In 1899 Mount Rainier became the nation’s 5th National Park, a well deserved designation for one of the most iconic mountains of North America. Soon afterwards, work began on a project to construct a trail that circumnavigated the spectacular 14,440 foot summit. Years later, after subsequent refinements and re-routes, the 93 mile Wonderland Trail was created.
Now over 100 years old, the historic trail courses through high alpine meadows and old-growth forests, across glacial moraines and fields of wildflowers, climbing 22,000 feet along the way and always with the stunning backdrop of Mount Rainier. Considered to be one of the great trails of the National Parks, it’s no wonder it has become a bucket-list adventure for thru-hikers, backpackers, and trail runners alike.
As a backpacker you can spread out the experience over 7-12 days, making use of 20 different permitted, wilderness campsites. Trail runners like to move faster, and if you fall into that group as we do, it’s possible to complete the loop over three long days, spending nights at a few popular Mount Rainier front-country campgrounds.
But tackling the Wonderland Trail in this style brings with it a couple of challenges.
First, you need to have the fitness to cover some 30 miles of trail in a day with considerable elevation gain. And you have to be able to do that for three days in a row. It’s not exactly an “off the couch” effort and it might warrant some specific training.
As tough as that may sound, some find the bigger challenge for the trail running option to be logistical. Repeated long days on the trail require you eat well and sleep comfortably. Since you’re continually moving around the mountain, staying somewhere different each night, you’ll need to arrange to have food, clothing, and camping gear in those different locations as well.
It’s too much to carry on the trail and still cover the miles. You could setup caches at each campsite in advance and collect everything after you complete the route, but that adds days to your trip. If you’re lucky and you have loving friends and family who enjoy supporting your efforts, you might be able to recruit a few of them to help with meals and gear shuttling. That can be a tough sell too, especially if you live far away.
If caches take too much time and crew support isn’t an option, consider using our friends at Aspire Adventure Running.
Aspire Adventure Running
Aspire Adventure Running organizes trail running adventures through the Northwest, from the Cascades of Washington State to Northern California. From single day adventures to multi-day efforts such as the Wonderland and Lost Coast trails, they will help with meals, camping, transportation and any other logistical details that are needed. They’ll pick you up at the airport, guide you on the trail, and help with everything in between.
Coming from Colorado with a limited amount of time, local info, or contacts in the area, Aspire really made our Wonderland Trail adventure possible. They put together awesome meals in the morning and the evening and send us out with everything we needed for the day— trail and weather info, clothing and gear recommendations for the conditions, and of course lunch and snacks— all we had to do was show up ready.
If you’re interested in running the Wonderland Trail, or any number of other classic routes in the Pacific Northwest and you could use some support, give them a call. Check out their website here- http://www.aspireadventurerunning.com/
Day 1 – Longmire to Mowich Lake
elevation gain/loss: +9755/-7600
We spent the first night camping just outside the park entrance near Ashford, WA and after breakfast we made our way to our starting point at Longmire. If you begin the loop at Longmire and go in a clockwise direction, you’ll get the longest leg done on the first day. You’ll pass through popular areas like Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, Emerald Ridge, St. Andrew’s Lake, and Golden Lakes. You’ll cross several creeks and rivers including North and South Puyallup rivers, the South Mowich River, and Tahoma Creek which has a giant suspension bridge across it. After a long and tiring effort (take a chance to swim in Golden Lakes if you have time) you’ll reach the Mowich Lake Campground where you’ll spend the night.
Day 2 – Mowich Lake to White River
elevation gain/loss +5871/-5900
(Spray Park route option stats will be different)
From Mowich Lake Campground you actually have two options to start the second day. The normal Wonderland Trail will take you to Ipsut Creek and the Carbon River, or you can follow an alternate route through Spray Park. We chose the latter after learning it could offer better views of Rainier (though it comes with added vertical).
Along the way we stopped at Eagle Cliff, checked out Spray Falls and Spray Park and eventually rejoined the Wonderland Trail at the Carbon River Suspension Bridge, the second one of the route. After crossing the Carbon River we climbed up to Mystic Lake. From there the trail heads up to Skyscraper Pass, through the popular Sunrise area. A long descent led to the White River Campground, where we spent the night.
Day 3 – White River to Longmire
elevation gain/loss +6184/-7610
The third and final day started gradually and climbed up to an area called Summerland and then Panhandle Gap, which at 6,800 feet was the the high point of the loop. Despite the mountain being obscured by clouds all day, we found the terrain through this section to be pretty incredible. The section from Ohanapecosh Park to Indian Bar and up to the Cowlitz Divide was really cool.
After descending from the Cowlitz Divide we arrived at the Box Canyon trailhead and began our return to Longmire through Stevens Canyon and past Reflection Lakes. From the lakes it’s a long steady descent to Longmire where we closed the loop and celebrated being able to finally get out on this trail.
Put the Wonderland Trail on your list. The route is as beautiful as it is challenging and we couldn’t be happier to have finally had a chance to see it. Each day and each climb is rewarded with a continually changing view of the mountain and landscape, something that all trail runners can appreciate. If you’re having a hard time with getting it all organized, definitely considering having Aspire Adventure Running help with the details.
Awesome run. I was seeing your Instagram posts and thinking “how the heck did they logistically do this?!?!?!” knowing there aren’t accessible towns (or really much of anything) as you go around the loop. I’m going to leave the Aspire Adventure page open on my laptop and hope my wife “discovers” it and then she comes up with this idea as her own, as I’ve been talking about Wonderland Trail for a while now 🙂
Jake, you two would love it. It was awesome, but for years we put if off because it seemed too hard to organize.
Amazing! Great pics and so fun to follow along, virtually.
Thank you for sharing an amazing adventure. Question … were there any cougars at Cougar Lake Campground?
Thanks, it was great to finally see up close. Scott, I don’t recall seeing Cougar Lake Campground, but we did see a group of three hauling skis up the trail for some September turns above Spray Park.
Apologies. It was ‘Cougar Rock’ in the photo of the sign, not Cougar Lake.
No cougars, of any kind.
really fun reading this and fantastic pictures.
You’d love it up there. Check it out if you can.
Hi – can you clarify the time frame of the run/hike? We did the same trail in late July / August and the bridge over Winthrop creek was treacherous ! No railing, and water splashing over the log. Unfortunately someone slipped and fell on this like 2 days after us and didn’t make it. But in your photo the river looks a bit more tame and bridge has railing.
Hi Peter. We ran the loop during the week after Labor Day, early September. Even then some of the bridges seemed to be just a big rainstorm away from being overtaken by the creeks, but in the end they were all good for us. I bet that was a little concerning for you.