Backpacking the 93-mile Mount Rainier Wonderland Trail – August 2012 30 September 2012

Where to begin?! Well, Patricia started it 🙂 – she decided last year she wanted to backpack the Wonderland Trail to celebrate her 60th birthday this year while traveling to Iran, and to do it with friends and family. And we can now proudly count ourselves among fewer than 250 people who do it every year…less than 2% of visitors to Mount Rainier National Park. It was the hardest work I have ever done on vacation, and was actually well over 100 miles, and involved 51,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. This is also one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever done.

The Wonderland Trail is officially 93 miles long, winding around 14,411 foot Mount Rainier. The trail is often described as being like a pie crust, with very little ‘flat’ ground…going up, down, up, down the many, many ridges left by volcanic and glacier activity around the mountain. On our 8th night on the trail, we acquired the lovely book Discovering the Wonders of the Wonderland Trail by Bette Filley from some fellow backpackers who didn’t want it any more – Bette claims that the elevation gain and loss of the trail actually makes the distance feel more like 126 miles. The trail never rises above the 7,000′ elevation, but we camped off-trail for two nights right around 7,000′, and also took a 1/2-mile side-hike to the top of Skyscraper Mountain at 7078′. But at latitude 46 degrees we were often above timberline for long stretches, with exquisitely beautiful views of so many angles of the mountain. Now, it is so much fun to see the mountain from an airplane, or to look at photos or Google Earth and be able to say “We were there, and there…and THERE!!”

Patricia’s plan, after much research into trailheads (for resupplies), distances, elevation gain and loss, MapPlanended up with 4 sections and three or four different groups of people hiking with us. (Originally she wanted to invite folks to join us as their schedules allowed – at the campgrounds, bringing our resupply food, and hiking a day or so with us, or hiking a whole section, or the whole trail.) The first 3 sections would be all backpacking and require 2 resupplies, and the last section from Couger Rock Campground car-camping) with shuttles to/from trailheads.

However, the number of hikers on the trail is closely regulated to protect the park. Day hikers are allowed and not controlled, but in order to camp on the trail, hikers must submit applications for a requested itinerary by mail through the park’s Wonderland Trail office by April 1st each year for that summer (accepted itineraries are $20 per hiker or group – such a deal!). Hikers can submit multiple itineraries with various start/end dates and campsite requests. ResReservations are awarded around May 1 and have to be claimed *in-person* at a park Backcountry Office within 24 hours of starting out on the trail. (30% of the campsites are held for walk-in backpackers, because so many reservations are cancelled or go unclaimed.) Four of us submitted about 20 different itineraries between us – some for the whole trail, and some for single sections, starting on various dates. But we were only awarded one itinerary, and that was for the first 7 days – our “Section I” – but nothing else, so when we started hiking, we didn’t even know if we would get the rest of the itinerary to complete the trail! But given that reserve of 30%, we had high hopes of getting something that would work for us; if we didn’t, we had an alternate plan to hike in the Olympics where no permit is needed. This is our reservation, to the left. The yellow sticky note “This is what worked” is from the Backcountry Office.

The planning was a logistical challenge Songaia– the final plan involved 6 support crew folks, 11 car trips to and from Seattle to various locations around the mountain, collecting, sorting, packing, labeling, and storing our resupply food for two ‘drops’, weighing everything (so we would know the weight of our packs), and negotiating who would carry what. Our fantastic crew consisted of 5 folks from Patricia’s Seattle (Bothell) community of Songaia, and my niece Katie (Patricia’s daughter) and her husband Scott.

The sections planned were as follows – we intentionally decided to really take our time, smell the flowers, and watch the mountain:

I – Longmire to Mystic Lake (36.3 miles over 7 days)
II – Mystic Lake to White River Campground (29.2 miles over 5 days)
III – White River to Box Canyon (18.8 miles over 4 days)
IV – Box Canyon to Longmire (12.5 mile day-hikes from our car campground)

See below under “Favorite Trail Spots” for the story on how we landed a permit for Sections II and III. (And if you just must see the sections and stats now…they are at the end.)

Patricia and I hiked the WHOLE TRAIL! But we relied heavily on our hiking buddies for *every* mile. Sec1HikersWith us on Section I were Benjamin, Andrei, and Jessica – all veteran backpackers and colleagues of ours from Patricia’s former life at the William Penn House in DC, and my veteran long-trails thru-hiker brother-in-law Andrew (for two days). Sec2-3HikersSection II and III hiking buddies were Brian, Michelle, and Kate – all from Songaia and also veteran backpackers. So we had plenty of experience to draw on (though some of it, hilariously, could have been more forthcoming Sec4Hikersfrom our humble companions, as you will see below…). Section IV was done from shuttles to the trailheads from Cougar Rock Campground where we stayed with Katie and Scott, Annin, and Alana (ages 3.5 and 1.5 – Patricia’s grandkids), and Robin and Ken, Tate, and Osa (ages 3 and 15 weeks) – friends from DC – what a hoot that weekend was!! If anyone ever asks if camping with toddlers and an infant is relaxing…the answer is NO! But it sure was fun.

Our food was simple, and really without exception, quite satisfying. Everyone took care of their own breakfast and lunch. Patricia and I had oatmeal with dried fruit and powdered milk for breakfast most days (some days we had cereal), and lunch PatCookingrotated between ‘bagel ends’ with peanut butter and apples or honey, or crackers and tuna or salmon in foil packets. Dinner plan and prep rotated among us all; Patricia and I brought all freeze-dried backpacker food that required only boiling water and about 15 minutes to “cook.” Others brought various yummy concoctions, mostly homemade preparations variously consisting of bulgar, rice, beans, lentils, mashed potatoes, veggies, even salmon! The homemade stuff beat the finalFeastfreeze-dried stuff in every case, except for the Backpackers Pantry Katmandu Curry; Trader Joe’s Pad Thai was great, too. We even had dessert (in addition to the requisite chocolate, which some of us vigorously bartered for as the days went on!).

We made up for the simplicity of our trail food on the car-camping weekend, with fire-cooked salmon, corn on the cob, pancakes, eggs, *elaborate* campfire stew, Tex-Mex tamale casserole, s’mores, and of course, fine wine to celebrate our proud accomplishment!

We stayed in a total of 11 trailside campsites (two filteringof them for 2 nights each), spent 2 nights off-trail in a wilderness alpine zone, and 5 nights in car-campgrounds (including one night between Sections II and III, at White River). Each of the trail camps has 2-7 campsites that accommodate up to 3 tents, and some have large group sites for 8+ hikers and more tents. All the trailside camps have a stream-water source within a few minutes walk (which we always treated), and a privy.

Of these 11 camps, 4 of them had typical outhouses (one was a solar-composting privy), and the remaining 6 had open-air privies! privyThey actually were great (not the usual stinky outhouse), and a couple actually had a view. These open-air commodes are all a box-on-a-box – some are toilet-sized boxes on a wooden platform, and some have a large (4’x4′) wooden box built over the hole with a step in the front. All have a real toilet seat and a wooden box-top cover over the seat with a “lock” to keep rain, snow, and critters out. One of the camp’s privies (the only camp with two) were RIGHT ON an access trail, so when you were en-throned, you just had to hope that hikers pipeorganwould avert their eyes as they passed! Another notable privy (pictured here) was at South Puyallup Camp. Patricia and I made the mistake of not visiting until after dark and found ourselves stumbling around in frustration…”GEEZ – WHERE IS THIS POT?!” It was 500′ from the main camp behind a huge boulder, and next to a spectacular wall of volcanic rock called “The Devil’s Pipe Organ.” But my ‘favorite’ privy, with the best view, was also ridiculously far from our campsite, and the trail partly followed the edge of a steep drop-off. At Patricia’s suggestion, I took a video of one of my [FEW!] trips there.

All our campsites were really great, but our two favorites were Curtis Ridge in the Carbon Alpine Zone in Section II (our highest point, off-trail and up-mountain about a mile), and Summerland in Section III – we stayed two nights in both of these spots. More on these below.

North Puyallup in Section I was our first really memorable camp for the view – not of the summit, but rather of a waterfall-filled circ with pounding glacial rivers meeting in the camp-valley circ(Patricia named this camp “Circ du Soleil” after seeing the sunset). We also stayed two nights at Golden Lakes in Section I, and thoroughly enjoyed swimming in the lake after 80+ degree days, having a day to ourselves for whatever (washing clothes and drying them on logs), and stargazing both nights on our sleeping pads on the lakeshore. We also took a short late afternoon hike on our stay-over day up to a ‘retired’ section of the trail, and cooked Ben’s fabulous beans while we watched the sunset. It was also at Golden Lakes that I re-learned from [very circumspect] Benjamin that my superb little Asoto stove has an igniter button…hahahaha! When we asked him why he hadn’t said anything until now, he said he just figured it didn’t work!

On the last night of Section I we were sitting stargazingaround South Mowich River camp trying to decide what to do while waiting for it to get dark enough to go stargazing (right), when someone suggested games and riddles. Benjamin came up with a number riddle that starts out “one is three, three is five, five is four and four is infinity…” – we gave him a number, and he would tell us the sequence, which always ends in “four is infinity”. None of us figured out the riddle. On the way up the hill to Mowich Lake, we were met by Circus Orr – Flint, Mikki and their two boys Walker 12 and Miguel 10 (who, along with Katie, were bringing us exit cars and fresh fruit for lunch). The boys were a bit bored with the walk so Benjamin asked them the riddle. It only took Miguel a little while to think outside the box and ask a question that gave us a clue and helped us solve the riddle.

sprayparkIn Section II, the first leg out of Eagles Roost is just fantastic. As most hikers do, we took the more scenic route rather than the main trail, over Spray Park and Mist Park. It passes up through a stunning alpine meadow just at treeline with non-stop views of the mountain, over a ridge and across several forktreelarge snowfields, then down into another alpine meadow overrun with streams from the snowfields, and down into the deep woods west of the Carbon River – this area has such consistently high rainfall it resembles a temperate rainforest. On our last day of Section II and just a skyscrapershort distance after leaving Glacier Creek, we took a 1/2-mile round-trip, very steep side-hike to the top of Skyscraper Mountain – a pointed rock pyramid with breathtaking views of where we had been on Curtis Ridge, and where we were headed into Berkeley Park – I’m so glad we did that!

Indian Bar in Section III is also a spectacular valley camp with views up into the Ohanapecosh glacial circ to the summit, though the clouds moved in during our evening there and hid the mountain for the next 24 hours.

Curtis Ridge
curtis ridgeHands down, my favorite place was camping off-trail on Curtis Ridge, below Willis Wall and the Liberty Cap sub-summit – we camped literally right alongside the top of the Carbon Glacier in the Carbon Alpine Zone. How, you may be wondering, did we land that location?

As mentioned earlier, the only reservation we scored in the lottery, of the 20 or so that we submitted, was for the first 7 days/35 miles of the trail from Longmire to Mowich Lake. So, the day after we finished that section and said goodbye to Benjamin, Andrei, and Jessica, Patricia and I packed up camp early and drove around to the Carbon River Ranger Station to meet Andrew and be there when it opened at 7am to see what we could get. We had an itinerary in mind, climberspathbased on our original plan. We were the first to arrive, having passed the ranger in her jeep on the road. While we waited for her to deal with other issues (illegal firecrackers in the Park), another fellow arrived and we started chatting. When he learned of our planned itinerary, he said “Oh, you don’t want to stay at Mystic Lake – it’s beautiful, but you can’t see the mountain…too many trees! My absolute favorite place on the mountain is up on Curtis Ridge above timberline – *very* easy to reach and not far off the WT on a climbers’ trail that leaves the main trail right at the sign ‘Mystic Lake .8 mile’ – you can’t miss it! But you have to know to ask the ranger for a wilderness pass. And you can go camp up the ridge as far as you want…until you can’t go any farther – it’s obvious.”

We waited somewhat anxiously while the ranger researched the availability of the rest of our backpacking itinerary, but we got it all (with a slight change), including the two nights in the Carbon Alpine Zone! curtisridgePatricia and I were a bit nervous, but also knew Brian and Michelle were experienced, and would be delighted at going up HIGH. The ranger made sure we knew we had to use “blue bags,” since of course there are no privies on the ridge. Later, as we chatted with other hikers on the trail and shared where we were headed, there were many jokes about the blue bags! (For my part, when I first tried to open it, I had no luck, so it appeared to be a flat piece of blue plastic and I thought with chagrin “how in the wilderness hell is this supposed to be big enough for two days???” I learned later that it does open into a bag, so THAT, um, took some maneuvering… (And Irena, ask me about ‘privy rock’ :))

campsiteOn our way to Curtis Ridge we had our first of two bear encounters – click here to read that story – I will load a video of that encounter soon! We also began to see and hear many ‘hoary’ marmots, called the ‘whistling marmot.” The video clip below captures one of their whistles. When we reached the ridge around 3pm and had just finished setting up our campsite, we sat down to mountain- and glacier-watch. Within 15 minutes a huge serac of ice fell from near the summit and started an avalanche plummeting down the far side of the face of Willis Wall above the glacier – it was at least 3 miles away and was an awesome way to start our two-day stay.

Clouds rolled in shortly after the avalanche, but we could still hear the sounds of the glacier, and Patricia and I slept without our tent fly that night, enjoying the brilliant stars that came out when the clouds cleared. The next day dawned very cold (~40s); the clouds moved in again before dawn, and the wind came up rather early. sunrisePatricia, Kate and I just savored the glacier sounds and solitude while Brian and Michelle hiked up a mountain across the upper valley; in the afternoon the clouds cleared, and we all hiked up Curtis Ridge for about a mile or so. That evening it was terribly cold (low 30s or less) and still very windy – the coldest on our entire trip and a rude awakening after the 80-degree heat of the first week. We cooked and wolfed down our dinner while wrapped in our sleeping bags and everything else we could find, and then dived into our tents to warm up. The next morning was clear and warmer, but the wind was still strong, so we packed up and moved down off the ridge for breakfast and more spectacular views of the Liberty Cap and Willis Wall before heading out.

Summerland Camp is so aptly named – for us the meadows were carpeted with flowers everywhere, and it was green and gold and head-shaking beautiful, each campsite summerlandnestled in its own grove of trees up on the hill and with 180 degree views…of the summit, the huge Emmons Glacier scored with crevasses, Steamboat Prow, and Camp Schurman – a patrol cabin used in one of the summit approaches, with an enclosed, solar-composting toilet for the bargain! The evening we arrived Patricia spotted three climbers heading up the glacier toward Camp Schurman; we took turns with the binocs following them to the cabin.

BUT, on our way up to Summerland, Patricia met “her” bear! Here is a link to her story, and a too-short video clip:


On our layover day in Summerland we again went our separate ways, Brian and Michelle hiking up toward Panhandle Gap, while the rest of us wandered, washed, read, napped, and watched the mountain. It was a Monday and Summerland is an easy hike from a nearby trailhead, so there was lots of day-hiker traffic passing the camp that day, many of retirement age (like me and Patricia). indianbarAt some point while Patricia was lounging on a rock beside the trail and the stream that was our water source, a pair of older women stopped to chat. They were very impressed that she had already hiked 75 miles and was doing the entire trail. But they seemed to be most impressed by her appearance and said: “Your hair looks great! What do you do all day long?” That became a big joke for us…”what have you been doing all day between here and the last camp?” “Why, grooming myself of course!” (And Patricia’s hair DID look great the entire time, as you can see here at Indian Bar camp.) 🙂

Leaving Summerland, we crossed Panhandle Gap above the Frying Pan Glacier, the highest point on the trail proper, and up over many more really cool snowfields. Brian had glissaded in Spray Park, and these lovely patches of snow were just too tempting to pass up, so Michelle and I raced! Enjoy this fun video clip here:


We have so many more stories, but I figure that they will only get better with the telling and they take way too long for me to write well, so just ask us and we’ll tell you about any or all of the following:
? mozzie-hat envy
? Patricia and Linda’s hike-together strategies (very different paces!)
? incorrect “official” trail distances
? broken tree trunk across trail on steep descent from St. Andrews
? the ladies, the camera, and the Klapatche park bear
? “the Jessica Show”
? Jessica doesn’t like berries
? how the Rangers deal with errant hikers
? trail runners
? Bette Filley’s book & stories
? Granite Creek camp greeters
? all 5 of us playing cards in my 2-person tent
? the baguette
? lost my dad’s pocket knife
? Michelle’s group photos

And for those of you who are interested…here they are:


Hopefully this will improve over time, but inevitably I come home and realize that there were some key photos I didn’t get! Here are a few I noticed this time:
Packing up & weighing
Food boxes
Food packets (freeze-dried)
On-trail food prep
Backpack contents
Blue bags 🙂
White River feast (I was so knackered)