The uncharacteristic warm, sunny weather day after day in the Pacific Northwest this summer has many backcountry lovers making the journey to Mount Rainier for a long wilderness adventure. And there’s no better route here, or perhaps anywhere in the Cascades, than the 93 mile circuit hike around the entire mountain known as the Wonderland Trail.
Rising from its lowland valleys like a vision, Mount Rainier shows more local relief than Everest. Even from Seattle, 50 miles away, the mountain moves people. The Wonderland Trail offers a truly intimate connection with Rainier as it makes a complete circuit of this magic mountain through the moody, rugged wilderness at its feet.
The simple desire to climb Rainier was the very thing that brought me from New Mexico to the Pacific Northwest decades ago. There I was, puking on the 14,410-foot summit with the other pilgrims who had climbed too high, too fast. Only later did I realize time spent in the backcountry around it can be even more rewarding that climbing to the summit. The allure here is the tremendous variety of terrain, which makes for fascinating backcountry travel.
To hike all 93 miles of the Wonderland is to take in the majestic nuances of Mount Rainier's domain. The 360-degree view of the mountain, under varied moods and changing light, is reason enough to come. The cathedral-like ancient forests of Douglas fir and western hemlock, the expanses of lovely alpine meadows (locally called "parks"), the high volcanic ridges, and the 35 cubic miles of ice draping the rocky flanks of the mountain combine for a landscape unique in the Lower 48. At high points along the route, like Panhandle Gap, the hiker is taken deep into the alpine zone, into the realm of ice and snow far above the trees.
Just be prepared to do a little work. Distinctive radial ridges called "cleavers" emanate down from high on Rainier right into the backcountry surrounding the mountain. These ridges create serious topography, a successive series of obstructing ridges set above valleys deeply dug out by raging glacial torrents. These defining features require multiple climbs above 7,000 feet, taking the hiker into a high, austere alpine wilderness of ice and rock where summer is an infrequent visitor. The necessity of going up and over these ridgelines means that the backcountry traveler who makes a complete circuit of the Wonderland Trail will gain more than 20,000 feet of elevation in those 93 miles.
A true circuit hike, the Wonderland Trail offers unparalleled flexibility. You can start anywhere, though the park headquarters village of Longmire is the favorite. Most hikers do the Wonderland in 12-14 days, a period that allows for a relaxed pace, a little time to appreciate the scenery, and a rain day or two. You can do it all at once in a single push, do it in sections over several seasons, or do it over a decade in 2- or 3-day increments and see the mountain in different conditions and seasons.
That's a good strategy as permits for the entire route can be difficult to obtain in mid-season. Many hikers who want to do all of the Wonderland plan a year out, and try to reserve permits when the process opens in the spring. So if you choose to do the entire 90 mile circuit in a single push, reserve your permit in advance through the national park.
The trail most years is hikabe from mid July through September, but depending on the previous winter's snowfall, trails may be covered in snow above 6,000 feet into August.
Seattle is the gateway to Rainier, as the airport is just an hour and half from Mount Rainier National Park.
For more information on the Wonderland Trail and other backcountry routes in the park, see the website for Mount Rainier National Park.