The Wonderland Trail is one of the most popular hiking destinations in the Pacific Northwest. This 93-mile hike circling beautiful Mount Rainier is on every hiker’s bucket list. Unfortunately, getting permits can be a challenge because demand is so high. There are only so many campsites, after all.
Luckily, there is still a way to get a permit, even if you missed the application window or were denied. This guide explains, step-by-step, how to get a Wonderland Trail walk up permit. I’ll also share some helpful tips to increase your chances of securing permits on your first try.
What are Wonderland Trail Walk Up Permits?
(If you’re already familiar with the permit system, Skip to the tips to increase your chances section of this guide)
In order to hike the entire Wonderland Trail, you need to secure a permit. This document, which is issued by the national parks service, allows you to camp in designated wilderness campsites along the trail. There are 18 wilderness camps and 3 non-wilderness camps. Each wilderness camp has 3-7 sites available on average.
Your permit indicates where you are going to camp each night of your hike. In other words, you must determine your itinerary before hitting the trail. For day hikes where you are not camping, no permit is required. Disperse camping is not permitted in Mount Rainier National Park. You must camp in a designated site each night. Permits are free.
Wonderland Trail walk-up permits are simply permits that are obtained either the day that you plan to start your hike or the day before. They are permits that were not applied for in advance online.
How to Apply for a Wonderland Trail Walk Up Permit
The application process is pretty straightforward. You just show up to one of the four permit-issuing locations within the park and tell the ranger that you want to hike the Wonderland Trail.
The ranger will help you select campsites based on availability and the number of days that you plan to hike. To help you design an itinerary, check out my guide: How to Plan a Wonderland Trail Hike.
After you find an itinerary that works for you, the ranger prints out your permit. They place it in a waterproof plastic bag which you attach to your pack while you hike and your tent while you sleep. There is no charge for Wonderland Trail walk up permits.
This whole process of obtaining permits takes as little as 10-15 minutes if you have already built an itinerary and the sites are available. Unfortunately, this is unlikely. If the camps that you want are already booked, you’ll have to spend some time working with the ranger to put together an itinerary. This could take half an hour or longer depending on how busy the trail is.
The rangers are really good about working with you to build you a suitable itinerary and get you a permit. They know the park well and will try their best to get you on the trail. They won’t just turn you away if the trail is busy.
When to Apply for Your Wonderland Trail Walk Up Permit
You must apply for your walk up permit either the day that you plan to begin your hike or the day before. You can’t drive out and organize your walk-up permit in advance. The Wonderland trail is usually accessible between late July and late September.
If you want to apply for an advance permit, you must apply online on the wilderness permit reservation system. The application opens on March 15 every year. More on that later.
Where to Apply for a Wonderland Trail Walk Up Permit
You must apply for walk up permits in person in the park. There are four locations in Mount Rainier National Park where you can apply for walk up permits including:
1. The Longmire Wilderness Information Center
This is the park’s largest and busiest ranger station. It is usually open from late May to mid-October depending on the weather. Longmire is the most popular trailhead for the Wonderland Trail.
Phone: (360) 569-6650
Google Maps Location: Q52Q+28 Longmire, Washington
2. The White River Wilderness Information Center
This is probably the second most popular place to get walk-up permits. If you wish to start your hike at the Sunrise trailhead or White River, you’ll want to get your permit here as permits are not available at the Sunrise Visitor Center. The White river WIC is usually open between mid-July and mid-September. I got my walk-up permit here.
Phone: (360) 569-6670
Google Maps Location: WC2W+R5 Sunrise, Washington
3. The Carbon River Ranger Station
This one is 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 one generally opens late and closes early in the season. Call to make sure they’re open before showing up here.
Phone: (360) 569-6571
Google Maps Location: Q7P7+98 Paradise, Washington
How to Increase Your Chance of Success When Applying for a Wonderland Trail Walk Up Permit
Going into the ranger station and getting your permit is the easy part. The problem is that the campsites are often full. The following tips will greatly improve your chances of securing a walk up permit on your first try.
1. Arrive at the Wilderness Information Center Before They Open
All of the Wilderness Information Centers in Mount Rainier National Park open at 7:30 am. To give yourself the best chance of scoring a walk up permit, you want to be first in line when they open. This means arriving early. I recommend you try to arrive by 7:00 am at the latest.
The reason that you need to be there at opening is that all of the WICs open at the same time and begin issuing the same permits. You don’t how busy the other centers are. If you arrive late or get stuck in a long line and don’t get to speak to a ranger until 8:30, hikers applying for permits at other ranger stations could have booked all of the sites before you
2. Plan Your Wonderland Trail Hike for Early or Late in the Season
Most years, the trail is accessible between mid-July and late-September. During this time-frame, the trail is usually free of snow and the weather is reasonably warm. Some years the window is longer. Sometimes it’s shorter.
To improve your chances of getting a walk up permit, plan your hike for either early or late in the season. Late July and early September are perfect because fewer people will be on the trail competing for permits. August is by far the busiest month for the Wonderland Trail. Avoid hiking then.
I started my hike on September 14 and had no problem getting a permit. I was in and out of the ranger station in less than 15 minutes. Most campsites were not full. In fact, one night my friend and I had a whole camp to ourselves.
3. Apply for your Wonderland Trail Walk Up Permit on a Weekday, Not a Weekend
The best days to start your Wonderland Trail hike are probably Sunday-Thursday. During the week most people are busy with work or school. Fewer people are on the trail. More campsites will be available. This gives you a better chance of securing a permit.
During the weekends, non-thru-hikers drive out for overnighters or weekend trips. The trail gets busier and camps fill up. Particularly camps near trailheads. This reduces your chance of getting the itinerary that you want. Avoid starting your hike on a Friday or Saturday.
I applied for my permit on a Saturday. Because I was hiking so late in the season, it didn’t seem to matter. There were plenty of campsites available. If you’re hiking during peak season, aim to start your hike early in the week on a weekday.
4. Plan out Several Wonderland Trail Itineraries at Home Before you Leave for your Hike
This speeds up the permit-issuing process and makes the ranger’s job easier. If your ideal itinerary is available, you’ll have your permit in hand in 5 minutes and be ready to begin your hike. If your chosen itinerary isn’t available, you at least have something to work with.
I recommend you make at least two potential itineraries. One clockwise and one counterclockwise. Choose your favorite one to show to the ranger. They will try their best to accommodate you.
A few resources to help you plan your Wonderland Trail itinerary
This Wonderland Trail Itinerary Planner from Wonderlandguides.com is by far the most useful tool for planning your hike. All you need to know is your starting and ending trailhead and the number of days you want to hike. You can easily adjust the camps as you plan to fit your ideal daily mileage. This tool shows you an elevation profile, daylight hours, mileage, and more. After you’re happy with your itinerary, you can print it out or save it for later.
This Mount Rainier National Park map from National Geographic can help you better visualize the trail. It’s a great map to carry with you on your hike as well. Alternatively, you can use the free park maps that are handed out in the WICs if you have one.
Another great resource is the book Hiking the Wonderland Trail: The Complete Guide to Mount Rainier’s Premier Trail by Tami Asars. This is probably the best book about the Wonderland Trail.
I wrote my desired itinerary down on a piece of paper. Most of the campsites that I chose were open. After going through the itinerary, the ranger suggested a few changes to improve the itinerary. She recommended a couple of lower camps for the nights where rain was expected.
5. Consider Taking an Alternate Wonderland Trail Route
There is only one Wonderland Trail but there are a couple of alternate routes that fork off and rejoin the trail later. Alternate routes include:
The Northern Loop Trail
This trail forks off of the Wonderland Trail just a couple of miles after Sunrise if you’re traveling counterclockwise. If you’re traveling clockwise, it forks off between Ipsut Creek and Carbon River.
The Northern Loop Trail bypasses Granite Creek, Mystic Lake, Dick Creek, and Carbon River camps. If these are all booked up, the Northern Loop offers an alternative. You could camp at Berkely Park, Fire Creek, James camp, or Yellowstone Cliffs. These usually have sites available.
For more info, check out this guide about the Northern Loop from the National Parks Service.
The Spray Park Trail
This trail forks off near Carbon River if you’re hiking counterclockwise and rejoins the Wonderland Trail at Mowich Lake. This high elevation route bypasses Ipsut Creek. The Spray Park Trail has two campgrounds. They are called Cataract Valley and Eagles Roost.
For more info, check out this guide about the Spray Park Trail from the National Parks Service.
6. Study and Know the Wonderland Trail Before Applying for Your Walk Up Permit
Take some time to look at a map of the trail and get familiar with it. Look at the location of each campsite and where it is in relation to the others. Look at the elevation changes along the trail. Consider the distances between each camp. You don’t need to memorize it. Just get familiar with it. For help with this, check out my Wonderland Trail wilderness campsite guide.
This will help you when you’re creating your itinerary on the fly with the Ranger. You’ll know the names of the camps and generally where they are. You’ll have a better idea of how far you can hike each day if you know the elevation profile.
I wished that I had known the trail better before getting my permit. Luckily, the ranger was knowledgeable and helpful in the planning process. My itinerary ended up good but not great. A couple of days were a bit too intense for me and a couple of days were too short. If I had known the trail better, I could have built a more even itinerary.
7. Choose a Wilderness Information Center other than Longmire to Apply for your Permit
Longmire is the biggest and busiest wilderness information center in the park. Because they are busier, you may end up waiting in line to get your Wonderland Trail walk up permit if you didn’t arrive early enough. During this time, the other WICs are also issuing permits.
Instead of Longmire, go to White River, Paradise, or Carbon River to get your permit. These wilderness information centers issue the same permits and offer the exact same services. They are all connected to the same network. The rangers have the same training and knowledge. There is no benefit to starting your hike at Longmire. In fact, White River or Sunrise offer a better starting point for many hikers.
One benefit of getting your permit at Longmire is that free WiFi is available at the WIC. This can be helpful when planning your hike. I believe the White River WIC offers wifi as well.
8. Choose Less Desirable Camps When Applying for a Walk Up Permit
Some camps are more desirable than others. The more popular camps offer excellent views, better bathrooms, and maybe a shelter. These fill up quickly. By choosing less desirable camps, you give yourself a greater chance of scoring a permit because you’re competing with fewer people for a site.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter which camps you stay at as long as you’re comfortable with your daily hiking distance. All of the camps have a bear hang, basic bathroom, and flat spots to pitch your tent.
Personally, I don’t care where I camp. I’m just going to sleep there anyway. I can enjoy the scenery while I’m on the trail. If I want to enjoy a sunrise or sunset, I’ll just get on the trail during that time and hike to a scenic spot. The two most popular camps on the Wonderland Trail are probably Summerland and Indian Bar.
9. Hike Counterclockwise
For whatever reason, most hikers go clockwise. By hiking counterclockwise, you’re not competing with everyone else for the same camps each night. It’s slightly easier to piece together a counterclockwise itinerary.
In my opinion, there is no drawback to hiking the Wonderland Trail counterclockwise. You see the same scenery and deal with the same elevation changes because you’re traveling in a circle.
10. Incorporate Non-Wilderness Camps into Your Wonderland Trail Itinerary
Near each of the major trailheads on the Wonderland Trail, there are car campgrounds. These include Cougar Rock (near Longmire), White River, and Mowich Lake. A fourth non-wilderness camp, called Ohanapecosh, exists in the Southeast of the park.
These camps offer dozens of sites. They almost always have availability, even during the busy month of August. You can make reservations for Cougar Rock and Ohanapecosh campgrounds on Recreation.gov.
If the wilderness campsites are all booked, you can almost always stay in one of these non-wilderness car campgrounds. The park reserves a number of sites for thru-hikers. A ranger can issue these for free with your permit. If the free sites are all taken, the nightly charge for a regular site is $20 per night.
Of course, if wilderness camps are available, you’ll probably prefer them to these large car camps. These sites make for a great backup.
Theoretically, you could hike the entire trail and only stay at these non-wilderness camps. In this case, you wouldn’t even need a permit. Of course, this is not physically possible for most hikers. The daily distances would just be too much.
11. Plan to Stay One Night in a Car Camp or Lodge Before You Begin Your Hike
Walk up permits are issued either the day of or the day before you plan to start your hike. If you can’t piece together an itinerary the day you arrive, you could always camp one night then start the following day. This gives you much more flexibility in building your itinerary.
There are car campgrounds near each of the permit-issuing WICs which almost always have sites available. They charge $20 per night for a site.
If you’re staring in Longmire, you could also book a room at the National Park Inn if they have availability.
The other hotel option in the park is the Paradise Inn. They are located a couple of miles off the Wonderland Trail. The nearest wilderness campground to the Paradise Inn is Paradise River camp. Paradise is a major trailhead where you can start and end your hike as well.
12. Check the Campsite Availability the Night Before you Apply for Your Wonderland Trail Walk Up Permit
Most ranger stations post the availability of campsites on the door on a piece of paper just before closing. If you arrive the day before you plan to apply for your permit, you can use this to update the itinerary that you made at home.
If some of your selected camps are already booked, make the necessary adjustments. This way, you’ll be more prepared when you speak to the ranger the following morning.
Of course, it may not be 100% accurate. Someone could have changed their itinerary just before closing. Someone could take the last spot before you get your itinerary the following day.
13. Be Pleasant and Respectful to the Park Rangers
Every ranger that I met at Mount Rainier National Park was knowledgeable, friendly, and professional. They love the park and want to help you experience it. If you act in a friendly and respectful manner when interacting with the ranger, they’ll go out of their way to help you out.
If you act entitled or generally unpleasant, the ranger will be less likely to help you out. Of course, this is true of any profession. Nobody wants to help someone who’s giving them a hard time.
While planning my itinerary, I never felt rushed. The ranger answered every one of my questions. The ranger even let my friend and I use their phone to call our ride after we finished our hike. They are very accommodating and professional.
14. Limit your Wonderland Trail Hiking Group to 5 or Fewer
Groups smaller than 6 people don’t require a group site. With 5 people, you can share one regular site. Each regular campsite is limited to two tents. You only need one permit per party.
Not all camps offer group sites. The camps that have a group site usually only have one. If you can stay in regular sites, you have way more options in terms of camps and campsites. This increases your chance of securing permits considerably.
15. If You’re Having Trouble Piecing Together an Itinerary, Wait Until 10 AM.
Reserved permits expire if they are not claimed by 10 am on the scheduled hike start date. This means that the campsites become available. If you get lucky, you can grab a couple of sites from no-shows. You may have to ask the ranger if they have any no-show permits available.
16. Change your Permit at Another Wilderness Information Center Along the Way
Don’t be afraid to accept an itinerary that isn’t ideal. If you get a permit but you’re not happy with it, you can always stop by another wilderness information center during your hike to see if any campsites have opened up.
The ranger can easily update your permit for you. This is particularly useful if you had to settle for an itinerary that was a bit too fast or difficult for you. You’ll pass by a wilderness information center every 3-4 days.
You could also accept an itinerary that is incomplete and try to complete it when you get to the next Wilderness Information Center. For example, maybe you’re starting at White River and you’re only able to put together an itinerary to Longmire. When you reach Longmire, you can try to fill in the rest. Maybe some sites opened up while you were hiking.
17. Plan a Shorter Itinerary
For Wonderland Trail permits, the limiting factor is campsite availability. Most of the wilderness camps only have 4-6 sites. Some have even less. If you have a shorter itinerary, you need to reserve fewer campsites. This improves your chances of getting a permit.
Of course, you shouldn’t try to push yourself beyond your capabilities. You could injure yourself or simply not be able to complete the hike. Most hikers take 9-10 days to hike the Wonderland Trail. Experienced hikers who are in good shape can complete the trail in around 6 days. The maximum number of days that you can take is 14.
18. Schedule Indian Bar or Summerland Camp Toward the End of your Itinerary
These are the two most popular wilderness camps along the Wonderland Trail due to the incredible views. Because they are so popular, they are usually booked up days in advance. You can improve your chances of getting a spot in one of these camps by scheduling them at the end of your itinerary. If you book them a week out, you can probably get a spot.
19. Schedule an Extra Night in a Campground
If you’re having trouble putting together an itinerary, don’t be afraid to schedule yourself 2 nights in a campground somewhere along the way. You could do this in a backcountry camp if there is availability or in a front country camp. It’s not ideal to have to sit around for a day but it may be your only option.
Alternatively, you could book yourself a night in one of the park’s hotels in Longmire or Paradise. This would give you a nice opportunity to dry your gear and regroup mid-hike. Of course, this increases costs significantly.
20. Stay in a Campground that’s Not on the Wonderland Trail
The Wonderland Trail isn’t the only trail in the park. There are multiple campgrounds fairly close to the Wonderland Trail that you could stay in instead. This may add a few miles to your itinerary but it is an option if all of the Wonderland Trail camps are fully booked.
21. Don’t Worry too Much About Not Getting a Walk Up Permit
The rangers can almost always put together a reasonable itinerary for you as long as you have some flexibility. They are willing to work with you. Your chances of walking out of the ranger station empty-handed is slim. Even during peak season.
If, for whatever reason, you can’t get a permit to hike the entire Wonderland Trail, don’t be too disappointed. Mount Rainier National Park offers miles of incredible trails. It’s not like you have to turn around and go home if you strikeout. You can always hike a section of the trail or visit a different part of the park.
22. Call the Wilderness Information Center Before Making the Drive Out
The rangers are friendly and helpful. Ask them about campsite availability and trail conditions. They can’t issue permits over the phone but they can let you know how your chances of getting a permit look.
If the rangers inform you that the trail is experiencing a particularly busy week and the camps are booked up, you can consider delaying your hike. This saves you a long drive.
23. Double Check your Wonderland Trail Walk Up Permit Before Beginning your Hike
After the Ranger prints out your permit and hands it to you, go over it one last time. Make sure that all of the dates and campsites are correct. If there are any errors, ask the ranger to correct it. Once you’re on the trail, you probably won’t encounter another wilderness information center for a few days. You don’t want to end up having push yourself through a 25 mile day because of a mistake.
A Note about Getting Wonderland Trail Permit in Advance
Every year on March 15, the wilderness permit reservation system opens. To apply for a permit in advance, you fill out an online form with your requested itinerary, pay a $20 application fee, and hope for the best.
The early application window remains open until March 31. The rangers process the applications randomly and try their best to get you your permit. Unfortunately, many hikers are turned down. Sometimes for several years in a row. It’s a lottery system.
Applications received after March 31 are processed in the order they are received. Some years, when demand is particularly high, the application system closes for the year on April 1. In this case, your only choice is to try for a walk-up permit or wait for the next year.
The park issues around 70% of the available permits to those who apply in advance. The remaining 30% of Wonderland Trail permits are reserved for hikers who just show up to apply for walk-up permits.
My Experience Applying for a Wonderland Trail Walk Up Permit
The process went much smoother and faster than I expected. My friend and I drove out to the White River Wilderness Information Center on a Saturday in mid-September. We wanted to start our hike on a weekday but work schedules wouldn’t allow it. We arrived at about 7:30 am, just before the station opened. One guy arrived just before us. He was just getting a permit for an overnighter and was out in just a few minutes.
We told the ranger that we wanted permits to hike the Wonderland Trail. We explained that we wanted to spend 9 days on the trail, hiking around 10 miles per day. She pulled out a matrix with distances and a map of the trail. I showed her the itinerary that I had created before leaving home. She began looking through it and checking the availability of the camps that I had selected.
As the ranger went through our itinerary day by day, she made suggestions to improve it. For example, heavy precipitation was expected during the first several days of our hike. The ranger recommended some low elevation camps with good tree cover. She pointed out the camps with shelters and the best facilities.
After helping us piece together the best itinerary that we could get, the ranger printed our permit. The permit is just half of a piece of paper with the names of each camp and the date that we were to stay there. She also explained the rules and told us about basic bear safety.
She then sealed the permit in a small waterproof plastic bag. While hiking, you must hang the permit on your pack. While camping, attach the permit to your shelter. That way, a ranger can check it if they need to. From the time we walked in the wilderness information center until we left with our permit only took around 15 minutes.
Final Thoughts: How to Get a Wonderland Trail Walk Up Permit
If you follow the above tips and recommendations, your chances of getting a Wonderland Trail walk up permit are very high. The most important thing is to make yourself as flexible as possible. The more potential itineraries that you have, the greater the chance of one of them working out. The park rangers are incredibly helpful and accommodating. They will try their best to help you put together an itinerary that fits your timeline and skill level.
Have you applied for a Wonderland Trail walk up permit? Share your experience and tips in the comments below!
For more help with your hike, check out my extensive guide: How to Plan a Wonderland Trail Hike. You can also join this Facebook group to contact others who have hiked the trail.
Wednesday 24th of March 2021
Thanks for the excellent advice. I no longer fear reverting to a walk-up permit if I can't get a reservation.
Thursday 25th of March 2021
Glad I could help. I think it's still worth it to apply in advance if you're planning to hike during a busy part of the season. The walk-up permit offers a good backup option.