would give short-enough hiking days to allow packs-off exploring. I faxed in my permit request and submitted the $20 reservation fee when the application period opened last March 15. I specified the third week of August as my first choice — hoping that we’d hit the peak of wildflower season — and picked the option of varying that by a few days if it meant getting the desired camps.
It was a record year for Wonderland permit requests, with more than 1,450 filed in the last half of March. But in early May, a confirmation letter came. We got all our requested camps, with the dates shifted by only one day. The trip was on.
We started from Mowich Lake last Tuesday and ended at Sunrise Visitor Center on Saturday. Our first day, which included driving from Seattle and making a side trip to Carbon River Ranger Station to pick up our permit, was an easy intro, with only a couple miles of hiking into Eagle’s Roost camp. It gave us time to set up camp and then amble up the trail with just fanny packs to see Spray Falls — for my money, one of the more spectacular alpine cataracts anywhere — and continue on to the start of wildflower-festooned Spray Park.
Through the week, our days averaged four to six miles of hiking with well-stuffed packs (even five days’ worth of food adds up). Our route ranged from deep forest to flowery, fairyland meadows to treeline snowfields that felt like we were on the way to Valhalla. We had time to sit by creeksides and play our pennywhistles — my daughter is skilled at getting tunes from these Irish flutes, and I stumble along with her. We perched at a meadow’s edge to paint watercolors of the mountain or of rock gardens bursting with scarlet monkey flowers and gentian blossoms of the deepest blue. Along the trail, we found time to pause and inspect myriad clumps of curious fungi, some shaped like tiny castles, others resembling lobes of cauliflower.
Saw no bears. Saw lots of pikas, several marmots and a couple of up-close glaciers. Met other hikers each night as we gathered with our water filters around campsite watering holes or hung our food on bear poles.
We started slowly, but by week’s end we were almost charging up hills. And hills there were: Along one memorable stretch between Moraine Park and Mystic Lake, the trail builders needed to get us from 4,500 feet to 6,000, and they decided to do it quickly. “It’s like they just pushed the ‘up’ button,” I bellowed unbelievingly as we staggered around about the eighth short, steep switchback.
But in the end we were strong and a little proud. And despite the trail’s reputation for being booked heavily in summer, at times we hiked for hours without seeing another human. The challenge, the beauty and the bonding nourished our souls.
Want to plan a hike for yourself? Click here for more information from Mount Rainier National Park. Or check out this recent story about doing the entire loop, or this one about Wonderland Trail strategizing.