Away from the Grind

Trail of Wonder: Mount Rainier’s Wonderland

by Roger Ludwig

When I came home I found trees rooted in my bedroom floor. Massive trees, serene, standing sentinel over my sleeping form, quieting my worries with a hush. They stood for weeks, nightly, in my dreams. It seems I brought them with me, unwittingly, from our hundred mile walk around Mount Rainier. They’ve now disappeared but I can hope that my writing might bring them back, if only for a night.

A trail loops around Mount Rainier like a loose lasso. It’s one of the great long walks in America, 93 miles if one sticks to the official course. And one of the oldest, inaugurated in 1915. In 1920 the park’s super wrote that “it leads through a veritable wonderland of beauty and grandeur.” It has been known as the Wonderland Trail ever since. 

The long path ascends through primeval forests, past rushing rivers and streams, visits soaring waterfalls and tumbling cascades, into meadows of wildflower gardens. It walks by the snout of great grinding glaciers, climbing along them, black as carbon or red as rust, ice hurling rocks into the desolate canyon beds. 

The trail’s pilgrims quietly pass still mountain lakes, resting with views of jagged peaks, rock carved into knife-edge ranges by the glaciers’ grinding power. 

Behind them, soaring above them is “The” mountain: serene, still, impossibly immense, the creator of all we see. For its lava made these other ranges, its glaciers carved them, its weather waters them. Like a god, Mount Rainier, clothed in white, watches the watchers, benign, mysterious, ethereal.

Can we do this? Is it fun?

Heather, my 34-year old daughter, and I wanted to hike it. We had questions. What would ten days on the trail be like? Could we handle it physically? After all far more people climb the mountain than complete the Wonderland.

Would it become tedious and boring? What about those strangers we would share the trail and campsites with? Would she kick my butt? Or me hers? And more importantly, would we want to kill each other, or even avoid each other’s calls for the following six months?

From calendar photos of Rainier I had imagined a gentle rise and fall of trail, skirting the forest. But that’s not the way of it at all. Picture the mountain as an octopus with great arms extending from its head. The walk takes you down off the mountain’s shoulder, descending a ridge arm, plunging two to three thousand feet through the great trees. 

At the bottom the trail leaves the trees behind, crossing a wasteland of grey rock, a scoured canyon centered by a rushing torrent of glacial melt. The crossing may be by suspension bridge or simple logs. Then back into the shade to climb another two to three thousand feet, emerging into blueberry fields, then up into the tundra of heavenly bliss. Stumbling in a haze of endorphins and fatigue into camp, setting up, supper and bed. In the morning you plunge again. 

The total elevation gain is 22,000 feet. This makes for a strenuous hike. By Rocky Mountain standards the elevation isn’t much with a high point of 6,750 feet. But there is a lot of up and down. 

Wonderland hikers generally take ten to twelve days to circumscribe, averaging eight to ten miles per day. Heather and I were planning on ten days, with two companions starting with us, but then leaving after a few days due to prior commitments.

The Answers.

The first few days were good. The scenes were new and magical, the glaciers magnificent. Then it was just the two of us. One day was really long. The weather, which had been sunny and warm, was now overcast and misty.

Trail companions, those you leapfrog and who leapfrog you, had been pleasant. A couple with their grown daughter who spotted all the wildlife. Some going solo. Then it became interesting. Buddhists chanting at supper, guffawing at breakfast and skinny dipping at noon. Young men proving their manhood by carrying ungodly packs and by drinking to stupidity. They didn’t have far to go, both in stupidity and, thankfully, in leaving the trail.

After marveling at the waterfalls and rivers in the rising and falling fog, resting at night, I found a rhythm. I was becoming stronger. Yes, she had kicked my butt. Now I was holding my own. We began coming into camp by early afternoon, adding day hikes to look for bears, goats or just to see the sunset.

Wonderland Luxuries

While most of the trail is a wilderness trek there are some indulgences. Campsites are prepared and reserved. They come complete with a pit toilet of some kind and a pole to hang food away from pesky critters. The trail is well marked and well maintained.

The big plus is the opportunity to cache food ahead by shipping it to ranger stations where it will be kept for you. For a ten or twelve day hike no one has to carry more than three or four days of food.

Hikers can also choose to step out of the wild three times to visitor areas replete with restaurants and cold beer. For some this might spoil the experience. For me resting at an outdoor table in Paradise is, well, paradise. The route also goes by a couple of bathrooms with running water to allow a wash-up and hand laundry.

But the real luxury is just the sight, smell and sound of it all. Several times each day we were wowed with some surprise. Awesome cliffs and towers. Waterfalls crashing. Quiet moments in the mist. Reflections from still pools. Most will see black bears, mountain goats and deer. We listened to elk bugle across vast canyons.

The season is very short, generally July through September. The summer presents the finest wildflower displays with the price paid in mosquitoes. Fall is bug free with changing colors. Rain is likely any time. The mountain is often cloaked in cloud but when the cloud lifts the peak is absolutely sublime.

So how did we do?

Day ten brought us up and into the parking lot by early afternoon. Heather and I found a trail mate there and asked him to shoot the obligatory “after” shot. Comparing it with the “before” we both looked better than when we started. And then we were pleased to hear our truck fire up and begin the downhill to a good Mexican meal at a place recommended by another trail compaῆero. 

Yes, we handled it physically, and found the simplicity of trail life and the awe of the scenery mentally cleansing. We didn’t even want to kill each other.

What made it such a success? We are both pretty experienced and knew what to take to make the trip safe and warm and what to leave behind to keep the packs light. We followed the good advice of drinking water every half-hour, resting and eating something every hour. No “bonking” here. Our boots were well broken in and with good wicking socks and liners we suffered no blisters. 

A book, cribbage and an i-Pod with good tunes helped pass the time.

The mountain presented us with superb weather. We had read of Wonderland Trail hikers who walked for ten days in rain, never even seeing the mountain. What misery that would have been! But we only had one day of it. For this we felt blessed.

Heather and I have hiked enough together to know that we are pretty compatible hikers. She really enjoyed kicking my butt and only gloated a little to humor what is left of my aging pride.

Now, may the great trees that entered my dreams return…

Do you want to go?

A trip of this magnitude takes careful planning. Begin by getting a good map and guidebook. We like the map by Green Trails (#269S) for its clear mileage. For guidebooks I suggest ¬Hiking the Wonderland Trail by Tami Asars, Mountaineers Press, 2012. A remarkable website for planning is: www.wonderlandtrailguide.com.

You will want to study the Mount Rainier National Park website for up-to-date regulations and procedures. The trail is very popular and the campsites small so getting reservations early is a good idea. Campsite reservations are accepted by fax and mail on March 15th for the season and cost $20 per group. 

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