Out of Bounds
Wonderland Trail has been in the conversation for our next adventure more than once over the years. The little sister to the John Muir Trail, Wonderland is one of the iconic backpacking trails of North America, and far less committing than the Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trails. For those of us that don’t live in a van, it works with a shorter nine- to 10-day commitment versus an entire summer, but is still long enough to unwind from life.
Consisting of 93 miles and 23,000 feet of elevation gain as it circumnavigates glaciated Mount Rainier, the scenery and physicality of this hike is in perfect balance. For some, being immersed in nature’s bounty is enough; for others, the challenge of climbing a mountain satiates inner demons. For me, I want both. I want beauty and fatigue in my day and Wonderland filled that void perfectly.
Wonderland is a bucket list hike for many, making it a bugger to get permits. As of April 1 this year, they quit taking applications. Don’t fret; the NPS keeps 30 percent of the trail capacity for first-come, first-served backpackers. So yes, even if you fly by the seat of your pants this can happen!
Longmire is the most popular start, but it was not an option when Les and I arrived. The rangers released dates for open camps and we reconfigured the trip to make it work. The original plan was scrapped due to closures and camp availability. Our new counter clockwise route began at Mowich Lake with food caches at Sunrise and Longmire (meaning only three- to four-days worth of food in our packs). The ranger confirmed our route and bestowed upon us a nine-day permit. Hallelujah.
With the route secured, we took over the sidewalk with daily food rations laid out. Bring food. Mount Rainier National Park is not the place to shop for nine days of backpacking. There are no real grocery stores, and the NPS gift shops only offer Cup Noodles and trail mix imposters lacking real M&Ms. We hit the trail on September 19. With rain forecasted for the entire week, sensible hikers cancelled. My hubby and I operate on dumb luck and figured it would either change or be an epic story to tell.
Temps are usually 60 to 70 degrees, perfect for hiking. There is plenty of water on this hike, just bring a steri-pen to clean it. All campsites have outhouses and bear poles, and are located within 10 minutes of a water source. Mount Rainier is 14,411 feet high with the summit often blanketed in clouds. Successful summit attempts are roughly 50 percent, mostly due to weather. The mountain’s mere presence creates the weather with influence from the ocean currents and altitude. The western side gets substantially more rain, creating microclimates around the mountain. This leads to an ever-changing environment, so look around. There is always something beautiful to behold.
Mowich Lake is on the western slope with the trail descending into rain forest. The clouds began letting loose on the second day and didn’t stop for 48 hours. It painted the forest into an Alice and Wonderland scene with plants and mushrooms in rich vibrant colors next to babbling brooks. The visions were a gift from the moisture, but getting in and out of tents, clothes, packs, and sleeping bags in soggy conditions is less than ideal. At this point my undies were soaked and I realized that my rain jacket was actually taking on water as it ran down the inside of my sleeves. Everything was damp and there was no way to dry it out.
As we approached Longmire to get the first cache, other backpackers had taken over the porch tables and chairs in an attempt to dry their gear. Stoves were steaming hot water as they waited out the rain and ate lunch. We opted to dine inside the hotel and draped damp sleeping bags on our chairs to dry them. In true “everything is going to be alright” fashion, a Seattle local gave us their room at the Inn. We strew sleeping bags and tents everywhere to dry, reminiscent of a 6-year-old’s fort. I felt guilty for not spending that night in the tent, but got over it by morning when we awoke to the Pacific Northwest’s signature drink still falling from the sky. Dried out, we set off in the drizzle.
Leaving Longmire, the trail parallels the Paradise River into the pines. It’s chocked with day hikers until just past Reflection Lakes. But beyond the day hike sections, the mountains return to a private serenity. The clockwise-traveling backpackers crossed our paths some days, and was worth the time to get their story—two gentlemen in their 70’s packing for 17 days; a family with their 12-year-old son; three girlfriends; the “I quit my job” guy; and ultra runners racing the clock. I still giggle remembering the young guy carrying his girlfriend’s closet and chair to one of the camps straight uphill for about four hours.
Absolutely nothing unnecessary gets into my backpack. Les, on the other hand, is in constant fear of not having enough food and bought two pounds of candy bars at our Longmire stop. As the trail wrapped toward the eastern slope, the leaves signaled the end of summer. Brilliant reds, oranges and yellows were interspersed among the pines as we climbed out of the forest’s canopy to feel the warmth of the sun. As we ascended above the tree line, the glaciers on Rainier shimmered in the sunlight. The alpine backdrop felt like home. On the shoulder of the mountain, we settled into silence and our own thoughts, and hiked the grueling uphill hauls to Summerland and then Sunrise Camps.
Relieved, we arrived at the Sunrise ranger station to collect the second cache. As the tourists walked by, I foraged through the food for the candy bars. I sat on the bright orange Home Depot bucket and ate a Snickers. At that moment, every bit of worry in life was gone. All my stress was left on the trail. Silent and finally mentally free from silly to-dos from the months before, I enjoyed every bite.
Leaving Sunrise camp we set out heading west. The route ahead
appeared as we crested the first ridge. Several spines that faded into the skyline lay ahead. Rainier watched over us as we began our descent down to milky gray glacial waters that carried boulders down into the moonscape. The next pass descended into crystal clear waters with lush green plants, and as we moved up and down over passes, the vegetation morphed into new ecosystems.
Our trip was coming to an end and so far bear sightings had eluded us. On our final day, as we climbed through a beautiful alpine meadow abundant with wild berry plants, two cubs were eating near a stream. Soon, mom appeared. We watched them quietly until they started coming our way. You don’t realize how pathetically slow you travel uphill until there is a possibility a bear is going to eat you. Time stretches out, backpacks double in weight and the hill’s slope magically increases from a 6 percent grade to 12, or so it seems. As our day came to an end, I spotted a well-fed black bear 10 feet off the trail. I signaled to Les and we watched as he ignored us and gorged on berries. The trip was now complete as we did our final few miles back to Mowich Lake.
Wonderland is an art gallery of nature. The landscapes change almost daily. Rainforests with a rainbow of mushrooms under a canopy of trees draped with mosses and ligand. Maples with vibrant fall leaves. Pines filling the air with their welcoming scent. Raging rivers. High mountain passes. Moraines with gray stone connecting to the blue ice glaciers above. Water falls. Pristine lakes. Bears. Every step offers something new and undiscovered. I found it serendipitous that as we traveled counter clockwise around the mountain, it unwound all the weight and urgency I had arrived with. Now I simply wanted a bed, Mexican food and a serious shower.
While Utah may not have enormous glaciers, we do have spectacular mountains. Come stay in the heart of the Wasatch Range with a Huntsville, Utah lodging option or an Eden, Utah vacation rental. Then, stay in this wonderful place with Huntsville homes for sale or North Ogden real estate.