The Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park is a wonderland of a hiking trail. This truly spectacular loop hike in Washington State takes adventurers through lush lowland forests, beautiful valleys and high into alpine areas where you are surrounded by epic views in all directions.
In this hiking guide, I will be sharing my experiences on The Wonderland Trail and providing hikers with an overview of what the trail entails – from its biggest highlights to key hiking tips. Before I do so, let me introduce myself and give you some background into my experiences as a hiker.
I’m Amanda and I grew up in Newmarket, New Hampshire. I dabbled in outdoor activities when I was younger but didn’t really get into hiking until after I graduated from college and started working. I was working in an office 8-5, Monday to Friday when I started hiking on the weekends.
That is when I started to fall in love with the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I found out there was a list of 48 4,000 footers in the Whites which are the 48 tallest Mountains in New Hampshire. I got involved and excited about it. Every Monday after the weekend I would start planning for the following weekend and what new hike I was going to do.
Less than a year later I completed the 48 and continued finding new trails and new friends to hike with. After being at the same firm for 3 years, I realized that I was unhappy sitting in an office. It wasn’t fulfilling. I ended up quitting and taking a year off to travel. During this time, I finished my first thru-hike (the Te Araroa Trail in New Zealand) and the rest is history!
Since then I have been traveling, backpacking and hiking while doing different types of work to see what is right for me. I am currently living in Seattle, Washington. I have been living here for almost two years and taking full advantage of the endless hikes in the Pacific Northwest.
Hiking The Wonderland Trail in September
I didn’t know a ton about the hiking opportunities in Washington before moving out here. The only trail I knew about was The Wonderland Trail and I saw pictures of how beautiful it was and I was very set on getting permits.
I knew the permits were hard to get, so when I signed up for them I was very flexible in dates and camping locations. I was very lucky and was able to get permits for myself and three of my friends: Lindsey, James and Sam.
We went in September, 2020 and were lucky with beautiful weather the whole trip. Fortunately, we missed the fires and smoke that got bad the following week. Keep in mind that forest fires tend to roll in around late summer in this area. We hiked it in 8 days with 7 days of camping.
We started our trek at Longmire and did the whole loop back and ended at Longmire. The trail is easy to follow. I had a downloaded map of the trail from Guthook (now known as FarOut). Plan for lots of elevation gain and loss, with lots of scenery changes. This is one of my favorite types of trails.
Everyday is different and a new adventure. We were hiking through high alpine zones, forests, flower fields and valleys. We saw epic sunsets and sunrises, all kinds of wildlife, endless swimming spots along the way and the best part is you get an epic new perspective of Mount Rainier everyday!
Favorite Section of The Wonderland Trail
I loved every day of The Wonderland Trail for different reasons but if I had to pick I would say the day we hiked from Dick Creek to Sunrise Camp was my favorite section of the trail. We started off in the morning at Dick Creek with my favorite toilet spot that was on the trail (would highly recommend).
The hike started with early morning elevation gain that led to a beautiful valley then led to Mystic Lake, which was one of my favorite swimming spots. We had more elevation after swimming at the lake that opened to the north face of Rainier – which was a favorite view I had of Rainier during the trek. This says a lot because you see the queen that is Rainier everyday.
Then the rest of the day we hiked through open meadows and alpine fields with marmots peaking out. We cached some food at sunrise camp, so we feasted on nachos and guacamole with a few beers. I had lots of favorite sections on this hike for sure, but the whole trail is a highlight in itself.
How Challenging is Hiking The Wonderland Trail?
I’m an avid hiker, so I didn’t find the trail too hard. I think most can definitely do it. If you don’t have a lot of hiking or backpacking experience, I recommend extending the trip to make it a couple days longer so you can do less miles each day allowing for more breaks and a slower pace.
There is about 22,000 feet of elevation gain over the 93 miles – so this is something to keep in mind. It’s not an easy trek but if you are willing to put in the work to get a high reward then definitely go for it. There are a few bail out points along the way if needed where you can hitch a ride back to your car. This gives inexperienced hikers a bit more confidence.
Camping Experiences Along the Way
We camped and pitched our tent every night. We would start hiking at 8/9am and hike about 10-12 miles each day. With a relatively early start, we had plenty of time for snacks and swimming breaks. We would get to camp at 4/5pm and have plenty of time to pitch our tents, eat dinner, relax, read, hammock and sleep. The camping spots we got permits for:
- South Puyallup River
- Golden Lakes
- Mowich Lake
- Dick Creek
- Sunrise Camp
- Nickel Creek
Amazing Moments with Bears on Trail
I have so many wonderful memories from hiking The Wonderland Trail but one of my favorites is when I hiked ahead of my group for a bit to power through the last of the elevation gain we had for that day. I got to the top and there was this beautiful wide open area. So I walked to find a good place to have a snack and wait for my friends to catch up to me.
I was laying on this log in the sun for a while, then I heard a noise. I looked up and there was a momma bear and baby bear eating some blueberries. My first reaction was: “Awww look at them, they are so cute”. My next reaction was: “Ohhh no! A momma bear. I should probably walk away”.
So I ran away without my bag (don’t be like me – always bring your bag so momma and baby bear don’t find it). I found my friends and I was like guess what – bears, so exciting! They responded by asking where my bag was. I said: “Ahhh, I forgot about it because I was so excited to see bears”.
Luckily, I was only gone for a few minutes and my bag was untouched but to reiterate don’t be like me – bring your bag (with food) with you. But it was such a special moment to watch the bears in the distance. It was my first encounter with bears and it showed me that if you are smart about it and respect them there is nothing to be afraid of with black bears.
They were just eating their blueberries when they noticed us. The mom walked away and the baby bounced away (with the cutest fluffy butt)! It was just a special, happy moment that I got to share with my buddies.
Responsible Hiking & Eco-Friendly Practices
It’s hard to get camping permits sometimes for popular trails like this and it’s definitely a bummer but they are required for a reason. The spots where you are allowed to camp are chosen for a reason based on durability and safety for the environment. You don’t want areas like this to be overrun.
When there are no more camping spots available, people start making their own and with a trail as popular as The Wonderland Trail that could become a problem if the number of people camping wasn’t regulated.
When camping, choosing a spot that has the least impacts on the land is what you should be looking for. This goes along with staying on trail as much as you can. Going off trail, you are trampling on plants and impacting the soil. It’s good practice to preserve these areas.
Tips for Hiking The Wonderland Trail
Plan ahead! Decide if you want to carry all your food or you want to split it up and leave some food at a cached food area. We ended up carrying most of our food and cached some at Sunrise Camp, which was about half way.
It was nice to not have to carry everything at once and have a treat of food and beer that we wouldn’t normally backpack with because of weight. We ended up dropping off the cached food before we started hiking which added a lot of driving in our day but that can be avoided if you mail it in.
Know how you want to handle your food at night, whether it be with a bear box or hanging your food. There was a place to hang our food at every camp spot we had. There will most likely be creatures looking for snacks.
Lastly, one of the most important hiking rules is packing in what you pack out. Make sure you have something to put your trash in. There are a few places where you can drop some weight and throw out your trash along the way. I hope anyone who hikes this trail enjoys it as much as I did!