Hiking the Wonderland Trail: How to Plan a Thru-Hike

by wheretheroadforks

Hiking the Wonderland Trail hike can seem overwhelming at first. You must consider permits, the weather, trail conditions, campsites, your route, transportation, gear, food, and more. This guide is designed to give you an overview of what to expect and an outline to follow to plan a Wonderland Trail hike. I also include some tips and advice to help make your hike a bit smoother and safer.  

Wonderland Trail

A Bit of Information about the Wonderland Trail

Built in 1915, The Wonderland Trail is a 93 mile (150km) hiking trail which circumnavigates Mount Rainier. It is located in Washington State in Mount Rainier National park. The trail travels through a wide range of terrain including lowland temperate rain forests, rivers, glacial valleys, canyons, and meadows as well as alpine and sub-alipine areas.

This Wonderland Trail contains 23,000 feet (7010 meters) of elevation change. The highest point on the Wonderland trail is Panhandle Gap at 6750 feet (2060 meters). The lowest point is Ipsut Creek Campground at 2320 feet (710 meters). There are very few flat sections. When you’re not climbing, you’re descending. For this reason, this trail is quite challenging for most hikers.

Each year, around 200-250 people successfully thru-hike the Wonderland Trail. Thousands hike sections. Most Wonderland Trail thru-hikes take between 9 and 12 days. Experienced hikers can complete the trail in 5-6 days. The maximum number of days that the park allows to hike the trail is 14.

Table of Contents- Hiking the Wonderland Trail: How to Plan a Thru-Hike

Flat section of the Wonderland Trail

One of the few flat sections of the trail

When to Hike the Wonderland Trail

The Wonderland Trail hiking season generally lasts from late July to mid September. Due to the geographic location of Mount Rainier and the elevation, snow often covers the trail into early July. Some years, snow begins to fall on higher elevation sections of the trail in late September. There is really only about a 3 month period each year where the entire trail is navigable by the average hiker. After a few inches of snow falls, the trail dissapears until the next year. The ideal time to hike is usually during the month of August.

Hiking The Wonderland Trail Early in the Season (late June-late July)

If you wish to hike earlier in the season, like in late June to late July for example, you may want to check the snow levels before applying for your permit. Ideally in early March. If you find that the snowpack is lower than average, you may be able to begin your hike earlier in the season. Some years, you can begin your hike in late June or early July.

Right after the snow melts, the wildflowers bloom into a spectacular display in the meadows surrounding the mountain. This breathtaking sight is the main reason to consider an early season hike, in my opinion.

One reason to avoid early season hikes is the bugs. Mosquitoes and other biting insects are at their peak from July to mid August. Be sure to pack insect repellent, clothing which covers your arms and legs, and netting to keep the bugs out of your shelter as you sleep.

Tip: If you plan to hike while parts of the trail are still covered in snow, consider skipping the optional high elevation Spray Park section of the trail and instead of taking the Ipsut Pass route. I’ll talk more about this in the itinerary planning section. If you are hiking after a heavy snow year, you’ll also want to call one of the ranger stations ahead of time to make sure that the rivers can all be crossed. After a heavy runoff, bridges tend to wash out.

a log bridge over a river on the Wonderland Trail

A typical bridge and river crossing on the Wonderland Trail

Hiking The Wonderland Trail Late in the Season (early September- October)

If you plan to hike later in the season, like any time between labor day and mid October, be sure to check the weather reports often. Some years, the rainy season arrives early and the trail is drenched from early September. Other years, the weather stays dry well into the fall. During these years, mid September to mid October can offer the best hiking conditions of year.

One good thing about hiking during this time of year is at the mosquito and bug populations are at their lowest. I didn’t use any insect repellent during my hike and only got a few small bites while camping in Ipsut Creek, the lowest elevation camp. I started my hike on September 14.

The drawback to hiking late in the season is the fact that the wildflowers have all died off. The mountain views are still spectacular but the once colorful meadows will contain nothing but grass.

Hiking The Wonderland Trail During Peak Season (August-Labor Day)

August until labor day is peak season for hiking the Wonderland Trail. At this time of year, the snow has usually melted from the entire trail including high altitude sections of Panhandle Gap and Spray Park. Bridges over river crossings are all in place. The weather is usually the best of the entire year. The trail will be in the best overall condition. Unfortunately, the wildflowers begin to die off during this time of year.

The only drawback to hiking the Wonderland Trail during peak season is the crowds. Only a limited number of campsites are available. Getting permits for this time of year can be a challenge. More on that in the next section.

How to Get Backcountry Permits for Hiking the Wonderland trail

If you want hike the entire Wonderland Trail, you’ll need to backcountry camp along the way. In order to do this, you need to get a permit from the park service. Unfortunately, demand exceeds supply. After all, this is one of the most popular backpacking trails in the Pacific Northwest.

You can get your camping permits in one of two ways. You can apply in advance or try to get walk-up permits. The park issues around 70% of available permits for those who reserve in advance and saves around 30% for walk-up visitors.

How to Apply for a Wonderland Trail Backcountry Camping Permit in Advance

Each year, Mount Rainier National Park begins accepting applications for backcountry camping permits on March 15 and continues until April 1st. Permits requested during those two weeks are considered priority reservations. They are processed in random order until all of the available reserved campsites are booked.

Depending on the number of requests that the park receives, they may close reservation requests for the rest of the season after April 1st. In this case, your only option is to try for walk-up permits. If campsites are still available, the reservation request option remains open. Those requests are processed in the order that they are received.

Due to the high demand for wilderness camping permits and limited number of campsites along the Wonderland Trail, your chances of getting a permit in advance is very slim if you apply after April 1st. In fact, many hikers have to apply for several years before they get a permit request accepted.

The system is basically a lottery. Even if you applied during the priority reservation window, there are no guarantees. Rangers try their best to organize and issue as many permits as possible.

To apply for a wilderness camping permit, visit the National Park Service website here, and follow the instructions given here.

Basically, you just need to fill out the online reservation request form* with your contact info and desired itinerary and pay a $20 fee. From there, just wait until you receive an email indicating that your itinerary was confirmed or denied.

To improve your chances of securing a backcountry camping permit be as flexible as possible with your starting date, starting trailhead, and campsites. If you have some flexibility, the rangers will be able to more easily find you an itinerary. Basically, take what you can get.

How to Get Wonderland Trail Walk-Up Permits

(For the full guide, check out my article: How to Get Wonderland Trail Walk-Up Permits)

As mentioned earlier, around 30% of permits are reserved for walk-in visitors. Walk-up permits are only available to hikers planning to start the day that the permit is issued or the following day. This means that you can’t go get a walk-in permit for a trip that is a month out, for example. Walk-in permits are not available over the phone. You have to just go to the wilderness information center in person with your gear ready to hike and hope for the best.

To get a walk-in permit to hike the Wonderland Trail, you simply go to one of the park’s ranger stations and build an itinerary with the ranger. They print out your permit right there and then. There is no charge for walk-in permits. The whole process only takes 10-15 minutes.

When you enter the ranger station, the ranger will tell you which campsites have availability. Sometimes this information is posted on the wall in the building. The ranger stations also give out maps and print-outs with information on elevation change and distance between campsites. You can use this information to try to piece together an itinerary that you are physically capable of completing. I’ll talk more about building an itinerary in a later section of this guide.

To get a walk-up permit, you’ll need the following information:

  • The name and phone number of someone that the park can contact in the event of an emergency.
  • The make, model, color, and license plate number of your vehicle (if you plan to leave your vehicle in the parking lot). If someone is dropping you off, you don’t need this.
  • Your address and phone number- I don’t believe this is required. It’s more for emergencies.

Where Can I Get Walk-In Permits to Hike the Wonderland Trail?

During the hiking season, there are four locations that issue walk-in permits in Mount Rainier National Park. You must visit one in person either the day of or the day before you plan to start your hike. Most of the locations are only open seasonally. Before making the drive in, check their hours of operation here. Locations include:

1. The Longmire Wilderness Information Center

Longmire is the park’s main ranger station. It is generally open from late May to mid October. This is the most popular trailhead to hike the Wonderland Trail.

Phone: (360) 569-6650
Google Maps Location: Q52Q+28 Longmire, Washington 

2. The White River Wilderness Information Center

This location generally opens in late May and closes in mid October. If you wish to start your hike at the Sunrise or White River trailheads, you’ll want to get your permit here as permits are not available at the Sunrise Visitor Center. This is where I got my walk-in permit.

Phone: (360) 569-6670
Google Maps Location: WC2W+R5 Sunrise, Washington 

3. The Carbon River Ranger Station

This location is generally open year round. This is the closest station if you wish to start your hike at Mowich Lake.

Phone: (360) 829-9639
Google Maps Location: X2PQ+RC Carbonado, Washington 

4. The Paradise Wilderness Information Center

This location generally opens in late May and closes in early September. If you plan to get your permit here, be sure to call in advance to make sure they’re open.

Phone: (360) 569-6571
Google Maps Location: Q7P7+98 Paradise, Washington 

How to Improve Your Chances of Getting a Walk-Up Permit to Hike the Wonderland Trail

Because such a small amount of walk-up permits are available, they can be hard to get. This is particularly true during peak season. The following tips can help to improve your chances.

  • Arrive at the ranger station before they open so you are first in line- All of the ranger stations open at 7:30 am and begin issuing permits at the same time. If you’re first in line, you have a better chance of securing a permit.
  • Hike early or late in the season- There is less demand for permits in July and September. For example, I began my hike in mid-September. At this time, almost all of the campsites had availability except for a few of the smaller or more popular ones. In fact, we were the only ones at a couple of our campsites.
  • Start your hike on a weekday- This way, you don’t have to compete with as many weekend hikers for campsites. There are fewer people on the trail during the week. 
  • Be flexible with your plans- If you don’t mind starting your hike a day later, driving to a different trailhead, staying in different campsites, or hiking faster or slower than initially planned, you give yourself more permit options.
  • Do your research- Try to know the trail as much as possible. Know the elevations and distances between campsites. If you are familiar with the trail, you can more easily design an itinerary on the fly with the ranger. I’ll outline everything you need to know about the trail further on in this guide.
  • Wait for no-show permits to become available– Every morning at 10:30, permits are canceled for those who didn’t show up to start their hike. These spots become available for walk-ins. Even if everything is booked, consider waiting around. You may get lucky and score a nice itinerary from someone who didn’t show up.
  • Choose camps that are more likely to have a vacancy- Some camps are less desirable because they offer fewer amenities or are less scenic. Some camps simply have more spaces available. You’re more likely to get a permit if you are willing to stay in these camps because there is less competition for spaces.
  • Be pleasant to the ranger- Every park ranger that I met in Mount Rainier National Park was incredibly friendly, accommodating, and helpful. If you treat them nicely, they will be much more likely to take their time to help you build an itinerary that will work for you and get you your walk-up permit. These people are first class and they know the trail well.

Another Option: Day Hiking the Wonderland Trail

If, for whatever reason, you can’t secure a permit and you still want to hike the trail, you still have one option. You can day hike. You can’t hike the whole trail this way, but you can see a good chunk of it.

For day hikes on the Wonderland Trail, no permit is required. You just need to pay the National Park entry fee at the gate as you arrive. Currently, the fee is $30 for a car with 4 people or fewer. It is valid for 7 days.

You cannot camp in the backcountry camps without a permit. You can camp near most trailheads in the car camping spaces as long as a campsite is available. The charge is $20 per site per day.

My Experience Getting a Walk-In Permit to Hike the Wonderland Trail

After researching the trail and designing a few potential itineraries, my friend and I decided to attempt to get our permits at the White River Wilderness Information Center. We arrived just at opening at around 7:30 am in mid September.

The ranger station had a list on the wall with each backcountry camp listed and whether or not spaces were available. Almost all of the camps had sites available except for a few of the smaller or more popular sites.

The ranger helped us design an itinerary that fit our skill level. After deciding on an itinerary, the ranger printed out our permit and handed it to us. We only spent around 15 minutes in the ranger station in total. The process was very smooth and there was no charge.

The permit itself is just a half of a piece of paper with the names of the campsites and dates printed on it. You only need one permit per party. The ranger puts the permit in a waterproof Ziploc bag with a metal twist tie attached. You attach the permit to the outside of your backpack while hiking and to your tent each night while camping so that a ranger can easily see it if they wish to check it.

After leaving the ranger station at White River with our permit, we drove up to the Sunset trailhead to begin our hike.

Transportation To and Around Mount Rainier National Park

This is one part of the Wonderland Trail planning process that can cause a bit of a headache. Transportation options are incredibly limited. There is no public transportation available to or around the park. Transportation options to the Wonderland Trail include:

Drive Yourself

This is the most popular option. If you have your own vehicle, you can drive to the park, park your vehicle near your desired trailhead, and hike the trail all the way around. You’ll end up back where you started at your vehicle. The drive from the Seattle area to Longmire, Mowich Lake, or Sunrise is about 2-3 hours depending on traffic.

If you’re flying in from out of state, you can rent a car at the airport and drive yourself in. The drawback is the fact that you’ll be paying for a rental car to sit in a parking lot of 9 days while you’re not using it.

Of course, if you decide to only hike part of the Wonderland Trail or if you need to bail for whatever reason, you need to find a way back to your vehicle. This can be a challenge.

Have someone pick you up and drop you off

This is the easiest and most convenient option if you’re lucky enough to have a friend or family member kind enough to drive you. This way, you can start and end your Wonderland Trail hike wherever you want.

One problem with this is finding a way to call your ride after you complete your hike. There is very little cell phone service in Mount Rainier National Park. If you need to make a call, you have to find someplace to use a landline. Luckily, a nice park ranger allowed my friend and I to call our ride from the ranger station after we completed our hike.

Shuttle Service to Mount Rainier National Park

A few companies are beginning to offer shuttle service to and around the park but prices are high. In this case, you’re essentially paying a taxi driver to drive you.

The best way to arrange this is to call the ranger station at Longmire and inquire about rates and availability. While I was there, they showed me a flyer with a price list. This option is expensive. From Seattle, you’ll be paying several hundred dollars for round trip transport.

Hitchhiking in Mount Rainier National Park

Hitchhiking within the National Park is illegal. Having said that, there is no law against asking fellow hikers or rangers for a ride. Everyone you encounter is pretty friendly. One ranger offered my friend and I a ride to Tacoma after our hike, for example.

Chances are, if you ask enough people for a ride, sooner or later, someone will be able to take you into a town where you can connect with public transportation. From there, you can easily make your way to Seattle, Tacoma, the airport, or wherever you need to go.

Rideshare to the Wonderland Trail

This is really only an option to get to the trail. You can arrange an Uber or Lyft ride to the park. You’ll probably end up paying over $100 for a ride from the Seattle area. From the park, you’ll have to find another way back to the city, unfortunately.

You could also try looking on Craigslist in the rideshare section for people offering rides or post an add to see if anyone would be willing to drive you out there. You’ll have to negotiate your fare with the driver in this case.

How to Get to the Wonderland Trail from Sea-Tac Airport (SEA)

If you’re flying in from out of state to hike the Wonderland Trail, the easiest way to get there is to rent a car at the airport and drive to the park. The drive from the airport to Mount Rainier takes between 1.5-2.5 hours depending on traffic and which trailhead you decide to start your hike at.

A Note about Communication in Mount Rainier National Park

One thing to remember when organizing your transportation is the fact that you probably won’t have cell reception once you’re in the park. Plan accordingly. My friend has Verizon and I have AT&T. Neither of us had reception for the duration of our hike.

The Longmire and White River Wilderness Information Centers do offer free Wifi. You can use this to communicate with friends and family if you are having them pick you up. Most rangers will probably let you use the ranger station phone as well if you ask nicely.

Wilderness Camps Along the Wonderland Trail

At this point in the planning process, it’s time to begin designing your itinerary. The Wonderland Trail contains 18 wilderness camps and 3 non-wilderness camps. In this section, I briefly outline each wilderness campsite with the elevation and a bit of info about it.

For a more in-depth guide, check out my Wonderland Trail Wilderness Campsite list. This guide outlines each of the camps and includes info on distances between each camp and facilities.

Listed in clockwise order from Longmire, the campsites include:

  • Pyramid Creek (3765 feet)- This is a small camp with decent tree cover. There is no group site here.
  • Devil’s Dream (5060 feet)- This is a larger camp with around 6 sites and a group site. Being at a higher elevation, it gets cold. When I stayed here, there was freezing rain. I saw ice crystals forming on my hat as I pitched my tent.
  • South Puyallup River (4000 feet)- Decent camp with good tree cover.
  • Klapatche Park (5515 feet)- This camp has no group site. It’s built near a mountain lake. I didn’t camp here but it had a cool atmosphere.
  • North Puyallup River (3750 feet)- This is a small camp halfway up a hillside with just 3 sites and a group site. It offers good tree cover. I stayed dry during pretty heavy rain at night. Strangely, the bathroom is across the river from the campsites.
  • Golden Lakes (5130 feet)- This camp sits on a bluff near a decent sized lake. A ranger cabin is nearby.
  • South Mowich River (2605 feet)- Nice, low elevation campsite with a shelter and good tree cover. This camp is right on the river. This would be a good choice for early or late season hikes due to the low elevation.
  • Mowich Lake Campground (4929 feet)- This is a non-wilderness camp near the Mowich Lake trailhead.
  • Ipsut Creek Campground (2330 feet)- This is the lowest elevation campground on the Wonderland Trail, making it a great place to stay for hikes early or late in the season. This campground also has nice bathrooms with toilet paper as well as bear boxes at each campsite. The tree cover here is good as well. I camped here during a night of ‘record precipitation’ according to the ranger and stayed pretty dry.
  • Carbon River (3195 feet)- Good campsite near the river. This camp has a group site.
  • Dick Creek (4185 feet)- This is a small camp with just two sites. One site has a nice view and one is tucked in the trees. There is no group site here. This site is near a water source and the beautiful Carbon Glacier where the Carbon River flows out of.
  • Mystic Camp (5570 feet)- This is a larger camp with 6-7 sites and a group site. Most of the sites offer good tree cover. The bathroom here is one of the worst. It’s just a 3 sided structure about 4 feet tall with no roof. Using it in the rain was pretty unpleasant. I camped here my first night and saw two bears walk through camp while I was eating dinner.
  • Granite Creek (5765 feet)- Decent camp with good tree cover.
  • Sunrise Camp (6245 feet)- This camp lies just around a mile from the Sunrise trailhead. It offers several sites and a group site.
  • White River Campground (4280 feet)- This is a non-wilderness camp located near the White River trailhead.
  • Summerland (5940 feet)- This is one of the most popular camps on the trail so getting a space can be a challenge. The reason is that this camp offers some spectacular views. This camp has a shelter. You can’t camp in the shelter here, just rest and cook meals.
  • Indian Bar (5120 feet)- This beautiful camp near the Ohanapecosh River features a shelter and group site. It’s probably the second most popular camp on the trail. Water sources can be found near the camp.
  • Nickel Creek (3385 feet)- This is a pleasant site with good tree cover. It features a group site and several campsites.
  • Maple Creek (2815 feet)- This is a decent low elevation campground with a group site.
  • Paradise River (3805 feet)- This is a nice campground with a group site.
  • Cougar Rock Campground (3180 feet)- This is a non-wilderness camp located about a mile away from Longmire. There is no camping of any kind at Longmire. Just a hotel. Cougar Rock Campground offers car camping for $20 per night. There are also a few sites reserved for through-hikers.
Carbon Glacier

Carbon Glacier. You can see the Carbon River flowing out of the bottom of the glacier.

Wilderness Camps on the Spray Park Alternate Route of the Wonderland Trail

The Spray Park route offers two wilderness camps. I’ll explain this route in the itinerary section.

  • Eagle’s Roost (4885 feet)- This site is close to a nice waterfall that doubles as a water source. Around 6-7 sites are available. This camp doesn’t offer a group site.
  • Cataract Valley (4620 feet)- This camp features a decent tree cover a nearby water source in the form of a stream. Several sites are available as well as a group site.

Distances Between Wonderland Trail Campsites

This table, listed in clockwise order starting from Longmire, indicates the distances between each of the Wonderland Trail wilderness camps. Use this table to help you calculate the daily mileage in your itinerary.

While building your itinerary, don’t forget to consider elevation gain or loss. Some days, you may spend most of the day climbing. On those days, you may wish to schedule fewer miles. Sometimes you’ll spend most of the day descending. On those days, you may be able to cover more distance.

  • Longmire and Pyramid Creek – 3.7 miles or 6 km
  • Pyramid Creek and Devil’s Dream – 2.1 miles or 3.4 km
  • Devil’s Dream and South Puyallup – 7 miles or 11.3 km
  • South Puyallup and Klapatche Park – 3.9 miles or 6.3 km
  • Klapatche Park and North Puyallup – 2.8 miles or 4.5 km
  • North Puyallup and Golden Lakes – 4.8 miles or 7.7 km
  • Golden Lakes and South Mowich River – 6 miles or 9.7 km
  • South Mowich River and Mowich Lake – 4.3 miles or 6.9 km
  • Mowich Lake and Ipsut Creek – 5.4 miles or 8.7 km
  • Ipsut Creek and Carbon River – 3.3 miles or 5.3 km
  • Carbon River and Dick Creek – 1.2 miles or 1.9 km
  • Dick Creek and Mystic Lake – 3.6 miles or 5.8 km
  • Mystic Lake and Granite Creek – 4.5 miles or 7.2 km
  • Granite Creek and Sunrise Camp – 4.1 miles or 6.6 km
  • Sunrise Camp and White River – 4.3 miles or 6.9 km
  • White River and Summerland – 5.5 miles or 8.9 km
  • Summerland and Indian Bar – 4.5 miles or 7.2 km
  • Indian Bar and Nickel Creek – 6.8 miles or 10.9 km
  • Nickel Creek and Maple Creek – 3.1 miles or 5 km
  • Maple Creek and Paradise River – 6.8 miles or 10.9 km
  • Paradise River and Pyramid Creek – 7.1 miles or 11.7 km

A Few Things to Remember About Backcountry Camping Along the Wonderland Trail

While hiking the Wonderland Trail, you must camp in one of the above-listed camps each night. Disperse camping is not permitted in Mount Rainier National Park. This means that you must hike to a camp each night.

No campfires are allowed at the wilderness camps. Camp stoves are okay to use for cooking. Alcohol stoves are permitted as well as canister gas stoves. Wood stoves are not allowed.

Each regular campsite can accommodate 1-5 people. If your group contains 6-12 people, you’ll need to reserve group campsites. Group campsites are simply larger sites with space for more tents. Keep in mind that not all camps offer group sites.

Bicycles and other wheeled contraptions are not allowed on the Wonderland Trail. You can’t use a wheeled cart to carry your pack or belongings.

Pets are not allowed on the Wonderland Trail or in wilderness campsites. You can’t hike the trail with your dog.

Trailheads to the Wonderland Trail

The Wonderland Trail has 3 main trailheads and 2 minor trailheads. They include:

Longmire

This is the busiest and most popular trailhead on the Wonderland Trail. Longmire is easy to access from the park’s main entrance to the South. Roads are safe and in good condition. The drive from Seattle to Longmire takes around 3 hours. In Longmire, you will find a hotel, restaurant, service station, bathroom with flush toilets, wilderness information center, museum, and a large parking lot.

The biggest benefit of starting your hike in Longmire is the fact that there are wilderness camps fairly nearby in both directions. This means that you can give yourself a short first day of your hike if you need to take time out of the day to drive to the park or get your permit.

If you wish to camp near Longmire, you can stay in the Cougar Rock Campground which is around a mile away. You can make reservations on the recreation.gov website here. You can also just show up and get a spot if there’s space. 

White River

This trailhead is popular during the summer. White River contains a wilderness information center where you can pick up permits or try for walk-in permits. Here, you’ll also find car camping for $20 per night as well as a bathroom with flush toilets.

The biggest drawback to starting your Wonderland Trail hike at White River is the fact that wilderness camps are kind of far away in both directions. If you get a late start to your hike due to a long drive or taking time to get your permit, you could be in for a long first day.

Sunrise

This is probably the second most popular trailhead after Longmire. Sunrise offers a large parking lot, bathrooms with flush toilets, and a visitor’s center (you can’t get permits here).

Sunrise is located about a 30-40 minute drive up the hill from White River. The drive isn’t far but the road has a lot of switchbacks. Hiking between White River and Sunrise takes about the same amount of time as driving because the trail is more direct.

Some hikers choose to get permits in White River then drive up to Sunrise to begin the hike. This way, you avoid a climb and have access to better parking. This is what my friend and I did.

Mowich Lake

This is probably the least exciting of the major trailheads. There is no ranger station and facilities are limited. Mowich Lake only has restrooms and a car campground. The road conditions out there are pretty poor as well. Because of this, the road opens late and closes early in the season.

One good thing about starting your Wonderland Trail hike at Mowich Lake is the fact that several wilderness camps are located within a short day’s hike away. For example, if you’re traveling clockwise, and decide to take the Spray Park route, Eagle’s roost camp is just 1.8 miles away. If you take the regular route, Ipsut Creek Camp is just 5.4 miles away all downhill. If you travel clockwise, South Mowich Camp is just 3.5 miles away.

Minor Wonderland Trail Trailheads

In addition to the above-listed main trailheads, several smaller trailheads exist along the trail. You can start your hike in:

  • Box Canyon
  • Fryingpan Creek
  • Reflection Creek
  • Ipsut Creek- This used to be a major trailhead until a large storm washed out the road in 2006. Repairs are yet to be made. If you wish to use this trailhead, you can make a 5 miles walk through the washed-out area to Ipsut Creek Campground.
Ipsut Creek campground

Ipsut Creek campground

For the most part, these aren’t too useful for thru-hikers. It is, however, a good idea to know where these trailheads are in case you have to bail fro your hike for whatever reason. It’s nice to know that you can make your way back to civilization if you have to.

Clockwise or Counterclockwise: Which Direction Should I Hike the Wonderland Trail?

Most hikers choose to hike in a clockwise direction. Some hikers claim that traveling clockwise is slightly easier due to the elevation profile. They claim that the descents are less steep which is easier on the knees. Really, it doesn’t matter which direction you hike.

I hiked counterclockwise. To me, the trail looked to be about the same difficulty no matter which direction you travel.

Wonderland Trail Alternate Routes: Spray Park and the Northern Loop

There is only one true Wonderland Trail route. If you follow it for 93 miles, you’ll circle Mount Rainier and end up back where you started. There are two places on the trail where you can take an alternate route and re-join the Wonderland Trail later. The alternate routes include:

The Spray Park Route

This is a high altitude scenic route that cuts out the low elevation Ipsut Creek part of the Wonderland Trail. Distance-wise, both routes are about the same. Difficulty wise, the Spray Park route is harder due to the elevation.

The Spray Park route is best for late season hikes when the snow has completely melted. For early season hikes, you’re probably better off sticking to the Wonderland Trail. There are two camps on the Spray Park Trail. They are called Eagle’s Roost and Cataract Valley.

If you’re traveling clockswise, you fork off to the Spray park trail at Mowich Lake. You’ll head south instead of north. If you’re traveling counter-clockwise, you’ll fork off to the Spray Park trail near Carbon River camp.

The Northern Loop

This 15.5 mile trail forks off from the Wonderland Trail 2.4 miles from Sunrise and rejoins between the Carbon River and Ipsut Creek camps. This section is known for being one of the more difficult hikes in the park. Mostly due to the extreme elevation change of 11,000 feet.

There are 4 camps along the Northern Loop Trail. They include Berkley Park, Fire Creek, Lake James, and Yellowstone Cliffs.

If you’re interested in taking the Northern Route, check out this excellent guide from Wonderlandguides.com.

How to Build a Wonderland Trail Itinerary

At this point, you should have a good general idea of the layout of the Wonderland Trail as well as the rules. It’s time to start building an itinerary for your hike.

Step 1: Choose a Trailhead

Start by deciding where you’d like to start your hike. When choosing a trailhead, consider:

  • Where you’re traveling from- If you’re hiking the whole Wonderland Trail, you might as well start at the closest or easiest to access trailhead from your home. Driving times from Seattle are generally 2-3 hours. If you’re flying into Seattle, White River or Longmire are probably the easiest options.
  • When you’re starting- During peak season, you can start at any trailhead. Late or early in the season, your options may be more limited as some trailheads close.
  • Permits- Did you get your permit in advance or are you trying to get a walk-up permit? If you’re getting a walk-up permit, consider starting in White River. It’s smaller and usually less busy than Longmire.

Step 2: Determine your Direction of Travel

To help you decide whether you want to hike clockwise or counterclockwise, determine the closest campsites on either side of the trailhead where you plan to start your hike. Look at the elevations and distances. If you plan to have a short first day, choose to hike in the direction of the easier option.

Sometimes, campsite availability determines your direction of travel for you. If the closest campsite in the clockwise direction is fully booked, you can just travel counter-clockwise instead.

Step 3: Decide How Many Days You Want to Hike

The average hiker takes 9-10 days to complete the entire Wonderland Trail. That is an average of 9-10 miles per day. The park allows you to take up to 14 days. Skilled hikers can complete the circuit in 5-7 days.

When deciding how long you want to spend on the trail, consider your skill level and how much time you have for your trip. Remember, this trail is pretty intense. 23,000 feet of elevation change is no joke. I recommend you take your time if possible. Having the time to stop and take in a view is a nice luxury to have. A rest day is another option.

Be honest with yourself about your skill level. Try not to push yourself too hard or overestimate your skill level. You don’t want to not complete the hike because you bit off more than you could chew.

Step 4: Choose your Wonderland Trail Camps

The best tool available to help you choose your camps is this Wonderland Trail Itinerary Planner from Wonderlandguides.com. 

To use the tool, you simply enter your starting and ending trailhead, number of days, direction, and start date. The planner creates an itinerary for you based on this information. This planner includes info on distances, a rough view of the elevation profile of the land, as well as the time of sunrise and sunset.

Once you have a rough itinerary, you can easily use the same itinerary planning tool to make adjustments by shifting to a further or closer campsite for each day. I recommend you play around with this tool until you have an itinerary that you’re happy with. While creating an itinerary, consider:

  • How many miles per day you want to hike- Consider starting with small mileage and building up.
  • Elevation change- Look at the elevation profile between campsites. 
  • Facilities- Some camps have more to offer than others. For example, some have decent bathrooms, bear boxes, shelters, etc. Some camps offer better tree cover than others.
  • Views- Some camps are more scenic than others. One of the most popular sites is Summerland because of the spectacular scenery. Indian Bar is another popular scenic campground with a shelter.
  • How many people in your group- If you have 6 or more, you’ll need to stay in sites with a group site. This limits your camp options.
  • The time of year that you’re hiking- For early or late season hikes, you may want to camp at lower elevation sites to stay warmer. You may also want to avoid the high elevation Spray Park route at this time.
  • The weather- If you expect precipitation, try to stay in camps with a shelter or good tree cover so you can stay a bit drier.

Tip: If you’re trying to get walk-in permits, I recommend you make 2-3 itineraries before you show up at the ranger station. This gives the ranger something to work with and speeds up the process. You may not get exactly what you want, but you can usually get pretty close. The ranger will work with you to find an itinerary that works for you.

A small mountain lake near Klapatche Park camp

A small mountain lake near Klapatche Park camp

Example Wonderland Trail Itineraries

Below, I’ll share a few reasonable average itineraries to help get you started. You can adjust them to fit your skill level and time allowance.

For most hikers, 10 days is an ideal amount of time to hike the Wonderland Trail. With 10 days, you have enough time to schedule a rest day or a few shorter days into your itinerary.

10 Day Clockwise Wonderland Trail Hike Starting and Ending at Longmire

  1. Longmire to Devil’s Dream
  2. Devil’s Dream to Klapache Park
  3. Klapache Park to Golden Lakes
  4. Golden Lakes to Mowich Lake
  5. Mowich Lake to Carbon River- Pick up food cache here
  6. Carbon River to Mystic Lake
  7. Mystic Lake to Sunrise
  8. Sunrise to Summerland
  9. Summerland to Nickel Creek
  10. Nickel Creek to Longmire

10 Day Counterclockwise Wonderland Trail Hike Starting and Ending at Sunrise

  1. Sunrise to Mystic Lake
  2. Mystic Lake to Ipsut Creek
  3. Ipsut Creek to South Mowich River
  4. South Mowich River to North Puyallup
  5. North Puyallup to Devil’s Dream
  6. Devil’s Dream to Paradise River- Pick up food cache at Longmire
  7. Paradise River to Maple Creek
  8. Maple Creek to Nickel Creek
  9. Nickel Creek to Indian Bar
  10. Indian Bar to Sunrise

9 Day Clockwise Wonderland Trail Hike Starting and Ending at Longmire

  1. Longmire to Devil’s Dream
  2. Devil’s Dream to Klapache Park
  3. Klapache Park to South Mowich River
  4. South Mowich River to Ipsut Creek
  5. Ipsut Creek to Granite Creek
  6. Granite Creek to White River- Pick up food cache here
  7. White River to Indian Bar
  8. Indian Bar to Maple Creek
  9. Maple Creek to Longmire

How to Cache Food and Fuel on the Wonderland Trail

Carrying 10 days worth of food and fuel is too heavy and just not practical for most hikers. Luckily, there are four places along the Wonderland Trail where you can drop off or ship a food cache. You can place as many food caches as you wish. Most hikers choose to just place one. Food cache locations include:

  1. Longmire Wilderness Information Center
  2. Sunrise Old Gas Station
  3. White River Campground
  4. Mowich Lake Patrol Cabin

Note: Most of the food cache pickup locations are only open between mid July and mid September. Before your hike, be sure to double check.

How to Pack your Food Cache

The park service recommends that you pack your food in a rigid, rodent-proof container. A standard 5 gallon utility bucket with a lid works perfectly. Simply pack your food in the bucket, seal it up with a lid and some tape, and ship it or drop it off to the cache location of your choice. This LEAKTITE 5GAL black plastic pail from Amazon would work fine if you don’t already have one sitting around. 

If you’re shipping your bucket, try to pack it in a way that the food won’t get crushed or destroyed during shipping. Mail handlers sometimes aren’t too careful with packages. You don’t want to open your bucket and find that all of your granola bars are broken up into dust.

Note: You cannot include fuel in your food cache and you cannot ship fuel. You must drop it off at the cache location where you want to pick it up.

How to Label your Food Cache

Whether you ship or drop off your food cache, you must properly label it. Simply print out a piece of paper with the following information labeled:

  • Your name- You will sign for the package when you pick it up. They don’t ask for ID or anything. Just your last name and signature.
  • Location that you plan to pick up the cache- The park doesn’t transport food caches from one location to another for you. This is just for organization purposes. You must ship or drop off your cash where you plan to pick it up.
  • Date that you plan to pick it up- If you’re getting walk-in permits and don’t know the exact date, just write in a small range of dates. It’s also a good idea to indicate that you’re getting walk-in permits.
  • Permit number- If you reserved your permit in advance. If you’re getting a walk-up permit, you won’t have this. Just indicate on the label that you plan to get a walk-up permit.

How to Ship a Food Cache to the Wonderland Trail

For most hikers, shipping your food cache is the easiest and most convenient option. The park service recommends that you ship your food cache so that it arrives at least two weeks before you intend to pick it up. If you plan to ship your food cache, simply write the shipping address on your label in addition to the above-listed identification information.

Locations where you can ship your food cache include:

Longmire Wilderness Information Center

Address:

Mount Rainier National Park
1 NPS Warehouse
Longmire, WA 98397
ATTN: Longmire WIC

Note: Only UPS and FedEx deliver to the above address at this time.

White River Campground or Sunrise Visitor Center

Address:

Mount Rainier National Park
White River WIC
70002 SR 410 East
Enumclaw, WA 98022

Note: When shipping your food cache to the above address, you must indicate on your label whether you wish to pick up your food cache at the White River Campground or the Sunrise Visitor Center. Rangers deliver the cache to its destination for you. You cannot pick up a cache at the White River Wilderness Information Center. You can ship your food cache to the above address by UPS, FedEx, or USPS.

Mowich Lake Patrol Cabin

If you ship your food cache to one of the following addresses, rangers will drop it off at the food storage bin next to the Mowich Lake Patrol Cabin for you to pick up.

Address if shipping by UPS or FedEx:

Mount Rainier National Park
Carbon River Ranger Station
35415 Fairfax Forest Reserve Road East
Carbonado, WA 98323

Address if shipping by USPS:

Mount Rainier National Park
Carbon River Ranger Station
P.O. Box 423
Wilkeson, WA 98396

How to Drop Off a Food and Fuel Cache on the Wonderland Trail

If you want to cache fuel, you’ll have to drop it off in person. This presents a bit of a logistical problem because most hikers live quite a distance away from Mount Rainier. You want to avoid having to make the drive out there twice.

If you acquired your permit in advance, you can drive to the location where you want to leave your food cache and drop it off first. Most of the ranger stations and wilderness information centers open at 7:30 am. From there, you can drive to your starting point to pick up your permit and begin your hike.

If you plan to obtain walk-in permits, dropping off your cache can be a bit of a hassle. You have two options. First, you can arrive in the park one day before you plan to start your hike. In this case, you would drop your food and fuel cache off before you get your permit on your drive out. After dropping off your cache, you would proceed to the ranger station to get your permit to begin hiking the following morning. You would camp in one of the car campgrounds that night.

The second option is to drive directly one of the wilderness information centers and arrive at opening to obtain your walk-in permit for that day. After getting your permit, you could drive to the location where you want to leave your food cache. After dropping it off, you could drive back to your starting point and begin your hike.

The easiest way to do this would be to drive to Longmire. There, you can get your walk-in permit and drop off your food cache at the same time. You could arrange your itinerary to start at one of the other trailheads. You could then drive to that trailhead to start your hike. It is not necessary to start your itinerary where you get your permit.

Of course, if you don’t mind making two trips, you can drive out one day to drop off your food and fuel cache then drive out again on the day of your hike.

How to Pick up your Food Cache on the Wonderland Trail

Once you arrive at the pickup location, simply tell the ranger who is working that you have a cache to pick up. They will ask you your name and look it up in a logbook. The ranger will retrieve your cache from storage and ask you to sign for it. The process just takes a couple of minutes.

Tip: When creating your itinerary, make sure that you will arrive at your food cache location while they are open. Hours of operation for most of the Wilderness Information Centers are from 7:30 am to 5:00 pm. If you miss them, you’ll have to wait until the next day to pick up your cache.

For more info, check out this step-by-step guide to caching food and fuel from the National Parks Service.

Wonderland Trail Packing List

This is a pretty standard backpacking trip, gear-wise. Gear that you’ll want to pack to hike the Wonderland Trail includes:

  • Tent, bivy sack, hammock, or some type of camping shelter- I used the Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL 1 Tent. Read my full review here.
  • Backpack- 40-60 liters works fine. I used my Osprey Talon 44 hiking backpack. Read my full review here.
  • Sleeping bag or quilt- a 20-30 degree down or synthetic bag is ideal. I used my Kelty Cosmic 20 sleeping bag. Read my full review here. 
  • Sleeping pad- Inflatable or foam works fine. I used the Klymit Static V. Read my full review here.
  • Dry bag- for hanging your food on the bear hang
  • Hiking boots or trail runners
  • 2-4 pair of hiking socks- I like merino wool socks
  • 2-4 pair of underwear- Choose a quick-drying material
  • Rain jacket or poncho
  • Rain pants
  • 1-2 pair of hiking pants- Shorts or long pants or both depending on your preference
  • 1-2 hiking shits- Quick drying material is best. I pack one long sleeve and one short
  • Thermal base layer- I like wool
  • Warm jacket- A fleece or down or synthetic puffer works fine.
  • Hat- Choose a warm knit hat or a sun hat or both
  • Backpack rain cover
  • Backpack liner- I just used a trash bag
  • Trekking poles- I recommend 2 to save your knees.
  • Water filter- I used the Sawyer Mini. Read my full review here
  • Water filter bag or bottle- Something to hold water that you plan to filter
  • Water bottle or bladder- To hold clean drinking water. 2 liters of water storage is ideal
  • Knife or multi tool
  • Camp stove- I used an alcohol stove
  • Fuel
  • Camp pot
  • Utensils- I used a spork
  • Cup or mug- To eat or drink from
  • Food
  • Matches or a lighter
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Insect repellent
  • Sunblock
  • Biodegradable soap
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Chapstick
  • Tape or moleskin- To cover blisters
  • Duct tape- For repairing gear if it breaks
  • Antibiotic ointment- For blister and small cut treatment
  • Small first aid kit
  • Pain medication- Like Ibuprofen, Tylenol, etc.
  • Glasses or contact lenses- If you wear them
  • Any prescription medications that you take
  • Nail clippers
  • Phone- For photography, entertainment, and navigation
  • Phone charger
  • External battery- To charge your phone or other electronics
  • Headlamp or flashlight
  • Map

Optional gear that you may find useful

  • Gaiters- I used Unigear gaiters. 
  • Gloves
  • Camp shoes- Hiking sandals or crocs are popular options
  • Camera
  • Tent Footprint
  • GPS
  • Sit pad
  • Stuff sacks for organization
  • Pillow
  • Towell
  • Sunglasses
  • Pen and paper
  • Mosquito head net
  • Binoculars
  • Crampons- for early or late season.
  • Toilet paper
  • Book or eReader
  • Whistle
  • Bear spray

For my full list including gear recommendations, check out my Wonderland Trail Packing List

Food: Cooking and Eating on the Wonderland Trail

While hiking, you burn a lot of calories. Make sure you pack enough food to sustain yourself for the duration of your hike. Once you’re on the trail, there really isn’t anywhere to buy food other than a small shop and an expensive restaurant in Longmire.

To help you pack the correct amount of food, I recommend you organize your food into piles. One for each day of your hike. Divide each pile into breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. Add up the calories to make sure that you have enough food.

Foods to consider packing include:

  • Oatmeal
  • Instant mashed potatoes
  • Dehydrated hiking meals
  • Granola bars
  • Beef Jerky
  • Nuts
  • Dehydrated fruits
  • Ramen
  • Chocolate
  • Peanut Butter
  • Tunafish packets
  • Pop tarts
  • Trail mix
  • Tortillas
  • Trail mix

To help you pack your food correctly, check out this great guide from REI.

log over a stream on the wonderland trail

a basic bridge over a stream

Finding and Filtering Water on the Wonderland Trail

Getting water on the Wonderland Trail is never a problem. You’ll cross multiple rivers and streams each day where you can collect fresh water. Oftentimes streams flow right across the trail. You’re never very far fro a water source. I hiked in the early fall when the rivers are at their lowest level and never had a problem finding water.

While hiking the Wonderland Trail, you should have the capacity to carry at least 2 liters of water at all times. You could get away with less but you’ll have to stop to filter water more often.

I carried a water bladder in my pack. This way, the heavy water weight was stored right against my back. I used my Sawyer Mini to filter water into the bladder. Read my full review of the filter here. I used a 1 liter Smart Water bottle to collect dirty water which I filtered into the water bladder.

The trail is surprisingly well marked. You don’t need any kind of navigation tool to hike the Wonderland Trail. While hiking, you encounter small wooden signs at each junction that identify the trail and distances to the next camp. The signs are pretty accurate and you’ll come across one every couple of hours.

One piece of navigation gear that you may find useful is a map. My friend bought the National Geographic map of Mount Rainier National Park. The map is durable, waterproof, and easy to read. We didn’t absolutely need it but we did find it useful on several occasions. It includes info on distances, elevations, and camp facilities.

If you don’t want to spend money on a map, you can just use the free park map that you can pick up in any of the wilderness information centers. I picked one up when I got my permit as a backup.

For more accurate navigation, you could pack a GPS or compass. The only scenario where these may come in handy is if it snows while you’re on the trail. After a couple of inches of snow falls, the trail can seemingly disappear in sections. In this case, you need some navigation skills. Of course, snow is only a problem for early or late season hikes.

Before setting off on your hike, you should also check trail conditions. Sometimes sections of the trail can close due to heavy rain, down trees, or snow. You can check trail and camp conditions using this guide from the National Parks Service.  

Wonderland Trail Navigation Tips

As I already said, the trail is very well marked. Having said that, I have read reports online of people taking a wrong turn and hiking several miles out of the way. Here are some tips to stay on course while hiking the Wonderland Trail:

  • Read the signs carefully- Sometimes you’ll encounter a fork in the trail. Stop at each fork and study the sign to make sure you go in the right direction. If you’re in a hurry, it would be easy to take the wrong trail. You won’t get lost if you do this. You’ll just walk out of your way and make it to camp late.
  • Ask people as you pass- You’ll encounter multiple hikers throughout the day. If you’re unsure whether you’re traveling on the right trail, just stop and ask them. Pretty much any hiker will be happy to help. They’ll probably even give you some info about the terrain ahead.
  • If you see a pile of sticks or brush on a trail, don’t go that way- Sometimes, you’ll encounter a fork in the trail without a sign. One trail is the Wonderland Trail and the other is an old, washed out, or closed trail. Trail maintenance people indicate that a trail is closed by stacking some debris on it so you know not to walk that way.
  • Look out for stacked rocks at river crossings- Sometimes it’s hard to see the trail. This is particularly true on rocky river crossings. These areas are marked with stacks of river rocks. You can easily identify these stacks because they are obviously not natural. People stacked them to help you identify the trail. Simply follow the stacks of rocks and you’ll find the trail when you reach the other side of the river crossing.
  • Look for orange ribbons on trees- This is another type of marker used in areas where the trail is not obvious. I usually spotted these on river banks after a river crossing. The bright ribbons are obviously not natural and mark the trail.
  • Pay attention when entering and leaving camp- If you’re not thinking, it would be easy to get turned around. While hiking, I encountered a couple that somehow walked a few miles in the wrong direction. Evidently, they had arrived at camp late and didn’t recognize that the scenery was the same when they began hiking the following morning.
  • Don’t wander off of the trail- You’re not supposed to do this anyway. You could easily get lost if you wander too far. Particularly in heavily forested sections.
  • Talk to park rangers- Every few days, you’ll pass by a wilderness information center or ranger station. Take a few minutes to ask the ranger about the trail conditions of the section ahead. They can advise you about any tricky spots or things to look out for.

    Grown over section of the Wonderland Trail

    In some places, the trail is pretty grown over. Even then, it’s easy to follow.

Water Crossings on the Wonderland Trail

Over the course of your Wonderland Trail thru-hike, you’ll cross dozens of rivers and creeks. The larger crossings are fitted with simple wooden bridges to help you cross. These bridges are basically just a log that has been flattened on the top and dragged across the river. They are secured in place by rocks and posts. The larger ones have a handrail for you to hold as you cross.

Smaller river or creek crossings usually have enough rocks for you to step on so your feet don’t get wet. Some just have a small log for you to walk on.

a river crossing on the Wonderland Trail

A few of the larger river crossings can get pretty hairy. Particularly during the spring runoff after a heavy snow year. Before you begin your hike, it’s a good idea to ask a ranger about the condition of the bridges and the safety of crossing.

Occasionally, when the water gets too high, bridges wash out and make river crossing impossible. In this case, the ranger will suggest an alternate route for you to take. This usually involves walking on a road.

If the water gets too high, the trail becomes impossible to hike because there are so many crossings. If you’re hiking after a heavy snow year, you may want to call the wilderness information center before you drive out to make sure that the trail is navigable.

Sometimes, you may have to ford a river when the water gets high or a bridge washes out. Be very careful when doing this. For some tips, check the article, How to Ford a River from the Washington Trails Association.

a log bridge on the Wonderland Trail

Climate and Weather on the Wonderland Trail

The altitude of the Wonderland Trail ranges from 2320 feet (710 m) at Ipsut Creek all the way to 6750 feet (2060 m) at Panhandle Gap. Because of the extreme elevation change along the trail, you’ll pass through a number of different climate zones. You’ll hike through everything from lowland forests to alpine terrain. You’ll experience the climate change over the course of a couple of hours as you climb or descend.

You also need to prepare for the weather. Due to the geographic location of Mount Rainier in the Cascades near the Pacific Ocean, it rains a lot on the Wonderland Trail. Chances are, you’ll experience at least one rainy day during your hike.

Sometimes it can snow early or late in the year. Even in July or September. After a couple of inches of snow falls, the trail becomes invisible. Before you start your hike, it’s a good idea to call the wilderness information center for a current weather report. The rangers can tell you what to expect for the dates that you plan to hike.

To stay comfortable on the trail, you should pack in a way that allows you to be prepared for all of the weather conditions that you’re likely to encounter. Always pack rain gear while hiking the Wonderland Trail. Have a good pack cover and liner to keep your gear dry. Pack a warm enough sleep setup that allows you to camp at elevation. Even if the day starts out warm and sunny, it can get cold while camping above 6000 feet.

I experienced particularly bad weather during my Wonderland Trail hike. I was rained on for 5 days straight. Some days were worse than others. Most of my gear got drenched and never dried out. According to one ranger, we experienced ‘record precipitation’ on our first night on the trail. Even with the poor weather, I still had a great experience. I enjoy the atmosphere that the rain creates.

One of the few times that we saw a blue sky

Bugs and Wild Animals on the Wonderland Trail

From the beginning of the hiking season until late August, bugs can get bad on the Wonderland Trail. Mosquitoes are the worst. You’ll also encounter a number of annoying species of biting flies.

I’m not aware of any disease-carrying insects on the Wonderland Trail. The bugs are mostly just an annoyance. If you’re hiking during the buggy season, use the following tip to avoid getting bitten:

  • Wear insect repellent- I like Sawyer Products Premium Insect Repellent. It contains 20% picaridin and remains effective against mosquitoes for up to 14 hours.
  • Wear clothes that cover your arms and legs- The less skin that the bugs can access, the fewer bites you’ll get.
  • Use a shelter with bug netting- You need to protect yourself from getting bitten while you sleep. Most tents include built-in bug netting.
  • Pack a mosquito head net- These weigh nothing and pack down small. Every hiker should carry one. I wear mine around camp while cooking at night. I have the Benvo Head Net Mesh.

Wild Animal Encounters While Hiking the Wonderland Trail: Avoiding Bears and Mountain Lions

When it comes to wild animals, the risk of an encounter during your hike is low. The two potentially dangerous species present in Mount Rainier National Park are black bears and mountain lions (also called cougars). 

How to Avoid Black Bears

  • Always properly store your food, fuel, and toiletries while at camp- Every camp along the Wonderland Trail is equipped with either a bear box or bear hang where you can store your food in a way that bears can’t get to it. Use them. Never feed a bear or leave food out where a bear could get to it. 
  • Make some noise as you hike- Talk to your hiking buddy or say ‘hey bear’ periodically if you’re hiking alone.
  • If you see a bear, back away- Don’t turn your back to the bear. Don’t run. Just calmly talk to the bear and slowly back away.
  • If a black bear charges stay on your feet and continue backing away- If you have food on you, drop it and continue backing away. 
  • If a black bear attacks, respond aggressively- You’re being targeted as prey. You must fight back. Throw rocks, yell, hit the bear with a stick. Fight back with whatever you have. 

For more bear tips and advice for dealing with aggressive bears, check out my guide: Bear Safety Tips: How to Avoid Bears While Hiking and Camping.

During my hike, I saw two black bears. While preparing dinner at Mystic Lake, a momma bear and its cub walked through camp. They came within about 25 feet of my friend and I but didn’t pay us any attention. They just walked across the trail right next to the bear hands and bathroom. I met a couple of hikers the next day who told me that bear spottings were common around Mystic Lake. 

How to Avoid Mountain Lions

Mountain lions usually avoid humans. If you spot one, the best thing to do is to back away slowly and leave the area. Don’t turn your back on it. If the mountain lion appears aggressive:

  • Stand in a group- If you’re not hiking alone. There is safety in numbers in this case. 
  • Hold small children- If the mountain lion decides to attack, it will choose the easiest target.
  • If the mountain lion approaches, make yourself look large and make noise- Wave your arms. Open your jacket to make yourself look bigger. Yell. Throw rocks.
  • If the mountain lion attacks, fight back- Respond with aggression. Hit the animal in the head with sticks, rocks, or your fist. Shield your head and neck. 

If you encounter a bear or mountain lion during your hike, report it to a park ranger. 

What to do if you have to bail during your Wonderland Trail hike

It’s a good idea to be prepared for every situation. Including the unfortunate event of having to cut your hike short. There are a number of reasons that you may have to bail. For example, maybe you fall and injure yourself. Maybe the weather takes an unexpected turn for the worse. Whatever the case, you need to know the exit points so you can get out of the park if you have to.

Places you can bail on your Wonderland Trail hike include:

  • Longmire
  • White River
  • Sunrise
  • Mowich Lake
  • Ipsut Creek
  • Box Canyon
  • Fryingpan Creek
  • Reflection Creek

These are all of the trailheads. During your hike, you will encounter a place where you could bail every day or two. You’re never more than 15 or so miles from a place where you can end your hike. Once you reach a trailhead, you’ll need to find a way back to your vehicle or back to civilization. This can be a challenge. Visit the transportation section of this guide above for some ideas.

My Experience Hiking the Wonderland Trail

The Wonderland Trail was my first long hike. I’m usually more of a day hiker or overnighter kind of guy. This hike turned out to be much more intense than I had expected. The elevation change is no joke. I have fairly weak knees which began giving me problems toward the end.

The rain added to the difficulty as well. After several days of hiking in the rain, much of the trail turned to mud. My boots and socks never dried out. Nor did my shirt.

Even with all of the difficulties I faced, this hike turned out to be one of my most memorable trips. The scenery is absolutely spectacular. I hope to do some more long-distance hikes in the future. I’m adding the Pacific Crest Trail to my bucket list.

River crossing on the Wonderland Trail

Final Thoughts on Hiking the Wonderland Trail

As you can see, planning a successful Wonderland Trail hike takes quite a bit of thought and effort. It can feel a bit overwhelming at first. You must learn the trail and plan your camps, organize permits, and cache food. The rules are strict to help protect the beautiful and rugged environment of Mount Rainier.

By following the steps outlined in this guide, you can plan a Wonderland Trail hike in as little as a couple of weeks as long as you already have the proper gear and physical fitness for this type of hike. If you’re a less experienced hiker you’ll want to give yourself a bit more time to train and gather the proper gear. Allow yourself 4-6 weeks to plan your hike.

Are you planning a Wonderland Trail thru-hike? Share your plans and experience in the comments below!

More Hiking and Camping Guides from Where the Road Forks

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