The Wonderland Trail is a 93 mile trail that circumnavigates the base of Mt. Rainier in Mount Rainier National Park. The loop climbs over 25,000ft of elevation throughout the trail and varies between groups on how long it takes to complete (usually between 6 and 10 days). The trail is rated as difficult and is only recommended for experienced backpackers and hikers. Here is what you should know before backpacking the Wonderland Trail in the Pacific Northwest:
Getting Permits for the Wonderland Trail
Overnight backcountry permits are required for backpacking the Wonderland Trail and must be submitted by lottery each year. There is no guarantee to get permits this way, and most groups do not get drawn in the lottery for several years, so it is very hit or miss.
70 percent of permits are assigned in a lottery and 30 percent are held for walk ups at the park’s wilderness centers. Generally, the early access lottery application is in March, but check nps.gov early in the year and mark the specific date they go live on your calendar.
If you do not receive a permit for the complete Wonderland Trail through the lottery, you may still be able to get backpacking sites via the general on-sale date in late April, but making a complete trail with this is unlikely. You can also take your chance on getting a walk-up permit, but there are also no guarantees. If you cannot get a Wonderland Trail itinerary, consider having a backup route that you can do instead (the Northern Loop is a great alternative).
If you, or someone in your group, is granted a permit- you must activate your permit by visiting a Mt. Rainier Ranger Station, in person, to get the physical permit no sooner than one day before your departure (read that twice just to make sure you’ve got it). Depending on what day you come, the lines can be incredibly long. Your permit will be cancelled if you do not pick it up by 12:00pm on your trail start date.
Preparing for the Wonderland Trail
Securing Your Campsites: When approved for your Wonderland Trail permit, you will next need to consider how many days you are thinking of going for. This will greatly determine your mileage per day. Unless you are going for a low number, like 6, the chances are you will have days that are between 4-10 miles, and days that will be closer to 15 miles and above.
Planning Your Food: You may not want to carry 7-10 days worth of food on your 25,000ft trail gain journey, and you don’t have to! There are 3 locations (Longmire, Mowich Lake, and Sunrise) that hikers can drop off a bucket of food (called a cache) for the Wonderland Trail, and get as their journey goes. Depending on your itinerary, the number of meals you need in each bucket may vary.
**It is important to note that the buckets for Longmire and Sunrise you must drop it off yourself, or mail them. You can drop off the Mowich Lake food cache at the Carbon River Ranger Station in advance (they need a few days to transport this).
You can read more information about the food caches here. Any unused food that you do not take will go into a “FREE” box for hikers to go through. I recommend checking these out as you go on and grabbing some snacks, but try not to rely on as a substantial food source them just in case. We found enough food that we could have done a full resupply, plus extra items like ISO fuel and clothes but this is not always the case.
Training: Something you may want to consider for the Wonderland is a training regimen beforehand. The elevation changes and long days take a huge toll on your body if it is something you aren’t used to. Take walks, hikes, or backpacking trips as often as you can and work your strength and endurance. Training in high elevations greatly helped my stamina on the trail. Looking back, I wish I spent more time working my knees and back; using weights, stair climbers, or bikes to target those areas. I consider myself an active person, and still had some major knee pain that I had never experienced before on this trail.
Packing for the Wonderland Trail: With a trail like the Wonderland, I do think its important to consider the weight of your pack if you have not before. For many the Wonderland Trail is their first large hike, and the weight of your pack will greatly impact your trip. We saw more than a few struggling backpackers with huge 70-80L packs, and a actually saw a couple quit half-way through. The elevation change of this trail is no joke, and the lighter your pack is- the better. Weigh your gear beforehand and consider what items you can swap out or upgrade. For many thru hikers, upgrading main gear like backpacks, tents, sleeping pads, and sleeping bags make the most difference.
You can check out this blog post Lightweight Backpacking Gear for Thru Hiking for gear recommendations and ideas on gear you might be able to cut back on.
Best Campsites Along The Wonderland Trail
There are over 15 different backcountry campgrounds throughout the Wonderland Trail. Coming from a photographer, something important to consider with many of these campsites are well-protected, woodland campsites with no views of the mountain. In fact, there are several long stretches of the trail where you cannot see the mountain at all. Nevertheless, some of the campsites we were able to see along our trip ( detailed below, but not all of sites are listed) definitely earned top spots as my favorite.
Sunrise Camp: Sunrise was the last campsite we saw along the trail, and was nestled in between a beautiful meadow and Shadow Lake , with a Glacier Viewpoint and views of the nearby mountain ranges on a clear day. The negatives of this camp is that it is very close to Sunrise Visitor Center, and the daily traffic of day-hikers is prevalent in the “Do Not Hike In Meadow” signs and side-trails that lie beyond them. Nearest water is Shadow Lake, but there are signs that you cannot swim in the lake.
Summerland: Summerland was our first nights stop on the trail, and it was a treat. The climb to get up to this campsite is a tall one, but passes through some incredible meadows after emerging from the woods and crossing Frying Pan Creek. There are a handful of sites here, with very easy access to a creek for water and views of the mountain, which made it one of my favorite sites. The group site here has a shelter.
Indian Bar: After crossing the highest point on the trail, Panhandle Gap, you will cross into one of the most scenic portions of the trail known as Ohanapecosh Park. There is a steep downhill to Indian Bar, but the views are unrivaled. There are nearly a dozen waterfalls coming down the side of the ridge nearby, and joining perfectly before the Wauhaukaupauken Falls at the Indian Bar Campground. The individual sites and group site (shelter) are on opposite sides of the bridge crossing the falls. It was an iconic view, and regularly holds the top spot for many hikers’ favorite campsite.
Nickle Creek: After crossing one of my favorite sections of the trail, above Indian Bar, Nickle Creek will be the next campsite you hit after about 7 miles. The campsites are very well protected in the trees, with quick access to water. If coming from Indian Bar, I suggest pushing to one of the next few campsites to get more miles in.
Paradise River: The trail into Paradise River is a long one, and on the way you will get slapped with thick bushes and bit by flies (lots, and lots of flies). The actual river is about a half mile from the campsite, which was a bit more inconvenient than other sites. The pit toilet was also a long way up the hill.
Devils Dream: This site has a bit of a reputation, and not a very good one. It’s known for bugs, specifically high numbers of mosquitos. The water sources here vary often. We decided to fill up at the river crossing before the site and carry it the next mile, and there is lake/pond up the hill a ways, but the bugs can be pretty bad up there too. Choose wisely!
Klapatche Park: Klapatche is in between the Puyallup River campsites (south and north), both of which are pretty similar but nothing like Klapatche Park. After gorgeous alpine views near St Andrews Lake you will come down a short hill into this site. There is a lake in front of the campsite here, but it was nearly dry when we were there in mid-August (after multiple hot spells). The views of the mountain here, were my favorite of any campsite on the Wonderland.
Golden Lakes: Golden Lakes is a serene location and was one of my favorite spots we stayed at on trail. It has easy access to the lake for water, or swimming, and was honestly just a beautiful location! There are not views of Rainier from here, but was overall just a pleasant stay with little bugs after a long day of hiking.
South Mowich: Going clockwise, the campsite of South Mowich is just on the other side of the South Mowich River crossing, which proved to be a problem for our specific time crossing (bridge out). The campsites are just off the trail and has easy access to water, with a substantially sized group site and pit toilet coming into camp.
Mowich Lake: Mowich would have been an outstanding site to stay in, but definitely has its pros and cons. It is in a fairly exposed area, similar to a open picnic area, with some tent platforms. You can basically see all of the sites from your own so there is very little privacy. This is also not just a backcountry site, so you may be sharing this with weekend campers with a different idea of camping (the loud ones) and that can be a huge drawback after a hard day. On the positive side, the actual lake is expansive, warm and a great place to spend the remainder of your day.
Cataract Valley: This site is best travelled to over the Spray Park alternate route after Mowich Lake. The grounds are close together, but are fairly private. There is a creek that runs directly through the campsites for water access and the sites themselves are decently sized. I will say that the pit toilets here are not my favorite, and are open-air tandem toilets that are back to back. Not for me, but pretty funny to see!
Dick Creek: Dick Creek is very close to the Carbon River Glacier, the lowest elevated glacier in the contiguous US. There is water source right before the grounds. The actual sites are pretty small, and we also happened upon a few tents that were set up in spots that were not technically sites. The bathroom is a single, open air pit toilet that our group dubbed the “poo-with-a-view” because it overlooks the valley.
Mystic Camp: The location of Mystic Camp on Alltrails is wrong, and it’s actually .3 miles downhill on the Wonderland. The lake is not easily accessible from the campsites and you’ll have to backtrack up the trail for a few minutes. The marked site on Alltrails is the Ranger Hut at the lake, and the actual lake is beautiful with pretty close views of Mt. Rainier. Coming down into Mystic Camp on the trail were some of my favorite views.
Granite Creek: Granite Creek is a great, spread out site going towards Sunrise. There’s a water source nearby, but if dry the water carry would be pretty long from the next fill-ups.
Important Trail Information & Tips for Backpacking The Wonderland Trail
↟ Lets talk bugs. The flies around the Wonderland on our trip were next-level. I brought mosquito repellent on this trip, and honestly rarely needed it (our luck though, don’t count on this happening every year). I frequently got to camp and immediately put on my rain gear because it was the only material that the flies couldn’t bite through. Horsefly bites are also really gnarly and feel like a bee sting. These will likely swell up over time so bring some Benadryl.
↟ Speaking of medications, bring them. Bring your first aid kit, think about your items, and bring over-the-counter meds like ibuprofen. If your muscles aren’t used to this kind of distance or elevation gain, your body will feel that pain. I took ibuprofen twice a day, taped my knee with KT Tape every morning, and had to change blister tape pretty often. 5/6 people in our group had knee pain by the end of the trail.
↟ Keep tabs on the changing weather conditions. Rain around the mountain will likely bring a patch of icy-air with it and the summers nowadays are affected by wildfires.
↟ During hot conditions, glaciers will melt quicker and can cause bridges to wash out. Be prepared for these, as you may have to enter the water in order to cross them. If there is a route across a river that doesn’t feel safe, DON’T TAKE IT. WE had trouble crossing the Mowich River before the campground and the bridge crossing had washed out twice over the past month.
↟ Water sources, depending on the year, can be very frequent on the Wonderland Trail. If you have a big elevation day, you can shed some weight by filling up your bottles more often, and carrying less on trail.
↟ If you haven’t hiked longer 15+ mile days before, the trick is going to be getting out of camp early. We tried to leave camp at about 6am, but we would pass groups on trail that would leave before. The longer you give yourself, the better off you’ll be.
↟ Wildlife is common on the Wonderland Trail. Black Bears do reside in Mt Rainier, and do not pose a huge risk to hikers and backpackers as they are extremely skittish. Make sure that all scented items are kept on the Bear hangs when you are not directly using them. Some people feel safer using bells while hiking on trail. If you are considering getting a can of Bear Spray, I highly encourage you to consider substituting it for an air horn. More than often I hear stories of people detonating spray on themselves, and Black Bears are non-aggressive. An air horn will scare them away if you come up on them unexpectedly. If you do carry spray, please note that spray is only effective if you can access it quickly and easily- so wear it on your person or pack.
↟ It’s increasingly important to practice Leave No Trace with the gaining popularity that a trail like the Wonderland has. Pick up trash when you see it on trail, and minimize your environmental impact by sticking to maintained trails, camping in designated sites, and giving wildlife their space.
Gear We Loved On The Wonderland Trail
Camp Shoes: These can be a pair of lightweight flip flops you get from the nearest Target, or the ever-so-popular option on trail: Crocs. I have these Crocs Classic Slides in Orange. They are extremely lightweight but thick enough that I don’t feel like I am walking nearly barefoot.
KT Tape: Most of our group had some form of Kinesiology Tape on our bodies throughout the trail, whether it be for knee pain or blisters.
Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter System: My water filter was the fastest out of our group, which was nice when we needed to try and be quick. I recommend getting the regular Sawyer Squeeze (and upgrading the bag for one by CNOC) over their Mini version.
Reusable Pee Rag: This was my first trail having the privilege of being apart of the Kula Kloth club, and I am a huge fan. These rags are small, antimicrobial, and easily snap to your the outside of your bag. I have seen them for ages, and was thrilled to finally find them at REI. They come in a ton of different colors and patterns, and are very popular amongst trail gals.
Instant Coffee/Tea: One of my favorite parts of the day? Drinking a delicious hot beverage- hands down. We tried out a couple different coffees this trail, both from Verve (my favorite local coffee shop in Santa Cruz, California). They have single serve Craft Coffee Packets that come in a package of 6, and are now carried at REI. You can also check out their website, and check out their Drip Kits, a single use pour over that we thought tasted better than the instant versions.
For tea, I was absolutely in love with these single serve Oregon Chai packets. I will be bringing them on nearly every trip after this, and I hope that says a lot about how much I liked them.
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Have you hiked the Wonderland Trail? What advice would you give to someone who is hiking for their first time? Leave a comment down below!
I hope you found this guide useful in your trip planning. Good luck snagging some permits and happy hikin’!